With nation-states retreating, cities can take the lead on human rights

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Introduction: The challenge when nation-states retreat from human rights

It is no secret that nation-states are actively retreating from their human rights obligations. While the assault on human rights in authoritarian states like Russia is well known, perhaps more troubling for its long-term progress is how (self-)proclaimed human rights champions are joining this retrenchment. 

The examples are numerous, including the European Union’s brutal treatment of migrants, the passing of over 75 anti-LGBTQI+ bills in different US states, indifference to the disappearances of environmental defenders in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, and the passive enabling of genocidal war crimes in Tigray, Sudan, and Gaza. This state-led retreat has had detrimental impacts on the international organizations they constitute. Within human rights’ global institutional home—the United Nations—national human rights retrenchment has even led to battles over established rights standards. To give just one example, gender justice—especially reproductive and sexual rights—is increasingly contested at the UN by states in coordination with transnationally networked right-wing activists.

We argue that advocating for human rights at the city or local level is a bold response to the pullback from human rights at the national and international levels. This approach is, first and most crucially, a way to meet the challenge of the anti-rights backlash by opening new spaces and alliances in the struggle for rights. 

Notably, localizing human rights is not just a defensive tactic—it may also be part of a needed paradigm shift. Compared to nation-states, urban areas with transnational populations may be more capable of engaging in the collaborative efforts required to safeguard and advance rights. A declaration of a Human Rights City (HRC), for example, challenges us to locate human rights struggles where they have always been most urgent: at the local level, closely connected with everyday lived realities rather than in distant international fora. An HRC can take many forms, but all are dedicated to integrating human rights principles into law and practice at the local level—a commitment shared by government and community stakeholders. The rise of such HRCs signals a need to reimagine the state-centric model that underpins the international human rights regime but fails to capture the transnational realities of the world in which we all live.


Challenge as opportunity: The power and potential of human rights at the city level

As centers of economic wealth and social diversity, cities have the power to drive pushes for economic, political, and social equity via human rights. Formally declaring an HRC is one way to commit to translating the human rights outlined in international conventions into local law, institutions, policies, and processes that address the structural discriminations too many still face. Even without a formal HRC declaration, when a city recognizes international human rights laws and standards—through charters, ordinances, or resolutions—it establishes human rights as an explicit obligation rather than an abstract ideal. In either case, a city-level approach can protect vulnerable populations and foster more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable cities. There are now over 700 formally declared HRCs across five continents, and many other cities have explicitly aligned their policies with specific global human rights standards. 

At times, these commitments have been more rhetorical than real in practice. Other times, however, tangible examples have emerged of cities advancing human rights within three key domains:

1. Laws and institutions to hold the powerful accountable

A human rights–based approach to local governance can include the creation of legal recourse and accountability institutions at the local level so that human rights claims cannot be silenced or ignored. For example, many countries still lack a national-level human rights–based accountability framework. It is crucial to develop indicators to identify and rectify potential human rights violations or policies that disadvantage marginalized groups, as well as promote awareness about accessing these mechanisms.

2. Processes to center the voices of historically marginalized groups

While local governments serve as human rights duty-bearers, the realization of human rights at the local level is a collective project with a diverse set of stakeholders. Participatory, democratic decision-making is key. Constituents have the human right to inform governance and decision-making; local governments, therefore, must co-create processes—as in Gwangju, South Korea—that allow for meaningful dialogue between city officials and local communities. One example of such processes is the reallocation of resources via human-rights budgeting to help rectify historically discriminatory policies.

3. Policies to advance social, economic, and cultural rights

Cities are well placed to advance cross-cutting human rights issues, intersecting among not just political and civil rights but also the social, economic, and cultural rights historically neglected in many parts of the world.  The US Cities for CEDAW campaign—a movement advocating for the translation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) principles into local resolutions and ordinances—is one example. Others include city-level work on racial justice, culture, and housing


Conclusion: Human rights at the city level as a challenge to the state-led status quo

Local governments and communities are not helpless in the face of the national and international retreat from human rights. From Korogocho, Kenya, to Los Angeles, USA, communities and cities can respond to the challenge by acknowledging the role of local governments as duty-bearers obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of their constituents. In Barcelona, Spain, Walewale, Ghana, and many other cities around the globe, tangible local policies have arisen that fill the vacuum left by the retreat of national governments. 

This shift must be recognized as more than a mere backstop for state retrenchment. Human rights being owned at the local level—rather than by states and state-dominated global institutions—gives a chance to radically reimagine human rights as they must be if they are to remain vital. The power of human rights is in how they are continuously reconstituted in the context of demands that emerge from on-the-ground struggles. With each new HRC and every community that rises up to claim its rights, more of the gap between international human rights norms and the day-to-day realities of people’s lives is filled. By translating abstract principles into concrete policies and practices, cities are (re-)making human rights into a tangible political project at the level of government closest to communities. 

This phenomenon responds to the challenge of state-led attacks on human rights by challenging, in turn, the primacy of the state in the international human rights regime. As Morales suggests, it is high time to move past passive acceptance of the global order’s state-centrism. HRCs are one step toward reimagining the human rights regime beyond the confines of the nation-state. In so doing, they show that “the future of human rights is local.”


For more information and resources about human rights at the city level, see the Human Rights Cities Alliance website

The authors gratefully acknowledge substantial editorial contributions from Arden Courtney Collins and Peter Hrant Vartanian, along with the research by students in an Occidental College Task Force working for the Human Rights Cities Alliance: Mary Ellen Coaty, Arden Courtney Collins, Mathilde Dépéry, Raja Bella Hicks, Elsa Marsh, Taylor Miller, Riley Polaner, Francesca Romero, Lily Snyder, and Peter Vartanian.