Human Rights Cities: Challenges and Possibilities

Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, Barbara Oomen, Martha F. Davis, Michele Grigolo, eds. (Cambridge University Press 2016)

29 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2017

See all articles by Cynthia Soohoo

Cynthia Soohoo

City University of New York Law School

Date Written: May 28, 2015


Traditional legal accounts of human rights focus on the international level, describing how nations ratify human rights treaties to create international legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. However, enforcing international law is a tricky proposition, and the direct and immediate impact that treaty ratification has on bringing about change in countries that have ratified treaties is debatable. Human rights cities invert the traditional analysis. Instead of focusing on the national government as the main instigator of change, human rights cities reflect a bottom up approach where local communities articulate a commitment to human rights and decide how to implement and give expression to their commitment.

Rather than relying on laws and policies imposed by the national government, the human rights cities movement promotes human rights through the dissemination of human rights principles and strategies through networks of cities and activists and other formal and informal channels. These channels transcend the artificial confines of national borders. Cities, as natural crossroads for new ideas, are uniquely situated to be involved in trans-national discussions about fundamental rights. City dwellers may have more to gain from engaging in dialogues with counterparts in other countries, who are dealing with similar issues and have similar orientations, than with neighboring towns and rural areas that share the same nationality.

International human rights treaties are often abstract documents written in diplomatic, carefully negotiated and aspirational language. Situating human rights implementation at the local level where governmental policies are implemented provides a welcome concreteness. While human rights commitments often embody a lofty tone, city governments must figure out how to reconcile sometimes conflicting commitments with the day to day pressures of service delivery, budgets and politics. Institutionally, they are better equipped to develop policies that are designed to ensure human rights than are national and regional governments or courts.

This article considers essays in Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities (Oomen, Davis & Grigolo eds.) that reflect both the challenges and the potential for human rights cities. Cities that choose to become “human rights cities” define the scope of their commitments. When this is done through a participatory process, it can result in stronger adherence to norms and rights that are self-proclaimed and embraced by the community. However, there is a danger in letting governments choose which human rights they will adhere to and prioritize. Similarly, when cities are left to create their own accountability measures, the measures are often weak or non-existent. The essays share some innovative ideas for improving accountability. But perhaps the area in which human rights cities have the most to contribute is in developing new methods to generate human rights solutions. In this way, cities are expanding the meaning of human rights implementation beyond government accountability for rights violations to the development of methods and structures to infuse human rights into their day-to-day work of governance and service provision.

Keywords: human rights, cities, local human rights

Suggested Citation

Soohoo, Cynthia, Human Rights Cities: Challenges and Possibilities (May 28, 2015). Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, Barbara Oomen, Martha F. Davis, Michele Grigolo, eds. (Cambridge University Press 2016), Available at SSRN:

Cynthia Soohoo (Contact Author)

City University of New York Law School ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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