Human rights at local and regional level

Speech by Chairperson of the Management Board at the 6th Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe, Council of Europe, March 2014.


Distinguished Mayors and City Councillors,

Ladies and Gentleman,

Thank you for inviting me to address this meeting. I would like to begin by commending you for the increased emphasis that you and your Monitoring Committee have placed on human rights issues. And I would like to congratulate you, Mr Molin, for a truly inspiring report. As well as containing numerous good practices to be shared and discussed, the theme of operationalising human rights obligations – as you highlight – is fundamental in my view. At the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, we share your assessment that local and regional authorities play a key role in ensuring that those obligations become a lived reality for all people.

Human rights talk can sound abstract. But in fact, we exercise our rights daily:

  • when we need access to services like education or need medical treatment
  • when we benefit from working conditions that respect our health and safety
  • when we feel that we are not treated fairly and want to complain about it. 

As service providers, local and regional authorities facilitate the access to such rights on a daily basis.

Yet, the Fundamental Rights Agency's work has documented that for many individuals in Europe, human rights violations remain a daily experience. I’ll illustrate this briefly with just a few figures:

  • FRA’s recent survey on violence against women showed that one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.
  • In our Roma survey, 47% of respondents said they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months because of their ethnic background.
  • In the Agency’s LGBT survey, more than 20 percent of LGBT people said they have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation in the 12 months preceding the survey.
  • 54 percent of respondents to FRA’s survey of Jewish communities said that expressions of hostility towards Jews in the street and other public places was a widespread problem.

Local and regional authorities have an obligation to support the fulfilment of human rights. They have the responsibility to respect human rights in their own work and to guarantee human rights respect for services that are commissioned, delegated or financed by them but carried out by other actors.

But it is also vital that human rights organisations and NGOs reach out to local and regional authorities and support them in their endeavours. Indeed, FRA has been working with cities across Europe for some years now, and we are seeing more and more of them taking action to increase knowledge and respect for human rights.

However, it has not all been plain sailing. The economic crisis has put a great strain on resources. This has led to debates about the level of human rights protection we can afford, even though we are currently living through a time when human rights are most needed, to

- protect children against poverty,

safeguard vulnerable groups from becoming victims of hate crime, and

- ensure women at risk of domestic violence have access to shelters that protect them

- to combat exclusion and homelessness.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like now to focus on the issue of coordination between different levels of governance, which Lars Molin underlined in his report, and which the Fundamental Rights Agency views as particularly important. A lack of such coordination or cooperation can have alarming results, leading to human rights violations that could and should be avoided. For example,

- when citizens are not aware of the avenues they can take when their rights have been abused

- when European Union's structural funds for social inclusion remain untapped

- or when solid legislation remains unimplemented or ineffective.

To help improve the situation, FRA conducted a project that explored how human rights implementation can be made more effective by bringing together central government agencies, local government, specialised bodies, and private and voluntary organisations. We call this type of integrated planning and implementation joined-up human rights governance. Although the approach is well established for other public policies, it is still innovative in the area of human rights.

Through field research with local and regional government officials, we identified examples and models of effective multi-level cooperation on human rights. In September 2013, we compiled the lessons learned and key examples in an e-toolkit for national, regional and local public officials. We would like to offer this toolkit to the Congress to help you in raising awareness amongst local and regional authorities.

The toolkit covers five key areas, which we found to be particularly important for ‘operationalising’ human rights at local level:

  1. Mainstreaming human rights into municipal operations 
    Respecting human rights principles adds a fundamental perspective to looking at service delivery and screening existing policies and practices. It helps ensure that municipal operations are human rights compliant and meet the needs of all persons.
  2. Establishing multi-level and multi-agency partnerships
    Human rights protection relies on cooperation and coordination between different spheres of governance, and in times of economic austerity, such cooperation is particularly important to ensure the pooling of resources and know-how. Mr Molin's report includes an interesting example from the Swedish city of Umea, where a ‘Centre of Violence’ is the result of organised cooperation between the municipality, the county council, the regional university, the police, the national prosecution authority and the national board of forensic medicine. This is an inspiring example in light of the need to implement the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

  3. Establishing mechanisms for civic participation and engagement with civil society
    Public officials have a duty to safeguard the human rights of everybody in the community. Serving the community therefore entails reaching out to society’s most vulnerable groups to protect them from human rights violations.

  4. Planning, monitoring and evaluating
    Human rights need long-term commitment and support from many stakeholders at different levels. Coherent planning that involves key stakeholders ensures that policies, strategies and programmes are effective and lead to long-lasting, sustainable results.

  5. Communicating and raising awareness
    While many people say they respect human rights, this can change all too quickly when activities have an impact on their own lifestyles or neighbourhoods – think of the opposition to homes for asylum-seekers, people with mental disabilities or for excluded young people. It is therefore important to:

  • Anticipate friction and engage people early on
  • Demonstrate the importance of human rights for society as a whole and the fact they result in ‘win-win’ scenarios for everyone involved

All this is discussed in our toolkit, which I invite you to read and explore on our website. In the future, I think the examples of good practice included in Mr Molin's report could be integrated into the toolkit to make it an even more useful tool.

Your report underlines the responsibility of authorities and politicians for the promotion of human rights and recommends to train them on human rights friendly policies and decision-making. I hope that you will FRA's work useful in this task.

To conclude,

I very much welcome your report and the fact that you explicitly call for cooperation between our organisations and with the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. In our experience, progress can best be made through dialogue and cooperation between all constituent elements of the human rights architecture – from local and regional to national governments, parliaments to European and international bodies, national human rights structures and civil society. I therefore very much look forward to our future cooperation.

Thank you for your attention.