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Human rights and the city

|Written By Sonya Nigam
Human rights and the city

Change is a constant; a fact of life, affecting our bodies, work, family, and communities.

With so many of us across the country (Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan), going to the polls in the next few weeks to elect new municipal officials, it is a good time to ponder the role cities play in relation to human rights in a changing global environment.

While most cities have human rights offices to deal with complaints of inequitable treatment in relation to access or the delivery of services, beyond this, what engagements, if any, should cities make in relation to human rights in 2010 and beyond?

For the past 20 years, the political leadership of human rights issues has been led by states, first in relation to domestic legislation and then through international agreements. Participation and instigation by civil society has been made through a wide variety of national, regional, and international non-governmental organizations that have gathered evidence, contested legislation, and prepared submissions in order to put pressure on governments to provide citizens with human rights.

As a consequence of these actions and greater access to information through a variety of media, there is now a general acceptance, not just among states but also by ordinary people, of the notion that all persons and peoples have the right to security, dignity, and self-determination.

On the heels of the development of human rights, we now have a new global trend of mass migration from rural areas to the cities. Experts predict this trend will continue until 2050, resulting in about 70 per cent of people living in cities. Because these new migrants have a sense of their human rights, there will be a need for local governments to play a more conscious human rights-based role in response to increased pressure for municipal resources and a greater need to aid in the integration of diverse populations, many under the age of 25.

As Dutch human rights professor Anja Mihr notes: “Globalization is occurring at a fast pace and the question is whether it will carry with it enough resources and tools to give these people opportunities to adapt and integrate in these new social surroundings. Communication and transportation might be faster than ever before, but human minds work at the same pace as ever and often need generations to adapt to new societal environments — not to mention if these environments are composed of many different ethnic, religious or language groups.”

Many municipal governments around the world, sensing these pressures, have responded by supporting the Global Charter-Agenda Project. This project is actually a municipal movement to build human rights into their programs and accountability mechanisms. Each Charter-Agenda right would be accompanied by a municipal program that sets out the political commitments required to implement the right, as well as a timetable and progress indicators. The rights described in the Charter-Agenda focus on the values of inclusion, democratic participation, and social and environmental sustainability.

While some are worried the Charter-Agenda erodes the power of the state, this may simply be an inevitable trend of globalization.

So what of our Canadian cities? In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders, author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World, points out some arrival cities do better than others in allowing new immigrants to adapt and integrate into their new country. Key differences are access to housing, education, health services, jobs, and transportation to other parts of the city — necessary conditions for new immigrants to move out of the arrival city.

And when an arrival city does not provide these conditions, the arrival city turns on itself with increased rates of hopelessness and crime.

Is your city prepared? Have your mayoral, city, and school trustee candidates shown any interest or awareness of the new role that they will be called upon to play in the coming years? You may want to ask them what they think about human rights in the city.

Sonya Nigam is the executive director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. She can be reached at