A cause to celebrate and contemplate – 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This year on today’s Human Rights Day, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly as a result of the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War and remains as relevant as ever. Not only does it hold the record of being the most translated document in the Guinness book of world records, the Declaration further extends its influence into the far corners of the world and has acted as the guiding principle for many of legal and practical frameworks in place today. Human rights and the recognition of every person’s unalienable dignity are not only an ideal confined to paper. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously pointed out, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” With this statement, she reflects on the daily spaces and practices in and through which human rights come to light – and to life.

The role of the International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights at the Local and Regional Levels is to begin where human rights reach people directly – at the local and regional levels. It is city and municipal administrations that are the closest to citizens directly and who are well-equipped to render human rights a lived experience in their procedures and interactions with citizens. The Centre in Graz, Austria, works towards the goals of Agenda 2030 and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Through research, capacity-building, providing educational opportunities and fostering international cooperation, the Centre stands at the forefront of multi-level and multi-actor practices that seek to foster the implementation of human rights. The work of the Centre echoes the work of the “pioneers” in this field at the University of Padua, Italy, who only last month hosted the international conference on “Cities, territories and the struggles for human rights: a 2030 perspective”.  The University of Padua has hosted the “UNESCO Chair for Human Rights, Democracy and Peace” since 1999 and is a well-established and renowned research centre in the field.

Beyond the ever-growing interest and commitment of academic actors, there are several promising administrative and governmental practices on human rights implementation that exist on the local and regional levels, several of which merit consideration. For example the provincial state of Styria in Austria declared its pro-active commitment to become a Human Rights Region. The province’s capital Graz was the first European city to become a City of Human Rights in 2001. Now the Region wishes to follow in the footsteps of the Human Rights Declaration of the City of Graz,. The Declaration sets down the city’s commitment to stand up for, respect and take a stand for human rights in policy and practice. This includes establishing various organisations and forums and supporting efforts to make human rights visible through projects and initiatives. Successful examples of such endeavours on the city level include local election campaign monitoring, the establishment of an Anti-Discrimination Office, as well as publishing an annual human rights report. The new 2018 Human Rights Report of the City of Graz was launched in a celebration today. For the 11th time in succession, the report identifies deficits and good practices in implementing human rights in the city together with concrete recommendations for various actors on how to respond to them. For the first time this year, surveys were conducted among district representatives in order to collect data at the most local level possible.

Aspirations on the regional level echo this and seek to establish Styria as a model Human Rights Region for further Austrian regions. The particular focus of the Styrian provincial parliament therein lies in fostering peaceful co-existence and integration. There is a plethora of promising activities that have been established since 2009, including large-scale enquêtes, small-scale activities and targeted educational projects seeking to raise awareness for anti-discrimination and equality. It is to be commended that regional governmental institutions work intensively with actors from civil society and academia to implement a multi-level, multi-actor human rights strategy. In fact, this is a unique strategy that has proven successful in city and regional administration, as well as in the work of civil society actors.

To give an example, the Austrian Centre’s sister institution in Argentina, the UNESCO Category II Centro Internacional para la Promoción de los Derechos Humanos – CIPDH (International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights) works in close cooperation with the Latin American and Caribbean Coalition of Cities against Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia and recently launched the Handbook on “The SDGs and Cities: International Human Mobility”, which is a practical handbook for local governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The handbook aims to provide strategies to local governments of the region for a democratic and respectful reception of migrants in the cities; in line with the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals. The creation of the handbook was supported by the UNESCO Regional Office for Science in Latin America and the Caribbean and aims to reflect the dynamism and actuality of the challenges that international human mobility imposes on cities, allowing local governments to anticipate ways of action and future action scenarios.

The many initiatives and activities in the field of human rights give reason to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. At the same time, there is a growing need for the commitment of multiple stakeholders to combat the increasing international regression witnessed across the globe. Promising practices and initiatives like the ones mentioned above shed light on the necessity and obligation to take a stand for human rights in daily life, and to anchor a commitment to its principles in daily practices. The activities of the International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights at the Local and Regional Levels seek to draw together such positive examples, to strengthen support for them, and to develop cutting-edge tools and knowledge to help further human rights – starting in small places close to home, as Eleanor Roosevelt said. Happy Human Rights Day 2018!