Human rights cities

What is a human rights city?

Human rights cities is a term used to describe local governments of any size that base some of their policies on international human rights law and principles.

There is no single methodology or strict definition of what qualifies as a “human rights city.” Rather, cities all over the world – including some in Canada – have taken different rights-based approaches to frame and find solutions to local challenges. In all, the intention is to ensure local decision-making furthers the protection and realization of human rights.

Which human rights should cities focus on?

Though cities may draw on any number of human rights laws, the focus of Maytree’s work on human rights cities is on economic and social rights – those relating to employment, social security, access to housing, food security, water and sanitation, education, health, and an adequate standard of living.

Cities in Canada are perfectly positioned to champion these rights, given their responsibilities in corresponding policy and program delivery areas. For example, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cities have been called upon to provide safe accommodation for persons who are homeless or ensure local food banks can address the rising tide of hunger.

By implementing economic and social rights obligations under domestic and international law  – which have often been neglected – cities can recognize the central importance of human rights in urban life and emerge from the pandemic as more equitable and inclusive communities.

Where is this happening?

A number of local governments in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg, have begun localizing economic and social rights to varying degrees over the past several years. Other cities, such as Barcelona, Seoul, and San Francisco, have been developing local human rights infrastructure for a longer time.

How does it work in practice?

Some of the ways cities are applying human rights in their decision-making and governance processes include:

  • Local recognition of human rights through an ordinance or a charter, which includes a statement of rights, the city’s obligations and responsibilities, how these will be met, and how local authorities will be held to account;
  • Mainstreaming of rights, such as implementation of rights-based audits of policies, plans, and budgets, setting aside adequate staff and financial resources to embed a culture of rights, and providing relevant training to municipal staff;
  • Participatory governance and inclusion, through close collaboration with residents and civil society in the development of local strategies and monitoring of progress; and
  • Accountability mechanisms, such as human rights ombudspersons, local human rights commissions, and citizen juries, which empower people to claim their rights.

The United Cities and Local Government network has also developed a helpful guide for cities: The Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City. The guide is centred on local recognition of international human rights laws, prioritizing marginalized and vulnerable groups, and mainstreaming human rights in local policies.

What are the benefits of this approach?

Human rights provide a useful blueprint for addressing systemic challenges like social exclusion and inequality. Though at times human rights might be perceived as vague or idealistic, their meaning has been clarified over decades of court cases and through evidence gathered by UN Committees.

The norms and standards associated with the right to food, accessibility, or adequate housing, for example, have been clearly articulated. Guidance on implementation, monitoring, and accountability is also specified, and focuses strongly on the meaningful involvement of people and communities in the decisions that affect them.

In looking to rebuild more inclusive and equitable communities post pandemic, cities don’t have to start from scratch. By adopting human rights as core principles in decision-making and taking a rights-based approach in the design of policy and program solutions, cities can truly effect the systemic change that is now required.

Relevant publications


Published on 10/12/2020

A growing number of local governments from across the world are turning to human rights to affirm a vision of more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable communities. Such places may be broadly categorized as “human rights cities.”

Download the paper Because of their proximity to the people they serve and their responsibilities in key areas such as housing, education, public health, and planning (among others), cities and municipalities are exceptionally well-positioned to champion human rights. In particular, the pandemic has highlighted the important role cities play in protecting economic and social rights, […]

Read more


Published on 07/12/2020

To align with the City’s human rights-based approach, the forthcoming Inclusionary Zoning feasibility assessments should explore the potential for Inclusionary Zoning to maximize the delivery of affordable housing for those in greatest need.

Download the submission (PDF) In December 2019, the City of Toronto took a landmark step in recognizing housing as a human right and incorporating a human rights-based approach in its ten-year HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan. A human rights-based approach requires the City to review policies against established standards and norms under international law. This includes […]

Read more


Published on 14/12/2018

2018 might be the last year we coast by without deliberate ambitions to strengthen our cities.

Canadians have gotten used to seeing their cities rise in global rankings of best places to live. Earlier this year, in keeping with a ten-year trend, the Economist’s Global Liveability Index again awarded Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto spots in the top ten best cities for overall quality of life, based on their performance in categories […]

Read more


Published on 29/10/2018

Our politicians must raise their game to become dramatically more effective in creating and implementing stronger public policy in our cities.

“Canada is rich by nature, poor only by policy,” Goldwin Smith told the New York Chamber of Commerce 130 years ago. Smith was a professor of history residing in Toronto, and in his speech he commented on the natural and human capital that abounded in the country, but lamented how little had been done with […]

Read more


Published on 24/08/2018

We need to create a new governance system that enables Toronto to truly govern itself, act on its strengths and address its many problems and challenges.

It’s not every day of the week that one of the world’s great cities turns into a political football. But that is exactly what is happening in Toronto. Late last month, newly installed Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced his plans to cut the size of Toronto’s city council in half. Mayor John Tory pressed the […]

Read more


Published on 26/04/2018

It's time to make the case for cities, and a city-building lens, to create a stronger, more equitable, and more resilient province.

As the Ontario provincial election draws near, here’s one prediction we can make with a high degree of certainty: the role, powers, and livability of our cities will not be high on the agenda of any of the major parties. Beyond the political sparring of the party leaders, the campaigns will likely focus on a […]

Read more