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.

Maytee also supports the Canadian Urban Institute and the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, which work to advance stronger, more equitable, and prosperous cities through research, events, network building, and other activities.

Relevant publications


Published on 29/11/2017

With the departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto’s Chief Planner chair, Toronto is looking for her successor. Alan Broadbent suggests choosing someone who sees city planning through the lens of human rights.

With the departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto’s Chief Planner chair, Toronto is looking for her successor and is no doubt considering what attributes it wants the new Chief Planner to have. Our suggestion is to choose someone who sees city planning through the lens of human rights. The City’s description of the role of […]

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Published on 28/06/2017

Does the City of Toronto really need to control all of its social housing? City council should be open to new ways of thinking and not be paralyzed by the idea that it has to maintain control over the entire social housing portfolio.

Social housing in Toronto is at a turning point. After years of underinvestment, years filled with reports, task forces, and much talk but less action, we might finally get to answer the question: does the City of Toronto really need to control and manage all of its social housing? Could it transfer stewardship of some […]

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Published on 02/06/2017

Voluntary collaborations between small- and medium-sized cities could increase efficiency and strengthen regional political cohesion.

For the last few decades, there has been a growing commentary on Canada’s anachronistic approach to its biggest cities. Over the 150 years of our country’s history, our large cities have become economic, social and cultural engines. But they remain locked into a constitutional structure from the time of Confederation which limits their powers, governance […]

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Published on 03/02/2017

We need cities to manage their own choices in the local political arena.

Last fall, Toronto Mayor John Tory demonstrated some political courage in proposing road tolls on the city-owned Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway as a source of revenue to pay for needed infrastructure improvements. In his political leadership on the file, and in the support of Toronto City Council for the decision, there was a […]

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Published on 29/08/2016

By refusing to develop new revenue sources and insisting on “trimming the fat” instead, municipal politicians are playing a dangerous budget shell game.

You often hear people say that “there is only one taxpayer,” no matter how many governments make a claim on that taxpayer’s money. Listening to governments talk, though, the notion seems to be lost, especially at the municipal level. Across Canada in our cities, mayors and councillors want the federal and provincial governments to pay […]

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Published on 05/04/2016

Welcome address at the Tamarack conference Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead on April 5, 2016 in Edmonton.

Welcome address at the Tamarack conference Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead on April 5, 2016 in Edmonton. It is a pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Tamarack. And a particular pleasure for me because of the presence of so many mayors and councillors. I’ve worked for a number of years to highlight the […]

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