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 22/02/2016

Oral presentation on February 22, 2016 at Canada’s review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Oral presentation on February 22, 2016 at Canada’s review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Good morning committee members, delegates and members of civil society organizations. My name is Elizabeth McIsaac and I’m the president of Maytree, a private charitable foundation based in Toronto, Canada. At Maytree, we are focused on […]

Read more


Published on 16/02/2016

This submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights makes four recommendations on the role of cities in protecting our rights.

Are Canada and its cities doing enough to protect everyone’s economic and social rights, including the rights of our most vulnerable populations? A review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to get underway next week in Geneva, will soon let us know. Canada’s obligations to protect the economic and social rights […]

Read more


Published on 28/01/2016

There's a question to how committed Toronto councillors are to accepting their obligations to protect the social and economic rights of all residents.

For the anti-poverty movement in Toronto, January has been a month focused on the City of Toronto budget process, and there is growing concern about whether Council will deliver on the promise of a strategy approved only three short months ago. On the afternoon of November 3, Council Chamber was filled with promise and expectation. […]

Read more