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FOCUS September 2014 Volume Vol. 77

Local Government and Human Rights


Local governments are key players in the promotion, protection and realization of human rights. They complement the work of the national government in fulfilling state obligation on human rights. But how far have the local governments been able do their human rights work?
An expert workshop, hosted by Gwangju city on 15 May 2014, provided answers to this question by taking stock of existing local government human rights practices in different parts of the world, and identifying emerging trends and challenges in this field. This workshop was held prior to the 4th World Human Rights Cities Forum (WHRCF).

Human Rights Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/RES/24/2) on 26 September 2013 requesting the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (HRCAC) to prepare “a research-based report on the role of local government in the promotion and protection of human rights, including human rights mainstreaming in local administration and public services, with a view to compiling best practices and main challenges.”1 This report would be presented to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh session in September 2014. Two members of the HRCAC drafting group attended the Gwangju workshop.

Role of Local Governments

Since local governments provide direct service to the community, and local government leaders have direct contact with the local population, they are in the best position to work on local human rights issues.
Local governments that uphold human rights can actively protect the rights of local residents. The local residents in turn can exercise their right to demand from their local governments support for their human rights. There are services that local governments can provide to the local community that the national government may not be able to supply. However, the human rights programs of local governments should not dilute the obligation of the national government to promote, protect and realize human rights. Local and national governments should collaborate on human rights work.
A recent survey by the Human Rights Council reveals a number of challenges affecting the human rights work of local governments pertaining to:

  • a. Direct democracy at the local levels;
  • b. Cultural practices that affect human rights;
  • c. Mainstreaming of human rights principles into the different components of the local government structures and procedures; and
  • d. Human rights education for local government officials and local population.

The Gwangju workshop took note of other serious challenges facing local governments regarding:

  • a. Change in political leadership;
  • b. Continuation of local government human rights initiatives;
  • c. Development of existing local government human rights programs;
  • d. Link between local governments and the regional/international programs; and
  • e. Human rights protection.

Some local governments were found to have strong sense of autonomy, progressive leadership, support from local social movements and other attributes that facilitate the mainstreaming of human rights principles in the local governance system. Historical local movements fighting for freedom and human rights can also inspire local governments in their human rights work. The Donghak Revolution in 1894 in Gwangju was cited as an example of such inspiring historical event.

Establishing a Human Rights City

Today’s cities face a number of problems that impact on human rights. They face social and economic inequality among the residents, inadequate facilities to serve their needs, limited space for housing and other infrastructures, isolation or exclusion of specific groups of residents including foreign residents (permanent residents and also migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees, etc.), lack of participation of non- citizens in the governance of the city, discrimination in various forms, etc.
In this context, the main question is: How can a city become a human rights city? Or, how can a local government be able to perform its obligation to promote, protect and realize human rights within its own territory and using its limited resources?
There should be appropriate utilization of existing opportunities that support the local government work on human rights. Superior court decisions that recognize the human rights mandate of local governments especially in meeting the essential needs of the local residents (such as food, housing, water supply, health service, sanitation, protection from violence) should be given importance. Local government autonomy laws that empower local governments to enact ordinances such as budget ordinance supporting gender programs at the local level should be invoked effectively. National action plans on different human rights issues should be utilized to benefit local communities.
Institutions that work on human rights such as national human rights institutions, local human rights centers (including those based in local universities), local offices of national government agencies and non- governmental organizations should all be tapped for local level human rights programming.
Local governments can actively seek out people whose human rights are being violated or on the verge of getting violated in order to give them protection and other support. This effort makes the existence of local institutions or local programs for the underprivileged or discriminated people more relevant and needed.
They can also develop or use existing systems for rating performance on human rights work. Such rating system would support effective implementation of local government action plans on human rights.
On raising human rights awareness of the general public, human rights activities should be held in open, public spaces where ordinary residents can learn as well as contribute in the discussions of local human rights issues and programs.
Local government experiences on human rights work can be found in Kaohsiung city that created a human rights information center inside a busy train station to provide information on human rights and hold discussion activities on human rights issues for the general public;2 established numerous museums with related human rights themes; and supported human rights education in the school system. In a small town in the Philippines, the lady mayor promotes the idea that local residents have the right to demand service from their local government, and implements programs addressing different aspects of human rights (using the 1986 United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development as framework). In Utrecht (the Netherlands), the local government brought together representatives of different non-governmental organizations that work on human rights issues in Africa and Asia to discuss what could be done on local human rights problems. The variety of ideas that came out provided a good start to developing local human rights programs for the city. The city government of Nanterre (France) developed a program to address the needs of those in the “peripheries” (physically and socially) of the city, who are mainly descendants of foreign migrant workers.3

Korean Template

The Korea Human Rights Foundation (KHRF), one of the co-organizers of the expert workshop, presented the current situation of human rights cities in Korea through a draft white paper entitled Human Rights Cities in Korea 2014.

Table 1. Components of Human Rights Cities4

Local government example

Gwangju Human Rights Charter (2012)
Busan Haeundae-gu Ordinance (2010)
Gyeongsangnam-do Jingju cityʼs Declaration of Human Rights City (2005)


Human Rights Action Plan
Ulsan Dong-gu Human Rights Plan of Action (2013-2015)
Human Rights Impact Assessment
Human Rights Impact Assessment in construction of government buildings (2012) in Seoul Seongbuk-gu
Human Rights Index/
Gwangju Human Rights Indicator (2012)
Human Rights Education
Permanent lecture program on human rights in Gwangju

Human Rights Office
Gwangju Human Rights Division (2010), Seoul Human
Rights Division (2012)
Human Rights Commission
Ulsan Dong-gu Human Rights Commission (2012)
Human Rights Ombudsman
Gwangju Human Rights Ombudsman (2013), Seoul Citizenʼs
Human Rights Ombudsman (2013)
Human Rights Center
Gyeonggi-do Gwangmyeong City Citizensʼ Human Rights

The paper provides a good template for compiling and analyzing information on local government initiatives related to human rights. It presents the different initiatives of Korean local governments as shown in Table 1.
According to the KHRF report, a human rights charter “articulates the rights that a local government guarantees [to] its citizens;”5 a human rights ordinance is a law or regulation enacted by local government councils that specifically relate to human rights;6 a human rights declaration “elucidates a city’s commitment toward establishing itself as a human rights city to the city’s residents as well as to the ... world.”7
A human rights action plan is a “comprehensive plan that [translates] the human rights charter or statement into policy to promote human rights;” a “blueprint that gives guidance to the local government ... [in] developing systematic human rights policy.”8 Human Rights Impact Assessment is a “tool that allows the local government [to] monitor the plans and actions ... to protect and improve the human rights of the residents.”9 Human Rights Index/Indicator means “a sign that displays the direction, goal, or standard of human rights... [specifically] the general numerical value of the various human rights situations.”
The human rights office has the responsibility over all activities of the local government related to human rights. The name of the office includes “human rights” and thus can refer to Human Rights Division, Human Rights Policy Division, Human Rights Team, etc.10 The human rights center, on the other hand, promotes human rights culture and citizen participation in local communities by providing human rights education for citizens and civil servants. Local government officials manage the human rights office, while the civil society (though receiving support from the local government) operates the human rights center.11
The local human rights commission serves as a “mechanism through which active participation of citizens in realizing the ideal of a human rights city could be guaranteed...[It monitors] from the outside whether [or not the local government is properly implementing the] human rights charters and declarations, and in some cases, serve[s] as relief [body] when [the local government or related institution breaches] established norms or violate the human rights of its citizens.”12 The human rights ombudsman, on the other hand, has the sole purpose of providing relief or remedy to victims of human rights violations.

Mainstreaming Human Rights in Local Governance

A major task in the mainstreaming of human rights into the local government system is the institutionalization of policies, mechanisms, programs and activities that serve to promote, protect and realize human rights in the local communities.
Such mainstreaming effort should be supported by a participatory process that allows effective involvement of local residents in the task, provision of sufficient financial and other resources, awareness-raising among the public and the local government officials, and collaboration with other institutions working on human rights and local government fields.


For further information, please contact the Korean Human Rights Foundation, 4F, 18-1, Dongsomoonro, Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul, South Korea; ph: (82 070) 4367 2787; fax: (82 0505) 115-3682; e-mail : al ee7080@gmai l .com;


1. Report of the Human Rights Council on its twenty-fourth session, advanced unedited version, A/HRC/24/2, 27 January 2014, page 8.
2. For additional information, read Elsa Wen-Ying Hsu, “Crossing Boundaries in an Educating City: A Case Study of City Human Rights Education at the Open University of Kaohsiung,” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific, volume four (Osaka: HURIGHTS OSAKA) pages 125-136. Full article available at
3. These experiences were presented in one of the workshops held during the 2014 World Forum on Human Rights Cities.
4. Data in Table 1 are from Korean Human Rights Foundation, Human Rights Cities in Korea 2014 (Seoul, 2014), pages 6-7.
5. Ibid., page 8.
6. Ibid., page 9.
7. Ibid., page 10.
8. Ibid., page 16.
9. Ibid., page 18.
10. Ibid., page 11.
11. Ibid., page 15. The word citizens would probably mean “residents” to include non- citizens such as foreigners.
12. Ibid., pages 12-13.