Statement by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights on the occasion of the opening of the Human Rights Cities Forum Gwangju, Republic of Korea (16 May 2012)

Mayor Kang Woon-tae of Gwangju Metropolitan City, Madam Lee Hee-ho, Chairman Yoon Bong-geun, Ambassador Park Kyung-suh, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honor and pleasure for me to speak here today as you commence the second World Human Rights Cities Forum.  I would like to convey to all of you the best wishes and congratulations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on the convening this important event.  I am pleased to note that mayors, city representatives, civic and human rights experts from around the world are participating.  At the first World Human Rights Cities Forum, held here in Gwangju in May 2011, "human rights city" was defined as both a local community and socio-political process human rights governance in a local context," and the participants pledged to develop an effective mechanism to protect and defend the human rights of all citizens and inhabitants at the city level.  It is encouraging to see that the Gwangju Metropolitan City has taken charge once again and organized this second event.   Much progress has been made during and since the first forum, including the adoption of the Gwangju Human Rights Charter. The ongoing work on the draft Guidelines on Human Rights Cities and the broad participation in the event today highlights the growing recognition of this initiative both here in the Republic of Korea and internationally.    

Gwangju has a long and proud history of striving to uphold human rights, culminating with the Democratic Uprising of May 18, 1980, when the young students and citizens of the city rose up against injustice.  It was a defining moment in the country’s transition towards democracy.  Today, many countries around the world, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa region, are undergoing similar struggles to shake off decades of oppressive and divisive rule.  In some, the struggle has been met with violent repression, and too many peaceful protestors and citizens have lost and continue to lose their lives.   Every day, at OHCHR, the lead UN entity for human rights, one of our missions is to monitor the patterns of repression and violence, to advocate for people whose fundamental rights and freedoms are being violated, to call for accountability for perpetrators, and to remind governments of their obligations to protect and promote the human rights of their peoples.   We do so with the firm conviction that comes from the lessons of history, learned here in Gwangju and other places of civic uprising, that discrimination and marginalisation is at the roots of conflict, that humanity’s march toward universal human rights for all in the mandate of history, and that freedom, justice and human dignity will prevail.     

Today, Gwangju is once again leading the way in opening up a new chapter for human rights in the Republic of Korea.   I commend the organisers and citizens of Gwangju for being at the forefront towards the achievement of full rights for all persons in the city.  This initiative, linked up with other cities and local authorities through the World Human Rights Cities Forum, is an instrumental step forward in turning into reality the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that ‘Everyone is born equal and free, in dignity and rights…and is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights have become a central pillar of international public policy and international law.  That every human being has certain economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights and entitlements, is a universal tenet that no one, no society, no government can deny.   International human rights treaties spell out the content of these rights and entitlements, and these are complemented by regional norms.  For decades, we have seen how international human rights standards adopted by the United Nations for implementation at national levels, have been enriched by regional organizations, many of which have adopted their own human rights charters and mechanisms.  Once ratified by a state, the legal obligations contained in the treaties must be assumed by all parts of the government, including local government.   Yet, thus far, very few local governments have referred directly to human rights when designing and implementing their policies, and explicit commitment to integrating human rights into local governance has been the exception rather than the norm. 

Under these circumstances, the human rights cities represented here today are providing much needed leadership.  They have taken diverse ways forward, for example by adopting local human rights charters, setting out human rights responsibilities that fall upon municipal authorities, and embracing the concepts of good governance and human development in their planning.   These efforts have shown that human rights principles, values and methods can be integrated with existing planning approaches so as to strengthen local government policies. 

It is exciting that this additional, more immediate layer is being added to the protection and promotion of universal human rights at the subnational level through the initiatives of cities and local communities.  Indeed, these initiatives give specific and localised meaning and ownership to the human rights all people are entitled to.  They can bring into better focus issues that are most relevant to the local community.  They can also provide more immediate accountability frameworks and redress mechanisms that can respond to concerns of everyday citizens. 

I am confident that this Forum, hosted by Gwangju, will help us all advance in this direction, and provide a rich opportunity to exchange good practices between like-minded cities around the world.   In this, we must always be guided by the principles of non-discrimination and equality for all, rule of law, participation and empowerment, accountability and responsible leadership, transparency, and consultation of all stakeholders.

Ladies and gentlemen,   

Human rights in local governance is essentially concerned with the provision of certain entitlements, including participation in local political processes and access to essential services.  Local governments are increasingly responsible for the design and delivery of such services, and they are the first point of contact with government for citizens. 

 A critical element of effective human rights protection, whether at the local, national or international level, relates to monitoring and reporting. At the international level, states report on their compliance with international human rights treaties to dedicated committees of independent experts that are appointed to oversee implementation of such treaties. These "treaty bodies", serviced and assisted by OHCHR, offer observations and recommendations to member states. In addition, the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the United Nations Human Rights Council has added another important layer of monitoring.  Over the past four years, all states – including the Republic of Korea - have passed through this Universal Periodic Review process, during which their human rights performance was assessed by their fellow United Nations member states.  Human Rights Cities can develop similar monitoring, reporting and peer review processes, including by involving the local public. This will ensure follow-up to and accountability for the commitments and standards they aspire to achieve. I would also encourage all cities to put in place reliable, accessible and independent complaints mechanisms to which citizens can have recourse when human rights violations occur.    

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In many places around the world, OHCHR has advanced and supported efforts to address human rights issues at the local level, by supporting the elaboration of action plans on human rights, the development of independent and effective national and local human rights institutions, the promotion of human rights sensitivity within the judiciary, professional training for government and law enforcement officials, general human rights education for children and adults and the development of human rights indicators for assessment systems and policy-making processes. We have also been supporting the training of officials in local municipalities in the context of the World Programme for Human Rights Education.

We have also been a supporter and partner in efforts to integrate human rights principles and standards into local government.  In this regard, the most exemplary has been our work in Mexico, where we have a fully-fledged country office covering critical protection concerns and undertaking promotion activities in many parts of the country.  In Mexico City, we have been working together with the municipal council for over five years to ensure that human rights norms and standards are mainstreamed into public policy, budget processes and local legislation.

The key lesson from our experience in supporting Mexico city is that from the very first step, when an assessment of the existing level of human rights protection and promotion is being made, it is vital to secure broad participation among all actors, to empower them, and to give particular focus on vulnerable groups.  In Mexico City, in the run up to the assessment, a committee was established that enabled the participation of a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including the City’s Government, its local Congress and Justice Tribunal, as well as the academic community and NGOs. The assessment analysed the human rights situation of specific groups such as women, children, migrants, youth, persons with disabilities, and indigenous peoples, among others, from the point of view of the obligations of the State to protect and ensure the enjoyment of rights.  This helped to reveal and quantify gaps in the fulfilment of specific human rights.   The assessment also showed that while the municipality is among the administrative units in the country with the highest human development index, it is also one of the most unequal.  In this way, the assessment helped to design Mexico City’s human rights programme, redirecting efforts to those groups and areas which were most affected by marginalisation and poverty and, prioritizing action regarding a number of rights, such as the rights to water, adequate housing and education and the rights to access justice and security.

Once again, the key to the success has been participation and empowerment.  For more than one year, a plurality of actors and institutions and OHCHR-Mexico as permanent observer of the process – debated, deliberated, and strove to reach consensus regarding the strategies required to realize the human rights of all people living in the city. 

The Programme as it stands now includes 2,412 action points. It encompasses a series of strategies needed to guarantee specific human rights, and includes chapters on the rights of social groups vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion such as women, indigenous people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Each chapter proposes strategic actions, allocates responsibilities, and sets out concrete timelines for their implementation.

One of the most challenging aspects of carrying out such human rights programmes is to measure the impact of such programmes on the lives of the people. OHCHR and Mexico City Council developed a methodological framework, which establishes quantitative indicators to evaluate the success of implementing the programme.  In this regard, I am heartened to learn that Gwangju is already thinking beyond the enunciation of broad human rights principles, and unpacking themwith detailed indicators in each sector of community life, which will give the city authorities and citizens a concrete and results-based framework to measure progress.

To illustrate the usefulness of indicators, for instance in Mexico city, we helped to develop human rights indicators on the right to a fair trial together with the City’s judiciary. Thanks to these indicators, all people in Mexico City can now access data showing  how many judges have been trained in human rights;  how long the average trial takes;  what budget the tribunals are allocated and how much a judicial decision costs on average. Public access to this data ensures accountability and helps citizens and the authorities to keep track of the progress made by the City regarding human rights.

The full assessment of the impact of the programme on the lives of the people of Mexico City is currently underway.  But I can already give some examples of achievements so far.  As a result of the Programme, the City’s legislation on housing, trafficking of persons and torture now incorporates international human rights standards. Persons with disabilities can access all of the City’s transportation facilities and infrastructure. The legislative body has approved cutting-edge reforms so that persons of the same sex in Mexico City can marry, adopt children and enjoy the benefits of social welfare programmes on an equal basis with heterosexual couples.  Women have attained improved access to sexual and reproductive rights as the City now permits legal and healthy procedures for terminating a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks of the term. Furthermore, the Law on the Human Rights Programme obliges all public officials to be trained in human rights and to include a human rights perspective into all policy proposals and budgets. Weekly radio shows, and social media are being actively used to increase public awareness on human rights.

An integral part of the programme has been the setting up of a checks-and-balances mechanism in the form of an independent monitoring and evaluation body that is composed of representatives of different stakeholder groups and tracks the design, state of implementation, management, results and impact, and budgeting of human rights action points.  I would encourage other human rights cities represented here to establish similar mechanisms for monitoring and reporting that are truly independent.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our efforts to assist in mainstreaming human rights in the concrete context of national and local governance is very much mirrored in the global context of the international human rights movement.  With OHCHR at the lead, the endeavours to mainstream human rights into all areas of the United Nations' work and assistance for the peoples and countries of the world have achieved important milestones in the recent years.  In peace and security, development, and humanitarian assistance, in both policy thinking as well as in operational activities, human rights standards and principles are being increasingly integrated and embraced.  At various forums at the UN, there are lively and passionate discussions that are advancing the human rights mainstreaming agenda.   In peacekeeping and political missions established by the Security Council, human rights officers are monitoring and reporting on violations and abuses of civilians in the aftermath of conflict and integrating human rights elements into peace agreements.  In humanitarian emergencies, human rights standards are being applied in bringing relief and assistance to those in need and holding authorities accountable.  In development assistance, human rights based approaches are being applied to ensure that the programmatic activities advance the social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights.  The ultimate goal is to make human rights a reality for the people on the ground.  For human rights are meaningless if they are not lived by everyone in their daily lives.     

In this regard, the human rights cities initiative provides a vital link between the norm and the reality of human rights.  And I am very encouraged, and proud as a fellow Korean, that the city of Gwangju has joined a group of trailblazers among city governments around the world to institutionalize this link.        

 I encourage all stakeholders to contribute to its success. This will require openness and commitment on the part of the city authorities, the leadership of the local human rights commission and the dedication of civil society organizations and the local public at large.  As you embark upon this important and challenging task, I wish you every success and offer the continuing technical support and advice of our Office. We are confident that this event will be followed by many more in Gwangju and other like-minded cities around the world.

Thank you.