Today marks UN World Human Rights Day. This year’s Human Rights Day is especially significant because it marks 70 years since the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Motivated by the experiences of the preceding world wars, the Universal Declaration was the first time that countries agreed on a comprehensive statement of inalienable human rights. Seventy years later, the rights set out in the declaration remain as relevant as the day it was published.
At a time in which national government is no longer equipped with the tools to address the challenges posed by the modern world, it is more important than ever for cities to play a leading role in advancing the human rights. For years, cities have come together to tackle specific challenges such as climate change and migration. But the world is facing a new type of threat. Resurgent nationalist and extremist politics, fed by new digital communication tools, are polarizing divided and angry societies. In fact, the recent proliferation of threats to democracy and human rights show that continual human progress on these themes cannot be taken for granted. This progress is not always linear. From Brazil, the US and the UK to Hungary, Poland and Sweden, populist nationalist politics threaten human rights progress and the democratic structures upon which this progress depends.
Cities working together across international boundaries have the potential – even the duty – to assume a leadership role to safeguard our democracy. National political structures are demonstrating that they are vulnerable to populist takeover and ill-equipped to take on the challenges of social and economic inequality and the political exclusion that the populists are exploiting. I am convinced that we need to start an action focussed debate about a new architecture for global governance in which our cities and city networks are sitting alongside national leaders as equal partners in shaping domestic and global agendas. We need to strengthen human rights and democracy from the bottom-up.
I recently hosted the third annual gathering of the Global Parliament of Mayors in Bristol with precisely this aim in mind. We brought together nearly 100 mayors and leaders of city networks to explore how we can better work together to empower city leaders to drive change from the local to the global levels. Uppermost on the minds of many city leaders was finding ways to counter the nationalist impulses of their national governments – key to protecting the hard-fought rights of citizens. It was a powerful gathering, but I am acutely aware of how far we have to go.
In Bristol, we are playing a leading role in helping to protect the rights set out within the Universal Declaration. For example, Article 14 states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. Bristol is proud to be a City of Sanctuary, recognising the contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the city and seeking to include them as fully as possible in all aspects of social and economic life. This month we will be welcoming a group of asylum seekers to City Hall as part of a programme offering them work taster sessions in order to prepare them for employment. Bristol City Funds is exploring ways to invest in refugee entrepreneurs so that they can start and grow businesses which bring prosperity to their new communities. And the Council is proud to work alongside the many civil society organisations supporting and empowering refugees and asylum seekers in the city. We are making huge strides in helping to deliver Article 24 – ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’ through an array of mechanisms, including our inclusive and sustainable inclusive growth strategy and our WORKS programme. Article 25 sets out that ‘all children shall enjoy the same social protection’, with our own Children’s Charter setting out our commitments to our city’s children. The charter is a set of ten pledges formed by various partners across the city, which puts the human rights of children first priority in decision-making processes.
70 years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration, we need to summon up the same energy and bravery as those who wrote it in order to safeguard our shared human rights. These rights cannot be taken for granted, and progress towards their delivery needs to happen from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down.