Conference on Human Rights at Local level

(Tirana, 6 September 2012)

Address by Nikolaus Sitaropoulos, on behalf Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the conference organised under the Albanian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe

On behalf of Commissioner Muižnieks, I would like to thank you for this invitation and congratulate the Albanian Chairmanship on highlighting the local authorities’ pivotal role in the protection and promotion of human rights standards and values in Europe.

The international and European system of human rights protection is based on the fundamental principle of subsidiarity which means that human rights have to be effectively protected and respected, first and foremost, at national level.

If this is not the case human rights treaties agreed upon by governments become devoid of any real value.

The same principle of subsidiarity, one could say, is applicable at national level. National authorities are in effect dependent on regional and local authorities for the effective implementation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in international or European conventions that bind states.

Authorities at regional and local levels take key decisions related to health care, education, child protection, housing and policing, among others.

During his visits to member states, the Commissioner has noted that bad governance can have a negative impact for human rights, especially concerning members of vulnerable groups. However, the Commissioner’s experience also shows that good practices by local authorities have been effective in combating discrimination and social exclusion and ensuring stronger protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For example, in a number of Council of Europe member states local authorities have not managed to date to protect particularly vulnerable members of Roma communities from forced evictions and to respect the applicable human rights standards, notably providing alternative, adequate housing. To date the European Committee of Social Rights has condemned a number of member states for serious, relevant violations of the European Social Charter. The Commissioner continues to receive reports from various member states concerning, among others, evictions by local authorities of Roma families, including children, without providing alternative adequate housing.

On the other hand, a number of examples of local authorities’ good practices are promising.

One may mention the Advisory Council of Foreigners which was established by the city of Zurich and was composed of 22 members from 19 different nationalities. Given the positive results, the city agreed to pursue the collaboration with the Council. The Council defends the interests of foreigners and persons with a migration background in Zurich with regard to different aspects of their daily life in the city and serves as a dialogue forum between the different communities in Zurich. The Council offers advice to the local government and promotes integration policies.

Another good example of local government practice is the ACCEDER project in Spain where local and regional resources have been actively involved in an effort to attract Roma population into the labour market, promoting employability, social inclusion and equality, encouraging, in particular, social and labour market integration of young Roma at risk of exclusion from the labour market.

In this context we may also highlight the Municipal Anti-discrimination Services in the Netherlands by which individuals who feel that they have been discriminated against can seek independent assistance in the handling of their complaint. Under the law, every municipality has to provide its inhabitants with access to a readily available anti-discrimination service. It also provides for a nationwide network of local anti-discrimination services for the protection of all individuals from discrimination.

These and other good practices are available at the Commissioner’s website that you are invited to consult.

The credibility of the Council of Europe human rights standards ultimately depends on whether they are made effective in practice by the member states at national and local level.

This requires a systematic approach for the prevention of violations and implementation of the agreed-upon standards.

Local authorities should be encouraged to develop comprehensive local baseline studies, action plans or similar documents ensuring regular review of the local situation and co-ordinated efforts to address human rights challenges.

Adequate systems should be established for monitoring the provision of health care, education or social services, whether provided by private or public actors, using the rights based approach.

The experience of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities may be of great value in this context.

In conclusion, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights would like to underline the need for national and local authorities to commit themselves to initiating and/or implementing systematic work for the implementation of human rights.

Effective protection of human rights starts and finishes at home.