High level Conference: The Role of Decentralisation on the Consolidation of Democracy in Albania and European Integration

30-31 October 2012, Tirana, Albania

Session II:  “Promotion of human rights at local level and raising awareness among local and regional authorities”

Leen VERBEEK, member of the Chamber of Regions and Monitoring Committee of the Congress

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege for me to take part in these discussions today on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. Just to explain very shortly, the Congress is a political assembly of local and regional elected representatives from all across our continent, from the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the voice of more than 200,000 territorial communities. This pan-European dimension enables us to assess the situation of local democracy and human rights in its entirety, but also to reach out to the grassroots level in individual countries from Greenland to Malta and from Reykjavik to Vladivostok.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt that once said: “It is in the local community, close to the home … that people seek justice, equal opportunities and equal dignity without discrimination. If these rights have no significance there, then they are of no great importance anywhere else either.”

I must say that we fully share this view. Democracy starts at local level, and there is no democracy without human rights.

A few years ago, the Congress decided to look closely at the situation of human rights and their implementation at grassroots level. This decision was triggered by the discussions at the Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy in Sigtuna, Sweden, in 2007, which focused on the interdependence of democracy and human rights. These are two sides of the same coin, and both are indispensable requirements of good governance which we are striving to build in our local and regional communities. This is why in 2010, the Congress made the local and regional dimension of human rights one of its priorities, and prepared a report on the role of local and regional authorities in human rights implementation.

The decentralisation of power in Europe today, the transfer of competences to local and regional levels, made possible by the European Charter of Local Self-Government and its principle of subsidiarity, gives real and concrete contents to the responsibilities of local and regional authorities for running their communities, including responsibilities in matters of human rights.

The universe of human rights today has become extremely diverse, involving political, civil, social, economic, cultural and religious rights, minority rights, women’s rights, children’s rights – this is a long list. This universe is too much to handle for national authorities alone, ensuring the full exercise of human rights and preventing their violations – they must have partners at all levels of governance in addressing these issues.

This is why we in the Congress are convinced that human rights are a shared responsibility. Their exercise in our societies is only successful to the extent to which the political, economic and social conditions existing in our communities allow for it. It is clear that adopting “good laws” in parliaments is not nearly enough to guarantee the respect of human rights. It is also the fact that today, national governments, through their human rights structures, have to respond to the situation already existing on the ground, and to interact with local and regional authorities on putting in place appropriate practices.

And if an overzealous government machine can infringe on individual freedoms, so, too, can local and regional administrations. And as such, they are equally responsible for preventing human rights violations – maybe even more responsible, given the fact that territorial authorities are indeed the first line of defence for citizens’ rights, the first layer of power to which citizens resort for protection.

Let us ask ourselves, without referring to any particular situation: if city authorities ban a demonstration, are they not directly involved in the exercise of the freedom of assembly? And if they ban posters from being placed in the city because of their contents, is it not an infringement on the freedom of expression? And if brutal action by the municipal police is brought before the European Court of Human Rights, is it not a matter of concern for local authorities?

I could also refer to the direct responsibilities of local and regional authorities in matters of religious rights – building places of worship, protecting religious sites, ensuring conditions for the observance of religious traditions. And let us not forget a whole range of social rights, access to which is ensured to a great extent by local and regional authorities: allocation of housing, regulations for local employment, access to health care services and to schooling, and even to higher education in certain regions – I could continue with this list.

Local authorities are already involved with human rights issues, whether they want it or not – by virtue of their competences. For example, over the past weeks ago, I read in the press about court decisions in one member state of the Council of Europe, the court overruling and striking down municipal ordinances on the grounds of discrimination. In one case, children were denied school books because of their parents’ debt to the school canteen. In another, children were actually denied access to the school canteen because their parents – both unemployed – could not afford to pay for it. The court found these practices discriminatory.

In general, the question of discrimination vs. equal treatment and equal access to public services features high on the agenda of human rights protection at local and regional levels, and the Congress will be looking into this issue as a priority when assessing human rights implementation in our communities. Non-discrimination is indeed an entry point in the human rights defence mechanisms, an “umbrella” feature if you wish, because the right to non-discrimination ensures guarantees for the equal protection and exercise of other rights.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thus, local and regional authorities are already playing a key role in providing access to human rights, and in preventing, or reacting to, their violations. However, many of them are not fully aware of this important contribution that they are making. It is also true that many of our citizens are not fully aware of their rights and the existing defence mechanisms, also at local and regional levels. We need therefore to raise awareness of both – territorial authorities (of their role in human rights implementation), and of our citizens (of the way they can defend their rights). But most importantly, we must promote local and regional efforts to make sure that the conditions exist in our communities for the full exercise of these rights. We are convinced that the culture of human rights must be embedded at the level of our communities.

In this regard, it is encouraging to see many cities and regions “waking up” to the idea. Many municipalities today have joined an initiative called human rights cities. Many cities – such as Paris and others – have appointed deputy mayors responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights and/or established local ombudsmen. I could give you examples of local human rights departments, such as in Austria, or good local practices in Slovenia with regard to the treatment of Roma and other nomadic populations.

The Congress encourages and promotes such practices, in particular the creation of offices of local and regional human rights ombudsmen. We are also seeking to ensure the sharing of these experiences. Our approach is focused on awareness-raising and promotion of human rights at grassroots level, on making sure that local and regional authorities are seized of the human rights situation in their communities.

All these considerations compelled the Congress to adopt a resolution and a recommendation in March 2010, suggesting specific local and regional measures, to be implemented with the support and assistance of national authorities. These measures would serve to improve human rights implementation in our communities, and to prevent, or reduce the number of, their violations.

We recommended in particular setting up appropriate structures and developing procedures at local and regional levels to assess and improve human rights situations, in particular in providing public services. We also recommended providing the necessary budgeting and training for human rights implementation, establishing independent complaints mechanisms at grassroots level, and enforcing guarantees of equal access to public services, as well as a system of their quality control.

But first and foremost, we needed to elaborate indicators for raising human rights awareness. And that is what we need when the Congress adopted a recommendation and a resolution in October 2011 on Human rights indicators at local and regional levels.

What are human rights indicators? The definition developed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights refers to information that can be “related to human rights norms and standards; that addresses and reflects human rights concerns and principles; and that are used to assess and monitor promotion and protection of human rights”. Indicators, both qualitative and quantitative, need to be identified and designed to correspond to existing rights formulated in various conventions and treaties.  Indicators have already been elaborated with respect to some political and civil rights. These are usually categorised under three headings: structural, process and outcome indicators, referring to the legal framework in force, the efforts made to implement these rights by the authorities, and the actual situation in specific fields, respectively.

While the first set of rights (namely political and civil rights) whose implementation is to be assessed relate mainly to the State, the economic, social and collective rights are of high relevance the work of local authorities and therefore of the Congress. 

This is why it is highly likely that the Congress will concentrate its efforts to observe the situation of  human rights at local and regional levels by referring to a series of rights that include - but are not limited to – first and foremost, as I have already mentioned, the right to non-discrimination, but also the right to assembly, freedom of expression and access to justice as well as the right to education,  work,  health, social protection and local public services, housing and respect for private and family life (particularly with regards to access to personal data and data protection).

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to add in conclusion that the delivery of human rights, their exercise in our local and regional communities and prevention of their violations must be effectively assessed. For us in the Congress, our process of assessing the situation of local and regional democracy in individual European countries is the best way to meet local and regional elected representatives and to make them aware of their responsibilities in preventing human rights violations. It is also the best way to encourage them to promote human rights values at local and regional levels, both among fellow elected representatives and among citizens.

I thank you for your attention.