Report on Draft World Charter of Local Self-Government State of discussions - CPL (8) 5 Part II

Dr Gerhard ENGEL (Germany)
Cllr Alan LLOYD (United Kingdom)



1. This report gives information on the preparations for the UN Istanbul +5 event in June 2001, the 5 yearly review of the 1996 UN conference on human settlements and the state of discussions on the draft World Charter of Local Self-Government (hereafter: World Charter or Draft Charter).

Istanbul +5

2. On 2-6 June 2001 a five year review of the UN Istanbul conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) will take place in New York. Local government representatives were very involved in the 1996 Istanbul conference and played an active role in drafting the Istanbul Declaration and Habitat Agenda, the outcome documents of the conference.

3. The Istanbul +5 event will focus on the review of implementation of the Habitat Agenda. The UN General Assembly will review progress, establish obstacles and gaps and identify priorities for the future.

The Habitat Agenda

4. The Habitat Agenda is a broad ranging document that focuses on sustainable urban development. With over half the world population living in urban areas and huge increases in the numbers of urban poor, well-managed, inclusive cities are essential to sustainable development. The Habitat Agenda aims to make the worlds cities safer, healthier and more equitable and its key commitments are based around shelter, poverty eradication, environmental management, economic development, governance and international cooperation.

5. The Habitat Agenda is firmly based on partnership and outlines local government as ‘our closest partners’ in implementation. It identifies 20 key commitments one of which is effective decentralisation and the strengthening of local authorities.

6. Istanbul +5 will focus on the two key themes of ‘Shelter for all’ and ‘Sustainable human settlements’. National governments are producing country reports which identify how they have implemented the Habitat Agenda.

Istanbul +5 Preparatory Committee

7. The UN Commission on Human Settlements and the Preparatory Committee for Istanbul +5 took place in Nairobi on 12-23 February. The local government input to Habitat is coordinated by the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC), and the presidency is currently held by Metropolis with the secretariat based in Barcelona. The local government delegation included representatives from Canada, Senegal and the UK as well as the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA). WACLAC is preparing a local government declaration for Istanbul +5 and will coordinate various side events in New York.


8. The draft World Charter on Local Self-Government is an initiative started by IULA and developed in partnership with the UN Centre on Human Settlements. The draft is heavily based on the European Charter. It takes the form of a series of commitments that governments would be able to select from in ratifying the Charter.

9. In this report reference can first be made to Ms Doganoglu's report on the initial draft World Charter of Local Self-Government, which she submitted at the Congress's 6th session on behalf of the then Working Group on the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Document CPL (6) 5 also contains relevant information on the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II), held in Istanbul in 1996, further to which, in 1998, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS - Habitat) and the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination signed a consultation document with a view to working together on the preparation of a World Charter of Local Self-Government.

10. The above-mentioned report to the 6th session of the Congress concerned an initial draft of the World Charter prepared by the joint UNCHS/WACLAC Expert Group. At the time the Congress expressed its readiness to participate in an advisory capacity in further work on the World Charter and to cooperate with WACLAC and the United Nations authorities, especially since the initial draft of the World Charter had been modelled on the main lines of the European Charter of Local Self-Government and, in applying the European Charter, the Congress had acquired appropriate experience of implementing such an instrument. The Congress also made a number of suggestions on the actual wording of the initial draft.

11. Secretariat information document CG/INST (7) 5 of 8 September 2000 contains a progress report on the work on the World Charter, submitted to the Institutional Committee of the Congress. The draft text of the Charter had been discussed at a total of eight regional conferences, attended by representatives of local authorities from more than 100 countries and some fifty national governments. The amendments and additions recommended at these conferences had been integrated into the text at an expert meeting convened at UNCHS headquarters in Nairobi on 13 and 14 April 2000, in which the Congress rapporteurs had participated and which had produced a unanimously approved second draft of the World Charter. This text focuses on the constitutional and legal foundations and scope of local self-government, the definition of autonomous local administrative structures, local authorities' responsibilities and financial resources as well as state supervision, public participation in local government and co-operation between local authorities at the national and international levels.

12. An attempt was then made to have the Preparatory Committee for the Special Session of the United Nations, Istanbul + 5, place the Charter on its agenda. Although there was considerable support for this, a need for further discussion became apparent, and the USA and China expressed opposition to the proposed World Charter on the ground that such a proposal was incompatible with their constitutional law and actual situation. Special mention should be made of the support shown by the G 77 and, in particular, the European Union for the proposal, as a basis for decentralisation, local democracy and strengthening of partnership between different tiers of government and also in the light of the "Good Urban Governance" campaign.

13. At its 18th session, held in Nairobi on 13 February 2001, the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements concerned itself with decentralisation and strengthening of local authorities in connection with their role in implementing the Habitat Agenda. The World Charter was virtually the sole focus of the discussions, which did not, however, deal with the wording of the present draft.

14. After it had become apparent beforehand that no agreement would be reached on placing the draft Charter on the agenda for the special session of the United Nations, Istanbul + 5, the secretariat had proposed that the Commission establish its own committee, which would make it possible to conduct formal talks on all outstanding issues. This committee would then report to the Commission at its 19th session in 2003. However, the delegates were unable to agree even on this proposal.

15. There was in fact general agreement on the fundamental importance of decentralisation and on the need for good local administrative structures and strengthened strategic and operational partnerships with local authorities, with non-governmental forces, with all organisations active at the local level and also with the private sector. The pursuit of broad-based dialogue between all the parties concerned and between governments was also deemed necessary on all sides. However, opinions differed on the issue of the World Charter. There was some support for the current draft; the view was also taken that this text required improvement; Japan came out in favour of adopting a mere declaration rather than a convention; the USA and China emphatically opposed the idea of a World Charter and were unwilling to agree to any further discussions on the matter; Canada endorsed this position.

16. After the representatives of associations had also been given the floor, the WACLAC representative made a statement. Referring to paragraph 12 of the Istanbul Declaration, which reads "Recognizing local authorities as our closest partners, and as essential in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, we must, within the legal framework of each country, promote decentralization through democratic local authorities and work to strengthen their financial and institutional capacities …, while ensuring their transparency, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of people, which are key requirements for Governments at all levels", he backed the Executive Director's proposal to set up an intergovernmental committee.

17. The Chinese delegation rejected the objective of a World Charter of Local Self-Government, which, the delegation alleged, was directed against the Chinese constitutional, legislative and administrative system and ignored central government's importance to social and national stability, placing one-sided emphasis on local self-government. Such a Charter would not be good for developing countries and did not correspond to their fundamental interests. It ran counter to the goal of economic development, which required a strong national government. The draft was merely a copy of the European Charter. There should be no uniform model which disregarded regional and national differences. Lastly, with the draft Charter the UNCHS was going beyond its jurisdiction.

18. As the Congress's representatives, we also had an opportunity to speak and drew attention to the fact that the World Charter could make a very effective contribution to achieving the objectives of the Habitat Agenda. It was pointed out that most of the member states of the Council of Europe had signed, and also ratified, the European Charter and made it clear that the 43 member states had extremely diverse traditions in the areas of language, culture, state structures and so on. We underlined the support given to the World Charter by the Committee of Ministers on 9 September 2000. We particularly emphasised the positive experience of the countries of central and eastern Europe in implementing the European Charter, especially as a means of placing economic development on a sounder footing. Lastly, in answer to the Chinese delegation, we pointed out that no state could be obliged to sign even a World Charter, if it was unable to reconcile this action with its constitution, and that neither the European Charter nor the World Charter constituted a uniform model for the entire world, but rather each state could piece together the parts that were consistent with its own situation (an "à la carte" model). We confirmed the Congress's further support for the consultation process. In a subsequent statement Dr Hoffschulte referred to the misunderstandings that may arise, in the case of certain governments, from use of the terms "self-government" and "autonomie locale".

19. Despite the agreement voiced by all the participants on the fundamental issues of decentralisation, etc., the session did not succeed in transforming the so-far informal dialogue into a formal inter-governmental dialogue with the participation of the associations, for instance in the context of a committee. In the end, the secretariat suggested forming a working group, with the aim of giving further consideration to a World Charter at the Commission's 19th session in 2003.

20. To sum up, the impression was that local authorities' fundamental role in implementing the objectives set at the Istanbul conference was universally acknowledged and that an understanding of the needs of the situation was giving rise to a commitment to comprehensive dialogue with local authorities, as the most important partner in achieving the Habitat Agenda's goals. It is clear, however, that, so far, insufficient importance has been attached to the fact that, in many parts of the world, governments are worried that the draft World Charter would undermine their own state structures. It can be assumed that a number of other countries are hiding behind the determined stance taken by the USA and China. In the face of these concerns much explanatory work must still be done, in particular by the national associations of local authorities. The subject of a World Charter indisputably remains on the agenda, although success, in the form of a United Nations convention adopted by decision of the General Assembly, is for the time being postponed to a more distant future.

21. We, as Rapporteurs, believe it is important that the Congress supports – in conformity with the objectives of the Council of Europe - the ongoing worldwide dialogue on the principle of subsidiarity and good governance at a local level. The Congress should also encourage international associations of local authorities to continue a permanent dialogue with the national governments of all countries in order to support the draft World Charter on Local Self-government. This Charter is designed to be an instrument for sustainable development of local authorities and will no doubt contribute to strengthening citizens’ participation in the decision making process at the local level, to the development of local economy and improve social cohesion.

22. We are convinced that with its experience based on the European Charter of Local Self-government and as a forum representing local and regional authorities of 43 European countries, the Congress should reiterate its strong support for the draft World Charter of Local Self-government.

23. There remains, an opening for local government to work with national governments within the UN Commission on Human Settlements with a view to agreeing a set of key principles for local democracy on a global basis.


24. The Istanbul +5 process has so far presented some significant challenges to the
important gains made by local government at the Istanbul conference. Local government representatives have had to work hard to defend the commitments made by governments in 1996 in the light of opposition particularly form the US, Chinese, Egyptian and Iranian delegations. The Preparatory Committee certainly demonstrated that the spirit of partnership encapsulated in the Habitat Agenda remains a difficult issue for some governments.

25. Although issues like the World Charter have met with opposition from some governments, the fact that the issues have been so widely discussed and given such a high profile means that there is potential for developing a different set of international principles and a more formal dialogue between international local government representatives and governments in the future. We would like to take this opportunity to thanks Mr Hoffschulte for all the hard work he personally has out into furthering the world charter and we hope that he will continue to work with the United Nations system.