Cities and human rights reimagined: from unitary actor to local arena?

Submission Number:


Session Organizer:

Moritz Baumgärtel  
Utrecht University


Barbara Oomen  
University College Roosevelt (Utrecht University)


Martha Davis  
Northeastern University School of Law


Cities have recently come to be regarded as key actors in human rights innovation and implementation. However, apart from 'human rights cities' adopting this as a specific identity, they also form new arenas where local actors shape human rights discourse and law. This panel adopts an actor-oriented approach to open the black box of political invocation of human rights at the local level. Which actors invoke them and for what reasons? The contributions also draw attention to horizontal alliances closed locally (or through transnational city networks) and vertical partnerships in the context of multi-level governance. Finally, it addresses whether and why local actors advance human rights as a language, an ideology or as a branch of law and explores how these practices challenge established dichotomies of rights holders and duty bearers.

Primary Keyword:

Human Rights, International Human Rights

Secondary Keyword:

Legal Pluralism


Pulling human rights back in? Local authorities, international law and the reception of undocumented migrants

The category of the 'undocumented' migrant is often seen as the quintessential non-status under international law, offering states a lot of discretion but very few practically accessible rights for migrants. At the same time, local authorities are increasingly seeking to assert themselves vis-à-vis their national authorities when dealing with the reception of 'irregular' immigrants. This paper explores a recent trend that could potentially resolve both conundrums: the invocation of international human rights law by local authorities in defence of irregular migrants. It is argued that city authorities' engagement of human rights may force international bodies to apply and develop legal norms in this area. Within this story of multilevel governance, governments are under increasing pressure to live up to legal and moral standards that they have so far successfully avoided. This paper discusses two examples to illustrate this argument. The first is the vocal support by the Dutch City of Utrecht of a legal case concerning emergency social assistance for irregular migrants before the European Committee of Social Rights. The second example concerns sanctuary cities in the US, and specifically San Francisco, and their deep yet inchoate link to human rights. The paper closes with a reflection on the potential trajectories of this trend. Drawing on recent human rights theories, it will be argued that the existence of a sense of duty among municipalities is key to future developments.


Moritz Baumgärtel  
Utrecht University

Decoupling and teaming up: Transnational Refugee City Networks in refugee welcome and integration in Europe

In Europe, the influx of refugees over the past years has led to a rise of Transnational Refugee City Networks (TRCN). Such networks of local authorities, with names like Solidarity Cities, Integrating Cities, Cities of Migration or Cities of Refuge play an important role in refugee welcome and integration, but have received little scholarly attention to date. Seeking to fill this gap, this investigates 25 of such TRCN to provide both a typology of these networks and of their main activities. These include sharing information, seeking international support, story-telling, show-casing and shaming governments. It concludes with a section on what the rise of these networks means for the governance of refugee welcome and integration in the context of multi-scalar governance.


Barbara Oomen  
University College Roosevelt (Utrecht University)

Ladies Swimwear: the latest test in dealing with multiculturalism? The burkini debate as a challenge for ensuring freedom of religion at the local level.

National governments are considered key actors in respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights. However, in the realization of freedom of religion (art. 9 ECHR), local authorities often play a decisive role. In particular, in the context of covering swimwear for Muslim women, municipalities are given broad discretion as a result of the lack of binding legislation and jurisprudence. The question the authors want to answer is "How do municipalities handle this new multicultural issue through regulations and in practice?" Previous research has shown that only a minority of Flemish local authorities allow the burkini. This article wants to uncover what makes municipalities susceptible to the implementation of article 9 ECHR and how this occurs, thereby contributing to theory on meso-level human rights implementation. Hypothetically, the present political climate, personal convictions of civil servants and sensitization by civil society may play a role. A thick description and analysis of three case studies will be offered, selected on the basis of the previous research mentioned above. The aim is to reconstruct the origin of swimwear regulation, its application in practice and the used discourse. The authors will start with a literature review on the central themes of this debate. Hereafter, relevant documents will be analyzed and semi-structured interviews will be conducted with the actors involved in the process. Nvivo will be used for thematic and discourse analysis.


Cathérine Van de Graaf  
University of Ghent

Presenting Co-Author

Tess Heirwegh  
Ghent University

Reproduction of human rights norms: tracking networks of engagement in Amsterdam.

This paper discusses the reproduction of human rights norms in today's diverse cities. Cities are places of contradictions. The wealthy share the same space with the poor and those in power are mutually dependent of those marginalised. In this context human rights norms are frequently mobilised by different actors in the city: municipalities use international standards in formulating local policies and migrant movements engage with the language of rights to claim their space in the city. Yet in the light of the idea that cities could provide an apt setting for localised human rights mainstreaming, this paper asks if this can be considered as a neutral practice. By tracking the networks of actors involved in this practice in Amsterdam, this paper discusses the ways different actors collaborate and clash in the reproduction of human rights norms. What actors engage with human rights in the debate on urban diversity and migration, on the basis of which interests and how do actors interact and negotiate their interests? Analysis of actors' communication strategies reveals the distinct difference between interests themselves and the 'talk about interests': how actors frame their interests based on their social world. This approach produces an understanding of what the effects of engagement with human rights norms are. Where in some cases the language of rights leads to new collaborations and visibility, in other instances it functions merely as an instrument of control.


Lisa Roodenburg  
T.M.C. Asser Institute

Global assemblages of the right to adequate housing

My paper explores how the international human right to adequate housing is assembled through the interaction of international institutional and local urban actors in a few selected international forums, such as the Cities Alliance. More precisely, by adopting a multi-sited ethnographic method I aim to show that municipal governments, their transnational organizations and urban civil society movements are already reshaping the human rights discourse. I argue that for the human rights theory to better understand and conceptualize the international human rights processes, it has to present them through the voices of the involved actors themselves. There are several international and transnational forums where international and local urban actors discuss the right to the adequate housing. Together they develop policies and norms that are aimed at concrete local political debates as well as at 'global' ones. I want to describe this process of assembling the right to the adequate housing and the role of urban actors within it by following ideas and associations flowing within and between some of these forums. Questions such as who contributes which ideas and why they are accepted will guide me. By using the insights of the sociology of associations and closely observing the interaction of these eclectic actors, I aim to understand the process of assemblage from within. Most importantly, it will be the voices of the actors themselves that will unveil the dynamic of assembling.


Miha Marcenko  
Asser Institute/University of Amsterdam