York: The UK’s Human Rights City

discusses whether York’s official status is a cause for celebration, or a case of falling short

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Human rights, a prevalent issue that affects everything from governments, businesses and social relations, right down to the everyday citizen, aims to uphold the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world. This is based on shared values such as dignity, fairness, justice and equality.

On 24 April 2017, the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of York, Councillor Dave Taylor, signed a declaration which made York the UK’s first Human Rights City. The designation was held at the Merchant’s Taylor Hall where Councillor Thomas Rajakovics, of Graz, and York Central MP Rachael Maskell, attended the event. Graz was declared Europe’s first Human Rights City over 15 years ago. The status means that local businesses, residents and organisations, including the City Council and North Yorkshire Police, will now refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their everyday activities and policies.

Of course, human rights and freedoms go back hundreds of years, but the idea of fundamental rights for everyone was born out of the Second World War and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Various other laws and policies followed suit with the UK’s own Human Rights Act 1998. Launched in 2011, the declaration had the support of all the major political parties within the Council and was the result of six years of work and campaigning, organised by the York Human Rights City Network (YHRCN).

YHRCN is a unique partnership between the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, the voluntary sector as well as civil society. The initiative seeks to bridge the gap between human rights held by international bodies, and human rights at a local level. York residents have selected six key areas of priority within the city: education, housing, health, an adequate standard of living, equality and non-discrimination.

Stephen Pittam, from YHRCN, said: “York has the ambition to use human rights in decision-making, promote awareness and debate about human rights, and ensure all residents’ rights are respected. Each existing human rights city has built on its own particular history when seeking to give local content to the label. In both the past and present, York has a strong record of activity in the field of social justice.”

YHRCN aims to engage with people’s real concerns by using a human rights framework to address local priorities and problems, ranging from education, housing and health, to standards of living for residents without any discrimination. In a bid to move away from state-led participation to community-driven engagement, YHRCN draws attention to the need to recalibrate human rights within the current global political context, to make it relevant and fit for purpose.

This represents a challenge for both city governance and human rights practice. Initially, human rights appear a noble aspiration. But of course, problems arise when claiming that York is a Human Rights City.

When we think of human rights, we are often reminded of the contraventions of human rights, which largely occur outside of the UK and Western democratic practice. This is not to say that the West constantly adheres to human rights, but the extent of human rights abuses within the West are comparatively less than that of the developing world.

So we question the extent to which York can be considered a Human Rights City if it is a part of Western democratic practice, a practice which, for the most part, largely upholds human rights at the centre of their polity. York is a privileged site of human rights and this culture of freedom and modernity is in stark contrast to countries around the world where human rights contraventions are made on a daily basis.

It is worthwhile and better to suggest that human rights aid should be a priority for marginalised and unpopular groups such as refugees, asylum seekers, and residents in conflict zones, rather than the comparatively less conflict-ridden area of York. The former are in the most desperate need for human rights, not the residents of York.

The problem with YHRCN is that it presents York and human rights from a culturally advanced perspective. It suggests that all cities with problematic human rights are by default underdeveloped and democratically regressive – everything that York is not. Arguably, declaring York as the UK’s first human rights city directly sets York against certain cities and countries where human rights are taboo. It sets the standards too high when there are countries struggling for basic needs such as food, shelter and water. The civilians in the cities where human rights are in turmoil are completely bypassed or overlooked by this privileged framework.

Carole Tucker argues in a letter to The Press that the idea of human rights: “is a gravy train for lawyers and it is used by their clients to play the system at a cost of millions to the taxpayer.” This conceit of progressive and “better” histories in the West can be damaging to countries with poor human rights, public health, housing and education, to name a few.

Liz Lockey, York Human Rights City Network Coordinator, argues: “York is the ninth most unequal city in the UK (Centre for Cities Report, 2018); it has higher than UK-average numbers of suicides, rough sleepers, youth offenders, young people not in education, employment or training. York decided to use a human rights lens to try to effect change, and enough people and organisations were willing to commit publicly to doing so. Bridport declared themselves a rights-respecting town in January this year, spurred on by York taking the plunge. Swansea and Glasgow are considering becoming human rights cities, although it’s interesting that both of these seem to be local-government-led.”

So, the challenge that is facing YHRCN is in deciding what a human rights city really is and when it is appropriate to apply the name. So far, YHRCN has been driven by several important organisations such as the Centre for Applied Human Rights, North Yorkshire Police, City Council and Explore York, despite describing itself as “a group of local people.”

As of yet, there is no mass movement or ‘culture of human rights’ supporting the initiative. These outcomes are something to strive towards and champion, not preconditions to be ignored. As such, it seems that formal recognition of York as a Human Rights City is premature, not to mention presumptuous.

In response, the York Human Rights website states: “In the UK, we feel passionate about things like education and democracy but the phrase ‘human rights’ gets a bad press. Sometimes we think human rights are important for people in far-flung countries but not here. In fact, the Human Rights Act helped in the struggle for justice surrounding the Mid Staffs Hospital scandal, the Hillsborough disaster and lots of other examples. We think human rights matter in big cases like these and also in the way the government, the police and local councils treat people and make decisions that affect us all.”

There are improvements to be made in the City of York. Its modest size and relative economic prosperity compared to larger and more industrial northern towns has made it a desirable space to live, work and study. However, such pressures have raised prices and created inequality within the city. Among those effected by inequality are the city’s minority ethnic population, which was 11 per cent of the total population in 2009.

YHRCN aims to create a culture of human rights, cultivating a counter-narrative to the dominating one of threat and conflict. Identifying local and specified rights seems a good way to avoid and avert hostility towards the Human Rights Act, pushing for widespread support for rights when separated from the polarised debates surrounding the Act. The Network argues that human rights are not just about protecting unpopular groups, they are also about protection and a means of problem solving for all.

The new status aims to start a different kind of conversation surrounding human rights and challenges the wave of negative press largely associated with the field.

Lockey told Nouse exactly what this means for the everyday resident in York:

“The declaration [of York] as a Human Rights City is a statement of intent. There are around 100 human rights cities globally, and seven in Europe. There is no accreditation or certification – it’s simply about the anchor institutions in a city coming together to agree to adopt a rights-based approach. In York, all four major political parties supported the move, and the network includes the City Council, North Yorkshire Police, the local NHS trusts, both universities in the city, and a number of civil sector organisations. York is slightly unusual in that the movement is grass-roots led; the decision to declare as a human rights city is usually a local government initiative.

“About four years ago, the network carried out a survey (online and in the street) to ask the people of York which rights were most important to them. York chose housing; education; health and social care; equality and non-discrimination; a decent standard of living.

“It’s not something that everyone has heard about (just as not everyone knows that York is also a Fair Trade City, City of Sanctuary, Dementia-Friendly City); the more people that do know about it however, the better able York’s citizens are to ensure they can access and enjoy their rights.

“One of the challenges in Human Rights is that there’s a tendency to think that it’s something that happens elsewhere – overseas, corrupt dictators, torture, rigged elections, etc. or that it’s a system for the undeserving. When people know that rights are for everyone, and include the socio-economic rights that affect their daily lives, they are in a better position to claim those rights.

“What the declaration actually means is that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that people in York are involved in decisions that affect them.”

York will join more than 30 Human Rights Cities worldwide, including Graz and Vienna in Austria, Seattle and Washington D.C. in the US, and Edmonton in Canada.

The YHRCN focuses on four key strategies: advocacy, networking, events and research. As part of the advocacy strategy, York Human Rights City sits on the Human Rights and Equalities Board and other relevant bodies at the City of York Council (CYC). They advise on current issues and help provide trainings for staff at CYC and at other relevant local agencies. YHRCN also hosts numerous events around the city, such as the annual Human Rights Culture and Film Festival. Past projects include improving hate crime, reporting processes, and assessing the North Yorkshire Police’s rights-based approach.

Lockey told Nouse about some successful projects: “A key piece of work, now in its third year, is the annual human rights indicator report; this year’s report will be launched at a public meeting on Monday 10 December, which is Human Rights day, and coincides with the 70th anniversary of the UN adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (7pm, The Crescent). For each of the five priority rights, we asked charities working in that area to come up with two to three indicators that would enable us to measure progress over time. These indicators give a snapshot of how things are in the city; this year’s report will include this statistical data but its main focus is on the right to housing in the city. This is a way to hold public institutions to account, as well as recognise progress. The City Council led the creation of a Human Rights and Equalities Board to work on the issues highlighted by the indicator report.

“We are currently working on a CYC-sponsored project called Community Voices. This recognises that local government consultations often attract responses from the same people, and miss those on the margins, whereas a rights-based approach requires meaningful engagement and participation. We have a small team of volunteers who go out and spend time talking to people about what is important to them, what issues they have, what ideas. Much of this work to date has been with homeless people, and those using homeless services, but we are also engaging people in less affluent areas of York.

“We also run workshops in each school term for secondary pupils of various ages, introducing ideas around human rights and discussing the relevance in their lives. We have several projects we’d like to start in the new year, aiming to raise awareness of human rights locally, and help people and groups to challenge discrimination.”

To help incorporate human rights into people’s everyday lives, YHRCN have already enlisted the support of several organisations within the city. As well as securing support from the City Council and North Yorkshire Police, they’re also supported by the local LGBT Forum and City of Sanctuary York, a movement which hosts talks and helps refugees and asylum seekers.

Jake Furby, the Secretary of Health and Wellbeing Co-ordinator of York LGBT Forum, says: “We’ve been involved since the very beginning. York is a beautiful place to live, it combines a lot of history with great activism in the city and a human rights movement. We work with human rights a lot with our members, especially with our trans members. An everyday thing, just going to the GP, for example, is somewhere trans people might experience discrimination or be unable to access services.”

Human rights, in accordance with the Human Rights Act, simply cannot be alienated from the global, political system and cannot be fully effective until the rights are appropriated and adapted by local authorities, charities and organisations. In other words, a culture which truly fosters human rights requires a consensual belief among society that human rights are pivotal to everyday life. City and local-level work can play a role in helping human rights in York come to fruition.

York as a Human Rights City marks this shift between state-led governance to multi- actor governance, where cities, charities and local authorities can begin to assert their power and voice their views and concerns.

The challenges facing human rights implementation, such as localising an international framework, addressing multiculturalism and framing rights to specific audiences, will impact the city in numerous ways. York proves an interesting site for a Human Rights City campaign because of a confluence of history, politics and people, and the fact that this confluence sets itself against dominant human rights discourse prioritises the developing world.

The focus on participation or structured engagement, everyday concerns, positive and enabling perspectives and socio-economic rights speaks to the need to recalibrate human rights in the current context of globalisation and governance to make them fit for the everyday residents in York.

I think it is necessary to be critical and conceptualize exactly what the declaration of York as the UK’s first Human Rights City means for residents in York, as well as what this means for human rights as a whole. Whether York as a Human Rights City is just another movement espoused from the liberal elite with little impact on the city is yet to be seen.

If you found the topics discussed in this article interesting, why not catch up on the annual Human Rights Festival last weekend (16th -18th November) – a mixture of human rights debates in radio, theatre and film.