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Towards a Decentralization of Human Rights: The Rise of Human Rights Cities



All over the world, more and more cities explicitly base their policies on international human rights law. Whilst these human rights cities differ in size, approach and focus, they all hold the promise of strengthening social justice at the local level, and realizing abstract human rights ideals.
Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights
in an Urban World
Exploring Opportunities, Threats
and Challenges
Edited by Thijs van Lindert & Doutje Lettinga
The Strategic Studies Project initiated by Amnesty International Netherlands
Published in September 2014 by
Amnesty International Netherlands
Cover image:
“View of Manhattan from the Empire State Building looking North” © guvendemir/Getty Images.
The photo image appears with full credits in the volume.
1Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights
in an Urban World
Exploring Opportunities, Threats
and Challenges
Edited by Thijs van Lindert & Doutje Lettinga
The Strategic Studies Project initiated by Amnesty International Netherlands
2Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
The Strategic Studies Project is an initiative of Amnesty International Netherlands. Since 2013 the Strategic Studies Project has
been mapping out national and international social, political and legal developments which can affect the future of human rights
and the work of Amnesty International in particular. Contact:
Also in this series:
Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost (eds.), Debating The Endtimes of Human Rights. Institutions and Activism in a
Neo-Westphalian World, July 2014.
Changing perspectives on human rights
3Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
Table of Contents
List of Authors and Editors
Introduction 7
Towards a Decentralization of Human Rights: the Rise of Human Rights Cities 11
Esther van den Berg & Barbara Oomen
Cities as Glocal Defenders of Rights 17
Benjamin Barber
Megacities as Diplomatic Powers in a Neo-Medieval World: Interview with Parag Khanna 23
Ths van Lindert
Forced Evictions and ‘The Right to the City’ 29
Marie Huchzermeyer
Housing and Human Rights 35
Margaret Kohn
The City’s Commons: Privatization vs. Human Rights 41
Gregory Smithsimon & Sharon Zukin
Human Rights and the New Military Urbanism 45
Stephen Graham
Securing the City: Challenges to Human Rights 51
Rivke Jaffe & Erella Grassiani
References 57
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List of Authors and Editors
Benjamin Barber is the author of If Mayors Ruled the
World (2013), and sixteen other books, a Senior Research
Scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at
The City University of New York, Founder and President of
the NGO CivWorld which is leading the project for a Global
Parliament of Mayors as part of the Interdependence
Movement. He is also Walt Whitman Professor of Political
Science Emeritus at Rutgers University.
Esther van den Berg is a political scientist with an interest
in civil society studies and human rights. At University
College Roosevelt (Utrecht University), she is a researcher
on the project ‘The added value of human rights’ on human
rights cities. She wrote a dissertation on the inuence of
NGOs on Dutch human rights policy (2001). She has been
working for the Netherlands Institute for Social Research
(SCP) since 2003. She published on Europeanization,
citizenship, and Dutch civil society.
Stephen Graham is the author of Cities under Siege
(2011). He is Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle
University’s School of Architecture, Planning and
Landscape. Professor Graham’s research centres on
relations between cities, technology and infrastructure,
urban aspects of surveillance, and connections between
security, militarisation and urban life.
Erella Grassiani is a post-doc researcher at the Centre for
Urban Studies and the Department of Human Geography,
Planning and International Development Studies and a lecturer
at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the
University of Amsterdam. Her research is part of a wider project
on privatization and globalization of security, and focuses
specically on Israel/Jerusalem and security mobilities.
Marie Huchzermeyer is Professor at the School of
Architecture and Planning and the University of the
Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research addresses
questions of policy and rights as they relate to informal
settlements, private rental stock and housing more broadly,
and more recently the intersection between urban planning
and human rights.
Rivke Jaffe is an associate Professor at the Centre for
Urban Studies and the Department of Human Geography,
Planning and International Development Studies at the
University of Amsterdam. She is currently leading a ve-
year anthropological research program on public-private
security assemblages in Kingston, Jerusalem, Miami,
Nairobi and Recife.
Parag Khanna is the Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute,
Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Adjunct
Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at
the National University of Singapore, Visiting Fellow at LSE
IDEAS, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign
Relations, and Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of
International Affairs. Khanna wrote several articles on the
rise of (mega)cities, see:
Margaret Kohn is a Professor of Political Theory at the
University of Toronto. She is the author of Radical Space
(Cornell University Press) and Brave New Neighborhoods:
The Privatization of Public Space (Routledge). Her new book
project is entitled: Local Justice: Place, Property, and the Right
to the City. You can follow her on twitter via @peggy443.
Doutje Lettinga is a Research Fellow at the Strategic
Studies Project of Amnesty International Netherlands.
She holds a doctorate in Sociology at the VU University
Amsterdam and has master degrees in History and Political
Science of the University of Amsterdam. Prior to joining
Amnesty, Doutje worked as a researcher and consultant,
including for Human Rights Watch, the EU Fundamental
Rights Agency, and the European Commission. She is a
Senior Fellow of Humanity in Action.
Ths van Lindert is a Research Fellow at the Strategic
Studies Project of Amnesty International Netherlands. He
obtained a Master in both Sociology and Political Science
at the University of Amsterdam. Ths is a Senior Fellow
of Humanity in Action and participated in the Diplomatic
Studies Program of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
Barbara Oomen is Dean of the University College
Roosevelt and Professor of The Sociology of Rights (Utrecht
University). She is the project leader of the Platform31
project ‘The added value of human rights’ on human rights
cities, and the former chair of the Netherlands Platform on
Human Rights Education. Her research concentrates on the
interaction between law and society, and she is the author
of Rights for Others: the slow home-coming of human rights
in the Netherlands (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Gregory Smithsimon is associate Professor of Sociology
at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of September
12: Community and Neighborhood Recovery at Ground Zero
(NYU Press, 2011), and, with Benjamin Shepard, of The
Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s
Public Spaces (SUNY Press, 2011). His current project is
‘Liberty Road: African American Middle-Class Suburbs
Between Civil Rights and Neoliberalism’, which focuses on
how suburban space reframes political conicts for middle-
class African Americans.
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College
and the CUNY Graduate Center. Zukin is the author of
several books on cities, culture and consumer culture,
including including Naked City: The Death and Life of
Authentic Urban Places (Oxford University Press), The
Cultures of Cities (Blackwell), Landscapes of Power
(University of California Press), and Loft Living (Rutgers
University Press). Her books have received the C. Wright
Mills Award and the Jane Jacobs Award for Urban
Communication, and she has received the Robert and Helen
Lynd Award for career achievement in urban sociology.
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The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
Why are human rights mostly targeted from an (inter)
national perspective? Is there a blind spot for human
rights at the level of cities? In which ways – positively
and negatively – might global urbanization and the
rise of megacities affect human rights? How can we
improve international frameworks so that human rights
are protected or promoted by cities? Is there a need for
a paradigm shift to address the huge human rights
challenges manifesting in cities all around the world?
Connecting human rights with the
urban world
The reason for this publication on cities and human rights
is that mass urbanization and the growth of existing and
emerging cities with signicant economic and political
power might have far-reaching implications for human
rights. The largest of these cities - known as ‘megacities’
- are and will continue to be mostly in the developing
world. The massive inux of people into cities takes place
against a background of geopolitical, economic, social
and technological developments that together pose new
challenges and opportunities for the global human rights
regime and the daily lives of people. In order to be effective
and meaningful, human rights NGOs must understand and
anticipate the consequences of a world in which by 2050
two thirds of the world’s population lives in cities.
Although the effects of urbanization on the environment and
human development have triggered some studies, cities
and human rights are still separate elds in academia as
well as in the everyday work of practitioners. Sociologists
and geographers with an interest in cities and urbanization
hardly approach such trends from a rights perspective.
Urban planners, politicians and policymakers only
marginally integrate human rights in their work. In turn,
human rights scholars and advocates have generally turned
a blind eye to what happens at the city level. International
human rights NGOs like Amnesty International, born and
raised in a 20th century world marked by nation states
and US hegemony, function within the connes of a state-
centered paradigm. They tend to focus their activism
and advocacy almost exclusively on states or multilateral
institutions like the United Nations, even though non-state
actors such as multinational corporations have in recent
years received increasing attention for their impact on
human rights.
These disciplinary and professional boundaries are
unfortunate because human rights practitioners can benet
from insights generated in other elds into urbanization,
socio-economic inequality, privatization of public space
and security, or the role of cities in global governance.
Mapping the human rights implications of these larger
trends will help practitioners think ahead, understand
and seize opportunities, and prepare for future challenges
so their methods and approaches are effective in a
world increasingly dened by cities, mayors and urban
In turn, local politicians and policymakers would benet
from a better understanding of human rights so they can
integrate a rights perspective in public-policy responses
to present-day challenges and urban planning. After all,
cities have a duty to defend human rights. As Thomas
Hammarberg, then Human Rights Commissioner of the
Council of Europe and previous Secretary General of
Amnesty International (1980-1986), stated in a debate at
the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in 2011:
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The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
“While governments and national parliaments ratify
international treaties on behalf of the state, the day-to-
day work of implementing human rights standards often
rests on the shoulders of local and regional authorities.
They too are bound by these agreements. Local and
regional authorities are often directly responsible for
services related to health care, education, housing,
water supply, environment, policing and also, in many
cases, taxation. These matters affect people’s human
rights, not least their social rights.”
Hammarberg rightly emphasized that the observance of
human rights is also a local matter. But while his speech
gave the debate on ‘human rights and the city’ a promising
start, this debate now seems to have come to a standstill
or has at least diffused to the margins. Even though some
institutions still focus on the integration of rights into
local policymaking, service delivery, and administrative
practices, such as the EU Fundamental Rights Agency or
UN-Habitat, these initiatives are scarce and hardly look
beyond present-day developments.
With this collection of critical essays on cities and human
rights, the Strategic Studies Project of Amnesty International
Netherlands aims to reinvigorate a necessary debate that
should help put human rights (back) on the urban agenda
and make human rights practitioners (re)discover cities as
important targets. We asked academics and practitioners
from varied (disciplinary, regional and professional)
backgrounds to reect on developments they deem
important for their future implications for human rights. The
result is a collection of critical, thought-provoking and at
times disturbing essays on different but often intersecting
developments taking place in and around cities that pose
perils to and offer opportunities for human rights.
Cities: challenges and opportunities
for human rights
Urban policymakers have not been entirely blind to human
rights. As Esther van den Berg and Barbara Oomen show
in their contribution to this collection, international human
rights made their entrance on the urban agenda around the
turn of the century. Over time, cities and human rights have
grown closer, partly as a result of the focus of international
human rights bodies on the local implementation of
universal norms and standards, the decentralization of
social policy and city branding strategies. In their essay,
the authors describe a trend in which cities worldwide
increasingly identify themselves as ‘human rights cities’.
While approaches and motives vary, several cities explicitly
base urban policies on (parts of) international human
rights treaties. It remains to be seen to what extent this
trend will materialize beyond city marketing initiatives,
but the fact that cities like San Francisco are ratifying
international human rights treaties and committing
themselves to binding norms that national governments
still eschew, is a promising sign that cities are becoming
independent human rights players.
If there is anyone who believes in the unfullled potential
of cities in global governance, it is Benjamin Barber. The
author of the thought-provoking book If Mayors Ruled the
World (2013) and the second contributor to this volume
argues in his essay that cities are much better suited
to respond to global challenges such as environmental
degradation or immigration than nation states. In his
essay, Barber gives three theoretical arguments why he
believes cities, by operating glocally, are more likely to
protect and defend global human rights agendas than
nation states, whose effectiveness is undermined by
inter-state competition, parochial interests, and territorial
sovereignty. Barber illustrates his arguments with concrete
and convincing examples of cities taking a lead in
defending environmental rights and the rights of minorities
and particularly migrants. Facing the practicalities of
undocumented migrants in their midst who contribute to
urban economies, cities across the world start issuing ‘city
visas’ to undocumented migrants. Herewith immigrants
are recognized as citizens with (some) rights and granted
access to public services, something that national
governments are unwilling to do.
Barber is not the only one who signals that cities are often
more progressive than states in certain human rights
domains. In his interview with Ths van Lindert (the third
contribution), the International Relations scholar Parag
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The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
Khanna likewise points to the positive inuence cities can
have on the rights of migrants. Another relevant development
for human rights that Khanna articulates is that megacities,
which hold more than 10 million people, are becoming
important diplomatic actors alongside states. Around 1950
New York was the only city with over ten million inhabitants.
Today, there are more than twenty of these megacities
around the world, including Mexico City, São Paulo, Delhi,
Mumbai and Tokyo with a population density outnumbering
20 million. According to Khanna, these global hubs and
megacities increasingly become inuential diplomatic actors
due to their political, demographic and economic power,
sometimes conducting their own foreign policy (‘diplomacity’)
independent from the national government. Khanna pleas for
‘a geographical frame shift’ to the level of cities. If human
rights NGOs want to be effective in promoting human rights,
he argues, they must reorient their strategies to include
city ofcials as new targets. They should also participate in
intercity networks as new forums in addition to or replacing
traditional channels such as states and the UN.
While cities provide ample opportunities that human
rights practitioners should seize, our authors also point at
the human rights risks of urbanization and the emergence
of megacities. One of these worrisome developments is
the growing inequality that manifests itself in cities. On
the one hand, the wealth of nations is intimately linked
to the prosperity of their cities, just like the increasingly
multipolar world is linked to the rise of megacities in
non-Western parts of the world. Jonathan Kalan (2014)
made a strong argument in that we need to underline
how megacities drive economies, diminish poverty,
and empower residents by providing new opportunities,
raising incomes and increasing social mobility. By only
emphasizing their economic, social, and environmental
problems, we may discount the profound and positive
impact they have on people’s lives and the capacity their
residents possess. On the other hand, when accompanied
with weak economic growth and non-existent or
ineffective distributive policies, rapid urbanization has
been associated with poverty and an increasing gap
between the rich and poor within countries, not only in
terms of income but also in social, cultural, spatial and
political terms. Particularly in the Global South - despite
the growth of states like Brazil, India, South Africa and
China - mega slums, poverty and other urban divides are
persistent phenomena that continue to endanger socio-
economic rights to water, health, education and housing
(UN-Habitat 2011).
The fourth and fth essays address the implications of
urbanization and inequality for the rights of citizens, in
specic the right to housing. The authors of these essays
both examine this issue through a moral philosophical
lens. Marie Huchzermeyer investigates how the concept
of The Right to the City of French urban sociologist Henri
Lefebvre (1901-1991) may be a helpful instrument for
human rights practitioners and urban movements to
counter forced evictions. She illustrates how Lefebvre’s
ideas can be used to mobilize for laws and regulations that
ensure the rights of the urban poor to affordable housing,
municipal services, and participation in urban planning.
Margaret Kohn, in turn, draws on Lockean liberal theory
to balance private property rights with the human right
to adequate housing. She makes a strong argument that,
given the rapid growth of megacities and the precarity of
life in informal settlements in particularly the Global South,
the recognition of this basic right should become a human
rights priority. With their contributions, both authors show
that moral theories can deepen and strengthen the defence
of the rights of people living in informal settlements.
While Huchzermeyer and Kohn point out how urban
expansion is often characterized by informality and
unplanned settlement, the privatization of public space is
the central aspect in the sixth essay of this volume. Sharon
Zukin and Gregory Smithsimon make a plea for the full,
indiscriminate access to public space as a condition for
exercising political rights. Taking New York as example,
the city that gave rise to the global Occupy movement,
they show that privatization of public squares, parks and
other urban places is a global trend that endangers rights
to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They call
on human rights NGOs to support urban movements that
mobilize against the privatization of urban places “as
spaces in which human rights are practiced”.
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The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
The topic of the two last contributions to this volume is
the securitization of cities. In his essay, Stephen Graham
focuses on the trend of militarization of urban security.
Graham shows how cities across the world are copying
and learning from each other’s security approaches that
increasingly rely on military techniques and involve private
security companies. Drawing on post-colonial theories,
he argues that in the name of security the privileged use
pre-emptive policing techniques as a means to control and
suppress marginalized groups; such as (descendants of)
migrants living on the outskirts of Western cities who are
framed as ‘dangerous others’.
The essay of Rivke Jaffe and Erella Grassiani dovetails
with that of Graham, similarly focusing on the privatization
of urban security. They argue this privatization “often
involve[s] a trade-off between security and human
rights, including the rights to privacy, mobility, and equal
treatment before the law”. Using Jerusalem and Kingston
as urban case studies, they illustrate how the outsourcing
of urban policing to private security companies negatively
affects human rights. While certain groups can purchase
public security, others are left in limbo or subjected to
surveillance and the use of force by security companies.
They point at the judicial aws and consequent challenges
for human rights advocates of holding underregulated, in-
transparent rms accountable for potential abuses.
Without aiming for completeness, we have gathered a
wide range of perspectives on possible human rights
threats and opportunities of our increasingly urban world.
However diverse, all contributions demonstrate that the
global emergence of cities brings important human rights
consequences to the fore. By mapping such consequences,
this volume illustrates that a state-centered paradigm
no longer sufces to come to terms with the challenges
of tomorrow. It is time for a conversation amongst human
rights practitioners, city ofcials and urban planners on
how to improve methods and approaches to ensure the
rights of urban dwellers across the world. The authors
show that simple binaries between ‘North’ and ‘South’ or
‘global’ and ‘local’ are not helpful in understanding the
world of tomorrow. Processes of migration, urbanization,
privatization and militarization affect people everywhere
and might actually be interrelated. We need to scrutinize
more in-depth the relationship between positive trends of
rights-promoting, cosmopolitan cities and negative trends
of segregation, privatization and militarization of security
in these very same cities, and their varied and imbalanced
implications for the rights of people across the globe.
Whether we live in Delhi or Dhaka, Amsterdam or Ankara,
Los Angeles or Lagos, Singapore or São Paulo; we have
more in common than we might think. Most of all, we will
all benet from a decentralization of human rights and
globalizing good urban human rights practices.
Thijs van Lindert and Doutje Lettinga
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The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
All over the world, more and more cities explicitly base their
policies on international human rights law. Whilst these
human rights cities differ in size, approach and focus, they
all hold the promise of strengthening social justice at the
local level, and realizing abstract human rights ideals.
In a globalizing world, cities are both “magnets of hope”
and sites of strong social injustice and inequality (Meyer
2009: 10). As the habitat of more than half of the world
population, cities are the places where social problems
become manifest and have to be solved (Barber 2013). With
the evolution of the international human rights system and
its growing emphasis on rights implementation, cities have
increasingly come to occupy centre stage as the logical
loci of human rights realization. Whilst human rights can
hardly be considered to be applied universally in local
settings worldwide, their local relevance has been noticed
by both international organizations and cities worldwide.
Such cities increasingly manifest themselves as human
rights cities, with the strong support of international
organizations. This contribution discusses the rise of
international human rights in urban policies and the
prospects that this offers for localizing human rights.
From global ideals to local practice:
evolution of the international human
rights regime
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights in 1948, the development of the international human
rights regime has slowly evolved from the setting of norms
to their implementation. Initially, much of the energy of the
world community was dedicated to the formulation and
adoption of binding human rights treaties. In 1950, member-
states of the Council of Europe adopted the European
Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
In 1966, the International Covenants on Civil and Political
Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were
formulated in the realm of the UN. These documents were
accompanied by a myriad of other human rights treaties and
resolutions, both global and regional in scope, containing
rights for all and for specic vulnerable groups (women,
children, persons with disabilities), and including both
comprehensive texts as well as categorical texts (Convention
against Torture, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Racial Discrimination) (Brems 2014, forthcoming).
In due time, more emphasis was placed on actual
rights realization. The 1993 World Conference on Human
Rights in Vienna was a focal point in time when states
recognized the importance of human rights implementation
and localization, and agreed on additional monitoring
mechanisms to safeguard human rights. Among other
things, states agreed to draw up national action plans
for the promotion and protection of human rights, and to
establish national human rights institutions to monitor
human rights. States also acknowledged the importance of
human rights education and agreed to the strengthening
of international supervision by special rapporteurs and the
appointment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
(Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 1993).
The enhanced attention for human rights implementation
also led to the expansion of the scope and core content of
human rights, especially in the eld of economic, social
and cultural rights. Monitoring bodies would delineate the
minimum obligations that states have in guaranteeing
specic rights. For instance, the ‘right to the highest
Esther van den Berg & Barbara Oomen
Towards a Decentralisation of Human Rights:
the Rise of Human Rights Cities
12Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
attainable standard of health’ in the International Covenant
of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was outlined in
a general comment of the supervising Committee to the
covenant in 1999. The Committee explained that this right
is not conned to the right to health care, but also:
“(…) embraces a wide range of socio-economic factors
that promote conditions in which people can lead a
healthy life, and extends to the underlying determinants
of health, such as food and nutrition, housing, access
to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation,
safe and healthy working conditions, and a healthy
environment” (as cited by Toebes 2012: 115).
These exercises to specify human rights and human rights
obligations led to more attention for the role of actors
other than the national government in the implementation
of human rights, including NGOs, private or semi-public
service providers and businesses. It also paved the way for
seeing local authorities, which are often responsible for the
delivery of services, as relevant duty bearers that have their
own responsibility to uphold human rights obligations.
As to the formal legal underpinnings, human rights
treaties seldom explicitly refer to actors other than the
national government as being bound by the obligations in
the treaty concerned.1 Local governments, however, are a
constituent element of the national government and the
national government has delegated tasks to them which
subsequently fall under the realm of rights protection
(International Council on Human Rights Policy 2005: 20). In
light of the global trend of decentralization of government
responsibilities such as health care services, housing and
1 The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the
Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are an
exception. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states
that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken
by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of
law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the
best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”
(Article 3), whereas the Convention for the Rights of Persons
with Disabilities states that “the provisions of the present
Convention shall extend to all parts of federal States without
any limitations or exceptions” (Article 4 (5)).
education, local authorities have increasingly become
duty bearers in their own right. As a result, UN supervisory
bodies2 and regional institutions have explicitly recognized
the role of local authorities in giving effect to human rights
in their comments, statements and declarations. The
Council of Europe’s then Commissioner for Human Rights
Thomas Hammarberg (2009), for instance, stated that
both “regional and local authorities have a key role and a
great responsibility for implementing human rights”. One
year later, the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and
Regional Authorities adopted a resolution3 conrming that:
“Protecting and promoting human rights is a
responsibility shared by all the different tiers of
authority within each Council of Europe member state.
Because of the close relationship between citizens and
their elected representatives at this level, local and
regional bodies are best placed to analyse the human
rights situation, identify the relevant problems which
arise and take action to solve them.”
Another important indication of the recognition of human
rights obligations of local authorities is set out in case law.
Illustrations are found in cases before the European Court
of Human Rights and in national courts. In Assadnize v.
Georgia, for instance, the ECHR discussed how:
“The authorities of a territorial entity of the State are
public-law institutions which perform the functions
assigned to them by the Constitution and the law. In
that connection, the Court reiterates that in international
law the expression ‘governmental organisation’ cannot
be held to refer only to the government or the central
organs of the State. Where powers are distributed along
decentralised lines, it refers to any national authority
exercising public functions.”4
2 For references of UN treaty bodies and special
procedures to the obligations of local authorities, see Meyer
(2009: 11-13).
3 Council of Europe (2010) ‘Resolution 296’, Congress of
Local and Regional Authorities.
4 ECHR (2004) ‘Assanidze vs Georgia’, Application no.
71503/01, 8 April.
Towards a Decentralisation of Human Rights: the Rise of Human Rights Cities
13Changing perspectives on human rights
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Another example is a landmark case adjudicated by the
South African Constitutional Court, in which the Cape
Metropolitan Council was summoned to implement a
program to realize the right of access to adequate housing
for people in the area. The court based its ruling on the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights and recognized the right of access to adequate
housing (see also Margaret Kohn’s chapter on this) as the
minimum core content of the right to an adequate standard
of living.5
In sum, these developments in the human rights regime,
coupled with the global governmental shift towards
decentralization, have brought cities and human rights
closer together. Equally important, however, are the
enhanced self-condence and international prole of cities,
as described by Benjamin Barber in this volume. It is cities’
participation in international networks like the United Cities
and Local Governments (UCLG) that strengthens their
international prole and autonomy. Within these networks,
urban actors become acquainted with international human
rights norms, and nd the support and inspiration to
actually integrate them in their policies.
Beyond a state-based approach: the
rise of human rights cities
Thinking about cities as the place where rights are to be
realized is not entirely new. In an often-cited statement
in 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt, as Chair of the commission
that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
underlined how human rights begin close to home, in
the places where we live, work and go to school. “Unless
these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning
anywhere,” she stated.6 A decade later, from the angle of
critical scholarly thought, the sociologist Henri Lefebvre
introduced the idea of the Right to the City or La Droit
5 Constitutional Court of South Africa (2000) ‘Government
of the Republic of South Africa and Others v. Grootboom and
Others’, 4 October.
6 Remarks made by Eleanor Roosevelt (1958) at the
presentation of booklet on human rights, In Your Hands, to
the UN Commission on Human Rights, New York, March 27,
available at:
à la Ville (1967). Marie Huchzermeyer will give a more
thorough analysis of Lefebvre’s theory in her chapter for
this book, but central elements in Lefebvre’s argumentation
were democratization and participation. In seeking to
counterweigh the dominance of capitalism and business
interests, citizens should have a say in the process of
urbanization, in order to create a just, accessible and
enjoyable city (Oomen & Baumgärtel, forthcoming). As we
saw above, it would take a number of decades, and the
shift from standard-setting to implementation that came
with the end of the cold war, before human rights and cities
actually found each other. Whereas human rights cities
come in many shapes and forms, they will be dened here
as cities that explicitly refer to international human rights
norms in their activities, statements or policy.
The term ‘human rights city’ itself has a history that goes
back to the late 1990s, when it was introduced by the
New York-based NGO called the People’s Movement for
Human Rights Learning (PDHRE). The organization saw
the integration of human rights in local communities as a
way to give disenfranchised and vulnerable groups a tool
to improve their living conditions. The PDHRE developed
a methodology to develop a ‘human rights city’: a local
learning community, including citizens, local civil society,
local governments and professionals, jointly working on a
just city, with human rights as guiding principles. Central
elements to this approach were human rights education,
cooperation between stakeholders in a steering group, the
formulation and implementation of action plans, and the
evaluation of human rights activities.
The rst city that put this methodology in practice was
Rosario, Argentina. The history of the military dictatorship
(1976-1983) and the succeeding economic crisis
provided the incentive (past and present injustices) and
infrastructure (the presence of human rights NGOs) to start
this endeavour. In 1997, representatives of civil society
and the local government adopted a declaration in which
they promised to make Rosario a human rights city. In
succeeding years, more cities around the world adopted
the PDHRE’s methodology of becoming a human rights
city, including in countries like Mali, Kenya, Ghana, India,
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Brazil and Canada. The rst European city working with
the PDHRE methodology was the city of Graz, Austria. Here,
in 2001, the city council unanimously decided to become
a human rights city. In doing so, it was supported by an
active academic institution in the eld of human rights
education, committed governors and an involved civil
society (Marks, Modrowski & Lichem 2008: 108-122; PDHRE
2007; Van Aarsen et al. 2013).
The multiple dimensions of human
rights cities
Whereas more and more cities have discovered human
rights as a frame of reference over the past decades, not
all of them have followed the path proposed by the PDHRE.
In considering how cities become human rights cities,
why they do so and determining what the driving forces
are behind the process, it is the variety in approaches to
basing policies on international human rights that is most
Some cities, for instance, adopt a formal declaration
stating their dedication to human rights, or sign up for
international instruments like the European Charter for the
Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City.7 In addition to
this, they can institutionalize their support by forming a
Human Rights Council, as is the case in Graz. Other forms of
institutionalization are human rights monitoring, or explicit
attention for human rights in the municipal budget; as is the
case in Gothenburg, Sweden. In cities that adopt the PDHRE
methodology, the efforts are generally largely driven by civil
society, which can underscore the reference to rights with a
variety of activities: human rights days, training sessions,
organizing human rights activities or festivals.
Some cities, like Utrecht in the Netherlands, base their
policies on the general idea of human rights and seek to
incorporate all human rights instruments in their local
7 European Conference of Cities for Human Rights (2000)
‘European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in
the City’, available at:
policies (Gemeente Utrecht 2011). Others concentrate their
efforts on one particular subset of rights. Barcelona, for
instance, as one of the rst human rights cities in Europe
and the driving force behind the human rights cities
movement, mainly concentrated on combating polarization
and discrimination (Grigolo 2010). Many of the European
cities that focus on combating racism have united in the
European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR).
Other networks of cities work together on inclusion for
the disabled, fair trade, the rights of the child or giving
shelter to refugees as a shelter city. With its dedication to
strengthening women’s rights, San Francisco became the
rst American city to independently ratify CEDAW, with a
number of other US cities following suit (Davis 2007). In
this case, the Women’s Convention was adopted in San
Francisco via a local ordinance.
Just like manifestations of human rights cities vary
substantially, so do motivations to explicitly base policies
on international human rights. In many instances, local
authorities are driven by a desire to assert their autonomy
and to pursue more humane social policies than those
ordained by the central government. The UK city of York
offers a case in point: at a time of strong rights resistance
in the UK, directed against the Human Rights Act, the city
intentionally chooses to frame local policies in terms of
international human rights. It also acts as a shelter city for
refugees, in order to mitigate increasingly severe national
policies (Van Aarsen et al. 2013). Others see human rights
– whether as a whole or a specic subset – as a useful
baseline for policymaking, or an umbrella under which to
unite different policy interests and organizations. Yet others
consider reference to rights as a way to distinguish their city
from others, a tool in the process of city marketing that has
become an important feature in urban policies.
Of course, cities are hardly homogeneous entities. The
driving forces behind the reference to rights in urban
policies differ per city. At times it is civil society, with
strong support from academia. At others, it concerns
members of the city council, an elder(wo)man or a mayor,
sometimes with the involvement of charitable foundations.
Upon close examination, as our research points out, it
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is often one individual who proposes the emphasis on
human rights in local policies and plays a key role in
driving the process forwards. At the same time, all the
cities that have successfully identied themselves as a
human rights city over time have done so because of the
involvement of a broad coalition of governmental and non-
governmental actors. In all cases, there are strong ties to
similar initiatives at the national and the international
level. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)
joined-up governance project forms an example of such
a network connecting cities around the theme of human
rights: it connects European cities and stimulates shared
policymaking in the eld of fundamental rights.8
Conclusion: the future of local human
The rise of human rights cities demonstrates that
international human rights norms have landed in localities
all over the world. In spite of the fact that - from a legal
point of view - local authorities have an obligation to
respect, protect and full human rights, the awareness of
the importance of human rights at the local level is far from
commonplace. There is a widespread ‘awareness gap’ - not
only in cities, but also in national administrations (Accardo,
Grimheden & Starl 2012). It means that for now, human
rights cities comprise a modest group of forerunners in the
global movement of cities.
Nevertheless, cities hold the potential to become hubs of
rights realization at a much larger scale in the future. This
is due in part to the turn towards positive obligations and
social and economic rights that human rights law has
taken over the years. Just as important, however, are the
increase in decentralization of tasks, and in the powers,
diversity and self-awareness of cities worldwide.
With the diversity of populations and interests at the local
level, and the primary responsibility for serving these
populations, cities will increasingly refer to human rights as
the “the lingua franca of global moral thought” (Ignatieff
2001: 53). In referring to international human rights as
a basis for their policies, cities can also demarcate their
autonomy, and become part of a powerful network of global
actors instead of being subservient to the nation states.
This process of ‘glocalization’ also entails a new type of
citizenship that straddles the local and the global.
What, to conclude, would be needed to stimulate the
reference to and the application of human rights at the
local level? For one, this is an increase in clarity on the
legal obligations that cities have towards the respect
for, protection of and fullment of human rights. More
important is a reduction of the awareness gap and a
strengthening of human rights education. In this process,
contacts between local and international actors are key,
and can contribute to a culture of human rights. Such a
culture, paradoxically, will have to align itself with local
traditions and values in order to be truly effective (Merry
2006). In Nuremberg, for instance, the legacy of the Second
World War made it logical to strongly emphasize combating
discrimination. In the Dutch city of Middelburg, with a
long tradition of inclusion of people with disabilities in
education and the workplace, this became the focus of
the human rights efforts. In addition to the creation of a
human rights culture, it is important to institutionalize
urban attention for human rights, whether this occurs via a
human rights council, human rights monitoring or human
rights budgeting. This, after all, ensures that the emphasis
on human rights does not disappear when individuals
change jobs or elections are held.
The importance of emphasis on these processes lies in
Eleanor Roosevelt’s words quoted above: if human rights
do not have meaning at the local level, they cease to have
meaning anywhere. No authority and no locality is better
placed to realize human rights, at this juncture in time,
than the city.
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In a world of dysfunctional states ever less capable of
defending human rights, cities - once thought too parochial
for the job - are increasingly taking on the responsibility.
In domains such as immigrant rights, climate justice and
minority rights it is not states but metro-regions and their
intercity networks that are defending rights glocally; both
locally and globally.
I have made the argument in my book If Mayors Ruled
The World (2013) that in this era of interdependence
and globalization - where the principal challenges are
tough cross-border problems such as climate change,
pandemic disease, immigration, terrorism and anarchic
(or monopolistic!) global markets in capital, labour and
commodities - traditional sovereign nation states are
increasingly unresponsive. And that in the face of this
growing dysfunction nationally, cities are proving that they
can be sites of democracy, pragmatic and problem-solving;
that when they work together, they can actually solve some
of these difcult problems that leave states paralyzed.
Forget presidents and prime ministers; mayors are the ones
who get things done in an interdependent world.
But what about human rights? Can ‘parochial’ cities really
do better than ‘universal’ states in upholding universal
human rights? We know that democracy itself can be tested
by rights claims: majorities sometimes ride rough-shod
over the rights of minorities and individuals (the so-called
‘tyranny of the majority’). We know that in pursuing justice
and equality for the greater number, we may encroach on
the personal liberty and private property of the not-so-many
(the classical struggle of equality vs. freedom). So will a
pivot from states to cities, from presidents to mayors, help
or hurt human rights and the protection of minorities?
The return of the polis and the need
for inversion of the rights model
I want to propose that cities can not only represent
democracy and pragmatism effectively, but can and do
protect human rights no longer adequately protected by
nation states. The striking irony is that cosmopolitan
values and universal rights once deemed to be secured
by ‘universal’ states are today better served by ‘parochial’
cities. Think of gay rights or the rights of undocumented
immigrants: are they better protected in cities or in the US
Congress? Think of the right to a sustainable environment:
is the action taken at the national or the municipal level?
There are good reasons for this inversion of the old model
of rights where higher jurisdictions did better than inferior
(lower) jurisdictions with respect to civil rights, where
‘parochialism’ meant reactionary states and localities, and
cosmopolitanism meant national standards and ideals.
For today cosmopolitanism has been returned to the polis
and it is nations that are looking parochial in the face
of an interdependent and global world. There are three
compelling reasons for the ‘inversion’ rooted in political
theory which I have examined at length in my Strong
Democracy (1984), and The Conquest of Politics (1988):
(1) the city’s priority of democracy, (2) urban diversity, and
(3) the connection between urban public goods and global
human rights. Let me briey explain these three points.
The priority of democracy
First, a belief in the sanctity of rights, embedded in God
or nature, is a necessary foundation for establishing
democracy and as such is, theoretically speaking, pre-
Benjamin Barber
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political; prior to the social contract. But in practice, an
effective human rights regime in which minorities and
individual autonomy are protected depends on democracy.
There is a long tradition of political thought deriving from
T. H. Green (1986[1879]) that understands rights in terms
of a form of positive freedom that is rooted in democracy in
which my work stands.1 The claim to human rights precedes
democracy, but democracy precedes the entrenchment
and securing of human rights. One of the reasons why
human rights have fared so poorly in emerging societies
or in the countries experiencing the Arab spring is that
rights claims are being aggressively but unsuccessfully
advanced under conditions where democracy is weak or
missing. Rights without democracy is no more successful
than democracy without citizens. Now if democracy and
citizenship are more effectively manifested in cities
than at higher levels of government, then far from being
inhospitable to human rights, democratic cities are their
ideal home. This abstract argument is strongly validated
by the role cities are playing in protecting the rights of gay
and transgendered persons, and in moving to protect wholly
defenceless immigrant individuals, families who, when they
are undocumented, live almost exclusively in the world’s
cities. Hamburg is pioneering a system of urban visas that
allow undocumented workers to be registered, while New
York, under new mayor Bill de Blasio, is introducing a ‘city
ID program’ that will give immigrants local rights. And not
just in American liberal cities such as San Francisco and
Denver is gay marriage being recognized, but in less likely
places such as Mexico City.
Urban diversity
Second, the defence of individuals and minority rights
ourishes best in communities that are themselves diverse
and multicultural; dened by plurality and difference.
Because it is difcult to secure minority rights at the
national level, where the ’other’ is a foreigner and solidarity
impels exclusion, tolerance is to be sure especially prized
in mono-cultural and homogenous communities. But it is
far more prevalent in communities of diversity. Cities are
1 For more recent discussions, see Gret Haller (2012) and
Todd Landman (2012).
of course not only dened but constituted by diversity. As
points of communication, transportation and exchange,
almost always located on cross-roads (e.g. rivers, lakes,
seas and intersecting valleys), they invite and embody
multiculturalism and difference. Quite naturally then, they
are inclined to tolerate and ever nurture diversity. Minorities,
artists, solitaries, eccentrics and immigrants have
classically always ed the more suffocating communities
or the rural hinterland to the open air of the city to enjoy its
anonymity, its essential diversity and its liberty.
Urban public goods and global human rights
Third, it is increasingly apparent that public goods -
tolerance, free exchange, clean air and water, a sustainable
environment, right to movement and mobility, and freedom
from discrimination - also turn out to reect global human
rights. In the spirit of ‘glocality’, the interdependence of
locality and globality on our interdependent planet, urban
public goods and global human rights are co-extensive.
Thus, as cities move to advance the agenda of equality,
sustainability, fairness and opportunity, they are at the
same time advancing a global human rights agenda that
affects all humans everywhere. The rights in question here
are the collective rights of humanity, often endangered by
the private claims of individuals and corporations. Some
would say this is a question of private or individual rights
against community or collective rights, but collective
rights is short-hand for the rights of each embodied in the
rights of all. A sustainable environment, for example, is a
necessity of life for every woman and man, not a right of a
collectivity in which individuals do not participate.
Cities fostering rights of migrants and
other minorities
We need not accept on faith as a matter of political
theory these three general points about human rights
and cities. We can nd powerful empirical case studies
that demonstrate how cities can and do defend both the
rights of migrants and minorities and the common rights
of global humanity. I will look briey here at the rights of
immigrants and at environmental rights.
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It is perhaps uncontroversial that cities extend civil rights
to gays and lesbians and license gay marriage, since cities
have long been home to LGBT communities and the politics
of gay rights are relatively uncomplicated, at least in
cities such as San Francisco and Amsterdam. Yet Catholic
Boston and Chicago have also pioneered gay rights (Baim
2008; Neyfakh 2011). Cities ultimately embody their rights
policies in binding legislation, but the real battle is for
public opinion and a democratic majority to enable such
legislation, and it is in cities rather than nation states that
this battle is being fought and won.
It is less obvious that cities should also defend the rights
of immigrants, who when they are undocumented represent
a heavy burden for cities to bear. Yet it is precisely
municipalities that recognize and advance the rights
of minorities under duress. They do so in their inventive
approach to the growing population of those denoted as
’illegals’ from the standpoint of national immigration
authorities, but who nonetheless are an indelible feature of
demographics in cities around the world. As with so many
other challenges, cities are constrained to address the
consequences of injustices and inequalities whose causes
they cannot control. Global capitalism is responsible for
egregious urban inequalities for which municipal governors
bear no responsibility. Undocumented workers are the
result of immigrants pursuing an economic logic of jobs
associated with a global market economy that recognizes
no national borders, yet they cross borders under conditions
where their legal status is dened by a political logic of
sovereign boundaries that treats them as illegitimate.
The city recognizes the economic logic and the civic reality
represented by the presence of undocumented immigrants.
Unlike the state (which both condemns and ignores them),
it chooses to treat them as human beings with human
rights deserving of recognition; and as a practical reality
(they are here!) which must be recognized and addressed.
A respect for rights grows out of practical concerns:
immigrants hold jobs whether or not they hold visas, they
drive cars without being licensed, they earn income without
paying taxes, their children go to school and emergency
rooms without having legal addresses, they obey the law (or
commit crimes) without being registered or having a known
dwelling place. Fix these awkward realities, and cities
for all practical purposes give the rights of immigrants
recognition; whatever their status according to immigration
From the collision of their legal status as undocumented
outsiders and their practical status as urban denizens
comes then a local and pragmatic solution to a thorny
national problem: urban visas, or locally issued Identity
Cards. These urban IDs bestow on immigrants the rights
and responsibilities of residence and in theory can mean
the issuing of licenses and other privileges and even a
right to vote in local elections. The phrase ‘rights and
responsibilities’ is more than a passing phrase: it points to
the fundamental interdependence of the civic obligations
by which democracy is constituted, and the rights which
it protects. Though they have often been decoupled, we
see in in what happens when immigrants are endowed
with rights how the rights they enjoy are coupled with the
responsibilities they take on (registering with the police, for
example, and acquiring licences to drive) and vice versa.
This is perhaps why some see the local path to urban visas
as a potential national path to amnesty and eventual
national citizenship as well (though the rst neither entails
nor depends for its success on the second).
Cities as opportunity for
environmental rights
In the domain of collective rights, no issue is more
urgent than that of climate change. Here too, as with
undocumented immigrants, cities have stepped forward
to do boldly what nation states have been too frightened
or intransigent to do. Cities have manifested an enormous
potential for ecological cooperation. Indeed, they are
already actively engaged in seeking sustainability
within and across their borders in a fashion that is
aimed at securing universal human rights: the right to
an environmentally sustainable world down through the
generations. While such a ‘third generation’ right is not
(yet) embedded in ofcial human rights treaties, climate
change can have a severe impact on human rights
(such as the rights to life, health, food, water, housing,
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development, and self-determination) ofcially adopted in
the core conventions of international human rights law.
While nation states grow ever more dysfunctional, cities
are increasingly proving themselves capable of deliberative
democratic action on behalf of sustainability, both one
by one but also through little known but highly effective
intercity associations. If presidents and prime ministers
cannot summon the will to work for a sustainable planet,
mayors can. If citizens dened by the province and nation
are spectators to their own destiny and tend to think
ideologically and divisively, neighbours and citizens of
towns and cities are active and engaged, and tend to
think publicly and cooperatively. To think, that is to say, in
terms of local public goods as they reect and affect global
human rights.
The devastation of extreme weather events like hurricanes
Katrina and Sandy in the United States, and typhoon Haiyan
in the Philippines notwithstanding, the UN sponsored
Framework meetings aimed at nation states have never
gained traction. The effort to improve and extend the Kyoto
Protocol since Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15), right through
Cancun (2010), Durban (2011), Doha (2012) to Warsaw
in 2013 (COP 19) has engendered only frustration. A less
familiar story, however, is the story of the mayors who also
gathered at Copenhagen (at the invitation of Copenhagen’s
mayor who had formerly been Denmark’s environmental
minister) as a kind of rump urban parliament to do
informally city to city what nation states had failed to do
in their formal (and futile) proceedings. Parochial towns
aimed to protect the world from climate change and thus
to secure global human rights which the nations holding
global responsibility had failed to achieve.
With 80% of carbon emissions coming from within
metropolitan regions, it was clear to the mayors that cities
could make a difference even when states did nothing. And
with 90% of cities built on water – rivers, lakes, seas and
oceans – it was clear to them that if they did not act, they
would likely become the rst victims of climate change and
ocean rise. They also knew that there were already intercity
associations engaged in emission reductions. Their actions
converged with the activities of such intercity associations
as ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental
Issues; the C-40 Cities Leadership Group (now 65 cities);
Europe’s EnergyCities; and the EU’s Covenant of Mayors,
a group of European cities aiming to reduce emissions by
20% by 2020.
Formal city networks such as ICLEI and the C-40 are not
the whole story. The key relationship between citizenship,
democracy and environmental rights is reected in not
just these urban-based NGOs, but in concerned groups
of citizens with environmental agendas that network
through journals and on-line sites, citizens’ collectives,
as well as social ’movements’ with arms such as 350.
org, Bill McKibben’s climate movement. Useful on-
line informational websites such as,, and the Streetblogs
network abound. In the crucial domain of sustainability, a
few stand out, including the Garrison Institute’s site, Grist.
org, and especially Sustainable Cities Collective. City-to-
city cooperation takes place then at the civil society and
citizen level, on and off the web, where borrowing, imitation
and shared experimentation are as important as formal
governmental networking.
Individual cities have also pioneered emission-
reduction programmes tailored to their particular urban
environments that can be imitated by other cities with
like circumstances. Three salient projects in Los Angeles,
New York and Bogota have both embodied and been
inspired by analogous programmes in other cities. In
Los Angeles, the target was the port; in New York, the
aging building infrastructure; in Bogota the car-clogged
surface transportation system. These programmes are
not technically ‘rights’ programmes, but in putting
environmental sustainability for the planet at the centre of
their concern, they in fact are powerful defenders of human
rights to health, food, water and housing, for instance.
When Antonio Villaraigosa became mayor of Los Angeles,
he moved to address carbon emissions. The port of LA –
America’s largest – was responsible for up to 40% of the
city’s emissions. Villaraigosa embarked on a programme
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of public-private initiatives focused on getting container
ships and tankers to turn off their idling diesel engines
while in port. Over his term, Villaraigosa nearly halved port
emissions resulting in citywide reductions in greenhouse
gases of almost 20%.
In New York City during the same period, as part of his
PlaNYC program calling for congestion fees and other
green measures, Mayor Michael Bloomberg targeted the
Big Apple’s energy weak spot: a building infrastructure as
old as any in the nation. It leaked heat in the winter and
air conditioning in the summer. Bloomberg’s insulation
standards for new construction and mandatory retro-
tting of old stock, along with some special measures like
painting the city’s ubiquitous black tar rooftops white,
resulted in a signicant reduction in energy wasted;
perhaps 8% of total energy usage.
In Bogota, Colombia, inefcient public transportation on
roads clogged with private cars not only wasted energy but
created burdensome commuting times of three hours each
way for workers from suburban favelas trying to get to inner
city jobs. Mayor Antanus Mockus introduced a new system
of surface transportation. The impact on both emissions
and trafc ow of this rapid transit system was immediate:
for roughly 5% the cost of building an underground, Bogota
got a surface system that pulled people from cars to buses
and cut commuting times by two thirds, improving working
conditions for hundreds of thousands of commuters even as
it curbed carbon emissions.
Three cities, three different city-specic approaches, each
one focusing on the ‘unofcial’ right to sustainability and
resulting in signicant energy savings and reduced carbon
emissions, all of them easy to copy and adapt to conditions
in cities around the world.
Conclusion: towards a Global
Parliament of Mayors
Cities and their networks can achieve much on behalf
of rights. But we also need to recognize that much of
what constitutes cross-border cooperation and informal
governance grows out of voluntary actions undertaken
by individual citizens and civic associations in response
to common problems. The result can be innovative
programmes that spread virally rather than legislatively,
via choice and public opinion as well as mayoral leadership
rather than via legislation or collective executive at.
This kind of soft governance is crucial in changing actual
human behaviour, and reects the kind of bottom-up
governance likely to make our unruly world modestly ‘ruly’.
Cities do not have to wait for states to achieve a measure
of security or a degree of sustainability. Civil society does
not have to wait for city government to take action. And
citizens do not have to wait for civil society to work together
to ght for their rights. The web stands ready, bypassing
traditional forms of political association, a global network
in waiting, informal for now, as formal over time as we
choose to make it.
To give substance to the struggle for global human rights,
the cooperation of cities and citizens needs an edice,
a megaphone for the voice of mayors and a magnifying
glass for the rights of citizens. For this reason, I have been
arguing for a Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) as a
keystone in the rising arch of inter-city networks already in
place. An institution that can give force to the rights claims
made by urban communities in humanity’s name.
The idea of a GPM is set forth in the nal chapter of If
Mayors Ruled the World (2013) in considerable detail, and
I will not elaborate it here. It envisions a bottom-up and
opt-in institution whose success will depend on consensus
from participating cities and on the shaping of national
interests by global public opinion. Its aim would be to give
urban public goods a global reach and make the right to
sustainability, affecting so many human rights already
recognized in international law, universal. Inasmuch as
its success would depend more on public opinion than on
mandatory legislation, on soft bottom-up governance than
on hard top-down government, it would not have the look
or feel of some vast new global bureaucracy. It would not
be a kind of fearful ’world government’ patrolled by black
helicopters and bent on creating some vast European
Commission style regulatory agency for a supine planet. On
the contrary, with a majority of cities in which the global
Cities as Glocal Defenders of Rights
22Changing perspectives on human rights
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majority live agreeing on common practices and opting into
common regulations, the outcome would be a strong form
of local democracy with a global face. Rights achieved by
consensus, not force.
The good news about the GPM is that it is already an idea
city mayors in the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia are
exploring. Meetings have been held in Seoul, Korea and New
York with the participation of mayors as well as NGO and
other civic leaders, and further meetings are planned for
Amsterdam in September 2014 and in other cities. This could
make a pilot parliament possible as soon as 2016. The GPM
is an idea with legs, and the legs belong to standing mayors
hoping to walk the talk of collaboration, to take the reality
of intercity cooperation to a new level where the defence of
universal rights is in the hands of the world’s municipalities
where over half the population dwell.2
The obsession with power and ideology has led many
today to forget that politics is instrumental; the road to
securing human rights, a way to create community, and the
condition for facilitating democracy. The local politics of the
city have always been more about these simple goods that
reect essential rights, as I have illustrated in this article
by the case of City IDs for undocumented migrants. City-
dwellers are citizens, and citizens are people endowed with
both rights and responsibilities. The local commons is the
home to our global rights. When cities work democratically
and effectively, those rights can be secured in ways the
global state system no longer can guarantee.
2 More information can be found at:
Cities as Glocal Defenders of Rights
23Changing perspectives on human rights
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Thijs van Lindert1
The 21st century will not be dominated by America or
China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that
appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than
states are becoming the islands of governance on which the
future world order will be built. This new world is not - and
will not be - one global village, so much as a network of
different ones.” Parag Khanna, ‘Beyond City Limits’ 2010
These are the opening lines of a Foreign Policy article
written by Parag Khanna. According to this International
Relations scholar, we are entering a new world marked by a
patchwork of cities that are not only economic strongholds
but increasingly also competing for political power. He
therefore urges all those interested in social change,
including human rights organizations, to turn to cities as
new diplomatic actors. In his words: “Neither 19th-century
balance-of-power politics nor 20th-century power blocs are
useful in understanding this new world. Instead, we have to
look back nearly a thousand years, to the medieval age in
which cities such as Cairo and Hangzhou were the centres
of global gravity, expanding their inuence condently
outward in a borderless world. Now as then, cities are the
real magnets of economies, the innovators of politics, and,
increasingly, the drivers of diplomacy.”
Unlike other scholars studying present-day trends of
urbanization and social-economic inequalities, Khanna’s
particular interest in cities emerges from his expertise in
(geo)politics, diplomacy and governance. He has written
1 The author would like to thank Doutje Lettinga for
providing insightful comments and constructive reviews on
earlier versions of this article.
several books on global system change with striking titles
such as The Second World: How Emerging Powers are
Redening Global Competition in the 21st Century (2008)
or How to Run The World: Charting a Course to the Next
Renaissance (2011a). In these books, he has argued that
the world is changing from a Westphalian system based on
sovereign nation states towards a hybrid, multilevel and
multi-layered system in which cities re-emerge. This more
diffused world order, in which cities feature prominently
alongside other actors like states and corporations,
resembles the Middle Ages, and could therefore be dubbed
as neo-Middle Ages.
This essay, based on an interview with Parag Khanna and
some of his earlier writings, explores the consequences
of this new world order for human rights. What are the
indications that we are entering the neo-Middle Ages, and
what implications will this have for the strategies of human
rights NGOs that have traditionally focused on states and
intergovernmental organizations like the UN?
‘Diplomacity’: cities as new diplomatic
actors in an era of global power shifts
Khanna thinks we are experiencing a period characterized
by a fundamentally changing world system. The world is
moving towards a ‘neo-medieval’ system, in which cities
become once again inuential local, regional and even
global actors. Khanna explains: “The medieval times were
a very turbulent period in European history, but in global
history more analytically it resembled a period in which you
had empires, cities, families, merchants, mercenaries all
operating in a multilevel and multi-layered system. This
wide range of different kinds of units made it different from
the Westphalia state centred system; such as what the
Thijs van Lindert1
Megacities as Diplomatic Powers in a
Neo-Medieval World: Interview with Parag Khanna
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UN is built on. It was a much more diffused kind of order.
I believe that system change now leads us into something
that resembles in a new Middle Ages. Cities feature
prominently in that era we are entering now.”
Khanna’s current research focuses on economic and
geopolitical implications of the fusion of megacities. He
claries: “There is an empirical reality that some megacities
are becoming so physically large, that they are fusing with
all of those around them. Look at the Pearl River Delta in
China’s Guangdong province. That one area has a combined
GDP of over $800 billion that would make it a member of
the G20; which actually means it has a larger economy than
the Netherlands. China has at least three of these mega
corridors, each of which would be a G20 member.”
The Chinese Pearl River Delta is, with almost hundred
million inhabitants in total, indeed an impressive example
of the fusion of megacities. Besides Hong Kong, the region
compromises cities that most people have never heard of;
such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Foshan. These
are each megacities of their own with thirteen, ten, eight,
and seven million inhabitants respectively. Indeed, as
Benjamin Barber (another contributor to this volume) states
in If Mayors Ruled The World (2013: 56): “One might say
it is not China, but Chinese cities that will dominate the
coming decades.”
Nonetheless, this merging of megacities is not only
happening in China but also in other parts of the world.
Khanna mentions several examples in India, the Abu Dhabi-
Dubai region (which he calls ‘Abu Dubai’) as well as in the
West (think of the well-known Silicon Valley in the USA). And
it is likely that more will emerge in the future. Khanna: “If
the US would invest more in infrastructure then there could
be a Boston-Washington-New York type of mega corridor.”
The rise of (mega) cities also goes hand in hand with a
regional power shift from the West to the global South and
East. As Istrate and Nadeau (2012) conclude from research
for the Global Metromonitor: “Three-quarters of the fastest-
growing metropolitan economies in 2012 were located in
developing Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and
Africa. By contrast, almost 90 percent of the slowest-
growing metro economies were in Western Europe and North
According to Khanna, this regional power shift from
West to East has implications for the perception and
reception of human rights. Khanna points out that the
rapid urbanization in Asia differs from earlier urbanization
processes in the West and that it cannot be automatically
assumed that ‘Western’ political cultures and norms will
be adopted. In contrast, we may see possible shifts in
interpretations of, and relative priorities amongst, core
values like human rights. Khanna (2010) explains: “For
these emerging global hubs, modernization does not equal
Westernization. Asia’s rising powers sell the West toys and
oil and purchase world-class architecture and engineering
in return. Western values like freedom of speech and
religion are not part of the bargain.”
Megacities are already powerful economic players, but
according to Khanna, they are increasingly becoming
diplomatic heavyweights too. One could say that a new type
of urban diplomacy is emerging in the eld of International
Relations. Or, as Michelle Acuto and Khanna state in
Around the World Mayors Take Charge’ (2013): “Cities
and mayors’ ofces are generating increasing capacity to
conduct their own international missions - a phenomenon
that could be called diplomacity.”
One realm in which this sovereign diplomacy by cities is
already visible, apart from security and climate change, is
the realm of nances and economics. Khanna says: “What
I see happening in cities like New York, London, Frankfurt,
Dubai and Singapore is that these cities are really
conducting their own bilateral diplomatic relationships.
Historically, these ‘sister-city programmes’ were just cute.
But what we see now is a much more strategic degree of
interaction across cities to, among other things, harmonize
regulatory policies around stock exchanges for example. It
basically means that they are harmonizing their nancial
economies. It deepens their economic interdependence and
in a way they almost become twins of each other.”
It is still an open question how much inuence megacities
Megacities as Diplomatic Powers in a Neo-Medieval World: Interview with Parag Khanna
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will exactly have on global affairs. As Khanna asks in
When Cities Rule The World’ (2011b): “How big can cities
get? In terms of political and economic might, we are just
beginning to nd out.” Research into the economic and
political power of cities is scarce but emerging. Several
institutions are now starting to gather more (harmonized)
data on cities, such as the Metropolitan Policy Program of
Brookings Institution, LSE Cities, A.T. Kearny’s yearly Global
Cities Index, the World Urbanization Prospects of the UN
and the Urban Development Indicators of the World Bank.
Yet one thing is sure for Khanna: not all megacities will be
equally powerful and inuential. Khanna: “Just because a
city is big does not mean that it is either stable, coherent
or inuential and it certainly does not mean it is effective.
Megacities like Lagos or Jakarta, for example, simply do not
have the kind of agency that London and New York have.”
In any case, Khanna believes it is time for a ‘geographical
frame shift’ in thinking about, and shaping, global
governance. Khanna (2010): “Taken together, the advent
of global hubs and megacities forces us to rethink whether
state sovereignty or economic might is the new prerequisite
for participating in global diplomacy. The answer is of
course both, but while sovereignty is eroding and shifting,
cities are now competing for global inuence alongside
Unlike Benjamin Barber, however, Khanna is not in favour
of creating a ‘Global Parliament of Mayors’ (GPM) as
a solution for failing global governance on issues like
security, inequality, green energy or human rights. Instead
of establishing more institutions, Khanna favours ‘organic
learning networks’, or loose, dynamic inter-city alliances.
“The spread of knowledge today”, he explains, “is an
organic process. It requires facilitators but not centralized
Cities as opportunities for migrants’
Like Barber Khanna is optimistic about the opportunities
that cities might provide for the rights of (undocumented)
migrants. While acknowledging that city ofcials are equally
prone to populism, xenophobia and electoral interests as
national ofcials, Khanna nonetheless believes they are
primarily potential allies for migrants’ rights agendas. He
explains: “Cities are already leaders in migration policy.
We are seeing that some cities in the state of California,
Los Angeles and San Francisco, are among the lobbyists for
immigration reforms. Which is two things: one is amnesty
for the many illegal immigrants who are permanently in the
US and deserve to stay because of their contributions to the
economy, the other is about maintaining a higher rate of
migration to build jobs within various industries.”
Khanna continues: “So cities have been very vocal
advocates [of migrants’ rights]. What is interesting is
that cities are potentially able to have their own internal
migration policies. Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, has
been promoting the idea of a ‘London Visa’ to ll its worker
shortages from around the world. It demonstrates that
London will not allow economic potential to be blocked
by delay in British immigration reform that would require
parliamentary action.”
London is not the only megacity developing city visa
programs for undocumented migrants, which come
along with certain economic and civil rights. In his rst
State of the City’ speech, New York’s new mayor Bill Di
Blasio explained why he believes New York Municipal IDs
are important: “We will protect the almost half-million
undocumented New Yorkers, whose voices too often go
unheard. We will reach out to all New Yorkers, regardless of
immigration status - issuing municipal ID cards available
to all New Yorkers this year - so that no daughter or son
of our city goes without bank accounts, leases and library
cards simply because they lack identication. To all of
my fellow New Yorkers who are undocumented, I say: New
York City is your home too, and we will not force ANY of our
residents to live their lives in the shadows.”
Khanna recognizes that in the end it is still the national
government that controls immigration and grants
permanent residency to migrants. Yet, he believes that
cities can and are doing much for migrants. In fact, cities
are already experimenting not only with urban visa but also
with granting undocumented migrants some civil rights,
such as the right to participate in urban referenda. These
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good practices have impact far beyond the immediate
local effects. Through their open immigration policies and
their lobbying capacity, city authorities shape national
policymaking in the long run. Khanna explains: “Cities
could lobby for better state policies. State policies emerge
from the sandbox of different parties and interest groups
in which cities have a loud voice. Cities can argue at state
level that the economy will suffer if states will not allow
Urbanisation and the rise of social
Cities also pose risks for human rights. One particular
problem that Khanna believes needs to be emphasized and
addressed is urban inequality. He explains in our interview:
“Generally, people captured urbanization in positive
terms and the notion that it is creating wealth and ending
poverty. It is true that cities, on the one hand, create many
opportunities. People move to cities because on a relative
basis they enjoy greater opportunities; access to services,
greater incomes, education and so forth (…) It is, on the
other hand, also a fact that the staggering inequality in
cities is the reason why we now have greater domestic
income inequality in the world than international inequality.
It is not an accident that the domestic income inequality
now exceeds the international at the same time that the
world’s urban population crossed 50 percent. Many speak
about these phenomena as separate issues, but they are
directly correlated. It is just because the world’s population
is overwhelmingly urban, that inequality has switched from
becoming an international topic to a domestic issue.”
Increasing socio-economic inequality at the national
level becomes visible in the slums, favelas or townships
surrounding megacities such as Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City,
Karachi, Johannesburg and Delhi. Khanna convincingly
argues that the degree to which city governments are able
to address this will dene their future. He (2011b) writes:
“The state can no longer ignore these settlements as it did
a century ago; their community power and political clout are
growing rapidly. Indeed, favelas and similar settlements
worldwide create a crisis of legitimacy for federal and city
governments. Providing housing for the 1.6 billion people
without a roof over their heads has become a test of
governability - a test which cities like Mumbai are failing
despite being host to the world’s most expensive home, the
one billion dollar, 27 story residence of magnate Mukesh
Khanna is certainly not the rst who observes the growing
inequality in cities as a worrying phenomenon. From Henri
Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la Ville (1968) to David Harvey’s
Social Justice and the City (1973) and Mike Davis’s Planet
of Slums (2006), academics have been fascinated by the
fact that in the city the poor and rich live so close to one
another. Even an ‘urban optimist’ such as Richard Florida
(2014) recognizes that “urbanization has become a key part
of economic growth in today’s world. In many places, cities
have provided a critical spur to overall economic growth.
But the benets that come from urbanization have been
uneven. In too many parts of the Global South, mega-slums
and persistent poverty remain disturbing facts of life.”
Despite the academic interest in this topic, Khanna
underscores that so far there has not been any effective
political response to urban inequality: “So cities not only
drive growth, they also cause inequality. That is something
we are not addressing head on. Not as economists, not as
policy makers, not as NGOs (…) I hardly see any city in
the world - let alone any state - that has a proactive and
successful strategy for mitigating the domestic and urban
income inequality. That concerns me a great deal.”
Khanna (2010) mentions Habitat for Humanity as one
exception of an NGO that “has moved well beyond lobbying
‘governments versus municipalities’ to construct and
provide affordable housing for the poor. Instead, it works
with whichever authority is willing to step up.” Khanna
believes this is exemplary of how international NGOs should
start operating which, at the same time, could also support
urban organizations in their struggle for the rights of the
urban poor. He believes they could play an instrumental
role: “International organizations can be helpful, because
these local urban organizations are usually terribly
understaffed and they do not have a lot of technology.”
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Privatization and militarization of
Khanna highlights that the widening gap between the rich
and poor in megacities intersects with the privatization of
security (see also the contribution of Jaffe & Grassiani in
this volume). Again, Khanna draws a parallel with medieval
times to illustrate this phenomenon. Khanna (2010):
“Where knights and walls once protected the aristocracy
from unwanted outsiders, now electried gates and private
security agencies do the same. (…) Anyone who travelled
to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup might have noticed
how private security forces outnumbered ofcial police two
to one, and gated communities protected elites from the
vast townships where crime is rampant. Cities - not so-
called failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia - are the
true daily test of whether we can build a better future or are
heading toward a dystopian nightmare.”
The more security is becoming a commodity, affordable for
the urban rich only, the larger the gap between the rich and
poor becomes. With their money, the urban nouveaux riche
can distance themselves from the urban dwellers, quite
literally. As Khanna writes: “Sao Paulo has the highest rate
of private helicopter use in the world; a literal sign of what
heights people will go to in order to avoid the realities of the
world below.”
Not only the urban rich, also city governments are
increasingly cooperating with private security companies
to protect public order and security. The result is that
national security is increasingly ‘urbanized’ and privatized,
with cities copying and learning from each other’s security
approaches (see also Stephen Graham’s contribution in this
volume). Khanna says: “We see cities that realize that there
is too much at stake in their own urban ecosystem and
their own economic foundation to leave their security to the
hands of their state. New York City, as you may know, has
done a lot to develop its own private intelligence services.
That model has been copied in a way from Israel and is now
being shared with other cities.”
Khanna points out that this urbanization and privatization
of security may not be all that positive for human rights
or human security. Now the terrain of national security
is increasingly occupied by cities, outside the regulatory
arm of the state, a militarization of security would become
apparent. Khanna: “This trend is visible most prominently
in overpopulated countries. Brazil – with its (para)
militarization of urban police forces - is probably the
leading example today. But also in India; after the Mumbai
terrorist attacks, Mumbai realized it needed to have
something of an own force.” The urban militarization is also
unfolding in European cities. After the French banlieue riots
of a couple of years ago, the Parisian authorities created
an effectively autonomous Parisian military force that,
according to Khanna, does not necessarily respect human
rights or humanitarian principles: “This is no typical
gendarmerie and it certainly does not operate according to
the Geneva Convention.”
Implications for human rights
In the ‘neo-medieval world’ we are approaching in
Khanna’s view, international NGOs must be aware of the
multitude of actors exerting power at the different local,
national and international levels, in particular cities.
Khanna emphasizes the need for a geographic frame shift
and stresses that “we should stop thinking that cities
belong to countries and start seeing countries are the
hinterlands of cities.” He (2010) writes: “As our world order
comes to be built on cities and their economies rather
than nations and their armies, the UN becomes even more
inadequate as a symbol of universal membership in our
global polity. Another model could be built on the much
less rigid World Economic Forum of Davos fame, which
brings together anyone who’s someone: prime ministers,
governors, mayors, CEOs, heads of NGOs, labour union
chiefs, prominent academics, and inuential celebrities.
Each of these players knows better than to rely on some
ethereal ‘system’ to provide global stability - they move
around obstacles and do what works.”
If international NGOs want to continue to shape global
governance, they must adopt their strategies to this new
order with multiple changes of power in world politics.
He says: “The notion of cities as strategic and important
Megacities as Diplomatic Powers in a Neo-Medieval World: Interview with Parag Khanna
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diplomatic agents, has a very important role in how we
think about approaching human rights issues.” For one
thing, it means that international human rights NGOs like
Amnesty International should no longer exclusively focus
on states and multilateral forums like the UN as targets
of their advocacy and activism but include more actors, at
different levels. Khanna: “NGOs have to evolve to suit the
world as it is! Cities are becoming important constituencies
and targets for NGOs. I appreciate that Amnesty has a long
history in nurturing relations with states, the international
community and global institutions such as the UN. But I go
to conferences where scholars and policymakers talk about
serious global governance issues and after three days no
one has ever even mentioned the UN. Thus, you have to be
aware of structural change. You cannot be an NGO that only
lobbies national governments; it is simply not enough!”
When asked what would happen if international human
rights NGOs focus exclusively on states and institutions
such as the UN, Khanna answers: “It could mean
irrelevance. (..) If you are only going to lobby the US
government or the UN for improving the human rights
conditions in Tibet, you are obviously not going to succeed.
You have to go local much more.” Khanna emphasizes
that focusing on cities does not imply that we can forget
the rural world: “Of course, a large percentage of the
world’s population will still be rural. There are obviously
developmental, political and human rights issues
associated with rural populations that relate to the same
issues such as climate and inequality. We will benet from
developing more appropriate methodologies for addressing
their needs and concerns, rather than lumping everyone
together into this notion of ‘the nation state’. We also need
more appropriate methodologies for addressing their needs
and concerns.”
Thus, human rights organizations need to lift their eyes
from xating too much on the nation-state and bring the
city (back) into their work. To summarize in Khanna’s words
(2010): “What happens in our cities, simply put, matters
more than what happens anywhere else. Cities are the
world’s experimental laboratories and thus a metaphor
for an uncertain age. They are both the cancer and the
foundation of our networked world, both virus and antibody.
From climate change to poverty and inequality, cities are
the problem - and the solution.”
Megacities as Diplomatic Powers in a Neo-Medieval World: Interview with Parag Khanna
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As cities face pressure to optimize their economic
performance, evictions proliferate. Social and rights-based
movements and NGOs have begun to adopt the right to
the cityas a slogan for activities that confront evictions
and promote citizen participation in urban development. A
return to Henri Lefebvres theorizing of this phrase provides
a framework which may widen right to the cityactivities
to promote more complex, diverse and convenient urban
spatial forms through processes in which inhabitants
spontaneously shape the city. This must be supported by
legal systems at the national and city levels.
The right to the city, both as a slogan and as a theoretical
and analytical framework, has gained prominence in
the Anglophone urban and development discourse over
the past decade. In the rst instance, right to the city is
understood to promote access by the poor to urban space
and decision-making. It is undermined by forced evictions
and other measures that exclude the poor from cities.
Forced evictions in urban areas are increasingly linked to
the pressure faced by authorities to optimize the economic
functioning of cities. This chapter looks to the right to the
city, as originally conceptualized by Henri Lefebvre from the
late 1960s, as a lens for strategic analysis of the dynamics
that lead to forced evictions, and as an impetus for new
strategies for rights-based movements.
Evictions in context
Across the globe, we have witnessed an increase in urban
evictions since the new millennium, in particular in middle
and low-income countries. With regard to the African
continent, where many cities are experiencing rapid growth
in population amidst uneven economic development, Jean
du Plessis (2006: 184) speaks of “an epidemic of forced
evictions, on an unprecedented scale”. This has occurred
during a period in which several countries adopted and
consolidated a constitutional democracy. Kenya for
instance modelled its 2010 Constitution with its qualied
right to housing on the 1996 Constitution of South Africa.
Unlike Kenya, South Africa, however, has not ratied the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (ICSR), which includes the right to adequate
housing in Article 11. Whether based on a national Bill
of Rights or the International Covenant, litigation has
to confront a persistent, if not growing violation of the
rights of poor households and individuals. Authoritarian
tendencies within states, merged with the adoption
of urban policy approaches that prioritize economic
competitiveness, have overridden housing-related rights.
Part of the reason is that these had been weakly secured.
In the postmillennial period, the South African state
even resorted to legislative changes (later found to
be unconstitutional and reversed) which reintroduced
apartheid-era measures, increasing the state’s powers
to evict and obligating landowners to institute eviction
procedures in cases of formally unauthorized occupation
(Huchzermeyer 2011). It promulgated the KwaZulu-Natal
Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act
No. 6 of 2007 (in short the KZ-N Slums Act) as an example
for other provinces to follow. It also proposed amendments
to the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful
Occupation of Land Act No. 19 of 1998 to criminalize
organized land invasion by desperately poor households.
This act had repealed South Africa’s notorious Prevention
of Illegal Squatting Act No. 51 of 1951.
Marie Huchzermeyer
Forced Evictions and ‘The Right to the City’
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The adoption of human rights frameworks, including a
qualied right to housing (Section 26 of the South African
Constitution of 1996 or Section 21(2) and 43(1)(b) of the
Kenyan Constitution of 2010), has required the building
of related legal expertise and capacity within the national
legal aid infrastructure to bring cases to the courts.
However, this has been paralleled by a persistent and
growing need not only for this framework to be invoked,
but also for defence against its dismantling (as in the
recent case of South Africa). Furthermore, only a fraction
of eviction cases nd their way to courts. Court orders
in turn, when favourable to those opposing eviction, are
largely ignored by states which perceive them as only one
of many pressures they juggle in budgetary, managerial
and political decision-making. A stronger pressure than to
uphold basic citizenship and human rights is to create the
conditions for the global market to ourish. Cities and city
regions are the sites in which these conditions are judged
on a competitive basis (Brenner 2004). The poor, with their
largely make-shift or substandard accommodation and
trading stalls, often nd themselves in the way, as ‘trash’
to be ‘cleaned up’ or ‘swept away’ in the unashamed ofcial
naming of many urban programmes (whether Zimbabwe’s
Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, or Johannesburg’s
operation ’Clean Sweep’ as recent as 2013, which was
condemned in the Constitutional Court in 2014).
Urban competitiveness is understood to involve the
management of mobility, primarily to attract the skilled
class required by global investments (Turok & Bailey
2004). However, managing the mobility of people for
urban competitiveness also includes removing households
from land which is seen not to yield its full economic
potential, and sending a message that any newly arriving
or returning poor are unwelcome. In South Africa, this has
resulted in the eviction of residents from dilapidated but
not necessarily uninhabitable inner city buildings (COHRE
2005) and repressive surveillance to prevent entry or return
after an eviction (Huchzermeyer 2011).
Today, one can trace a close connection between
eviction and security strategies, in turn linked to the
competitiveness agenda. In South Africa private security
rms (see also the chapter of Jaffe and Grassiani in
this publication) offer municipalities a range of services
from forceful removal and surveillance of land through
to emergency interventions and protecting ‘development’
against unlawful invasion. Emergency interventions
are required as a result of the Grootboom ruling in the
Constitutional Court in 2000. In this case, the Court
found that South African housing policy did not cater
adequately for those living in intolerable conditions. Under
the Emergency Housing programme that was developed
as a result of the judgment, emergency services comprise
temporary shelter with shared sanitation and access to
communal taps.
Thus ‘development’ is often conceived by the state as a
coin with two sides. Forceful removal and surveillance on
the one side, a reductionist or minimal service provision
on the other. As service provision (including basic housing)
lags behind the scale of removal and surveillance, housing
poverty is hidden in ever-worse conditions. Many hidden
forms of housing are exploited for private gain, with exor-
bitant rents being charged. Most payment-related private
evictions occur outside of the radar of human rights orga-
nizations and due to the force or violence applied and the
victims’ limited knowledge of their rights, are not opposed.
Eradication, eviction, relocation and resettlement are
found to go hand-in-hand with modern world-class city
aspirations (Murray 2008: 14; Gibson 2011: 20). In this
context, a paradox has arisen in which global agencies
have been calling on ‘developing’ states to compete
globally for foreign direct investment, while also expecting
them to improve the lives of the poor – in the same locality,
namely cities (Huchzermeyer 2011). The World Bank’s
Urban and Local Government Strategy of 2000 was built
on two economic pillars, competitiveness and bankability,
alongside good governance and liveability. At the same
time the Bank, in collaboration with UN-Habitat launched
the Cities Without Slums Action Plan, through which it
sought to promote slum upgrading. A right to the city
lens illuminates this paradox and shows that it cannot be
resolved without a fundamental shift which subordinates
the economic function of the city to social life.
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The right to the city: reception,
codification and mobilisation
In segregationist and subsequent apartheid South Africa and
in many colonies in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the demand
for a right to live and work in the city informed an evident
struggle from below. This struggle was to some extent won
with independence from colonial and other exclusionary rule.
Unrelated to this, in the late 1960s the French philosopher
and sociologist Henri Lefebvre challenged dominant
scholarly and political thinking in France by articulating
and theorizing a right to the city. The idea of a right to the
city is now prominent in a variety of campaigns across
the globe. The right to the city has been referred to as an
“intuitively compelling slogan” (Marcuse 2012: 29), and in
some instances is used with no reference to Henri Lefebvre’s
ideas. However, Lefebvre produced a rich and complex
argumentation about the meaning of the right to the city and
its challenges. His conceptualization of the right to the city
relates to present-day evictions in complex and relevant ways
and is therefore set out in the sections that follow.
Lefebvre was a Marxist scholar who stretched the
boundaries of Marxism, in particular by introducing the
liberal notions of humanism and rights into a Marxist
humanism which he applied to the city (Grindon 2013). In
the mid 1960s, Lefebvre turned his attention from everyday
life in rural settings to the urban (Smith 2003: ix). The
everyday as a concept informed his thinking on the right
to the city and subsequent work on The Urban Revolution
(Lefebvre 2003[1970]), as well as The Production of Space
(Lefebvre 1991[1974]). Lefebvre understood the everyday
as a contradictory lived experience in which consumption
is central, thus playing a critical role in the survival or
endurance of capitalism (Kipfer 2002: 118, 127, 132). “In
showing how people live, the critique of everyday life builds
an indictment of the strategies that lead to that result”
(Lefebvre 2003[1970]: 139).
Lefebvre initially referred to the need to reformulate the
freedoms related to housing “as the freedom of the city
(Lefebvre 1971[1968], emphasis in original). He also
referred to a “struggle for the city” (ibid: 205) and later
articulated a “right to the city”, as “a superior form
of rights” (Lefebvre, 1996[1968]: 173). Given that the
“rights discourse” is “deeply embedded in the liberal
capitalist tradition” (Kuymulu 2013: 927), it is important
to understand what Lefebvre invoked when framing his
complex ideas on the city rst as a struggle and a freedom
and later as a right.
It is suggested that Lefebvre’s right to the city “was not
intended to be taken literally (…) but [as] a moral right,
an appeal to the highest of human values” (Marcuse
2014: 5). However, Lefebvre (1971[1968]: 152) identied
a necessary progression from “aspirations faintly tinted
with assertiveness”, from “values” to “facts” and to these
being “acknowledged as rights”, until “social recognition
becomes inevitable”. Lefebvre (1996[1968]: 157) speaks of
the necessity for the right to the city to be inscribed “into
codes which are still incomplete”. In this sense, he (ibid:
179) refers to “a right in the making”. For this progression
from aspiration to actual legal right that ultimately enjoys
social recognition, Lefebvre (ibid: 157) states that “[t]
he pressure of the working class has been and remains
necessary” but adds that this is “not sufcient”. This
means that socio-legal and urban legal experts need to
work alongside social movements in incorporating the
aspirations, values and content of a right to the city which
Lefebvre articulated into legal frameworks.
Much work has been done on drafting an all-encompassing
World Charter on the Right to the City (International
Alliance of Inhabitants 2005). This is not directly drawn
from the content Lefebvre intended for a right to the city,
to which I turn next. My reading is that, rather than calling
for international agreements, Lefebvre’s right to the city
requires country-level legal analysis and the development
of legal/regulatory proposals. This must be accompanied
by political mobilization to demand for all aspects of
this right to the city to be developed into “codes” or a
“contractual system” and to be “concretized” (Lefebvre,
2003[1970]:150) at country level.
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Lefebvre’s conceptualization of the
right to the city and its meaning for
Lefebvre “criticized static binaries” (Kofman & Lebas
1996: 10) and pointed instead to complex and at times
exaggerated opposites and contradictions (Smith 2003).
He uses these to help advance his denition of the city to
which all should have a right. Across his work, Lefebvre
puts forward several attributes of this city, each with an
opposite with which it co-exists. Table 1 is a summary
of the key concepts that Lefebvre uses as attributes of
the city, with those in the two columns co-existing in
complex ways. It is when those in the right-hand column
dominate over those on the left, that the right to the city
is undermined. Thus the right to the city entails the right
to the oeuvre, to use value, to urban society, to inhabit, to
appropriation, to centrality, to complexity and to difference.
I explain these briey below, focusing on the understanding
they provide of housing and evictions.
The oeuvre Product
Use value Exchange value
Urban society Industrial society
To inhabit Habitat
Appropriation Spatial domination
Centrality Dispersion
Complexity Reduction
Difference Homogeneity
Table 1: Attributes of the right to the city, with their
opposites (bold) that have come to dominate urban space
Source: Compiled from Lefebvre (1991[1974]; 1996[1968];
The French built environment which Lefebvre witnessed in
the late 1960s and early 1970s could not be termed a ‘city’
according to Lefebvre’s denition of the word. It was primarily
produced to serve the economy and industrial growth (the
built environment as a ‘product’ serving ‘industrial society’).
It did not come about through the creative work (in French
oeuvre’) of urban inhabitants (Lefebvre, 1996[1968]:177).
Furthermore, the need for the built environment to be useful
to ordinary city dwellers (‘use value’) was subordinated to a
need to promote the economy (‘exchange value’) (ibid.: 75).
In today’s equivalent, the built environment predominantly
serves urban competitiveness or the ability to attract foreign
direct investment.
Lefebvre opposes ‘to inhabit’, a process in which residents
shape both their home and the city, with ‘habitat’, which
refers merely to the housing stock. But he also writes
of the “right (…) to habitat and to inhabit” (Lefebvre
1996[1968]: 173), acknowledging the necessity of both
– the need for housing stock, but the need also for this
to be shaped by residents. Under rational town planning
of the 1960s and 1970s in France, the housing stock
was uniformly mass-produced and located in dedicated
residential zones, separated from retail spaces and places
of employment. This did not enable residents ‘to inhabit’
or to take an active part in creating homes and complex
public spaces. Town planning schemes in most Anglophone
countries today still embody this approach of uniformity of
buildings and separation of land use.
In Marxist tradition, Lefebvre applies a dialectic approach
(Smith 2003). His dialectic on housing acknowledges on
the one hand the freedom of “independent life” which mass
housing enables; on the other hand it points to the dismissal,
through this form of housing, of many attributes of the right
to the city (Lefebvre 1971[1968]: 151,152). With reference
to everyday life, Lefebvre (ibid: 151) identies two sources
of “misery”. On the one hand there is the housing shortage
which he likens to “terrorism as it hangs threatening over
the young (and not only the young)”. The contemporary reality
of this misery on the African continent is exemplied by the
following estimated housing backlogs: 3 million units for
Tanzania, 2.1 million for South Africa; 2 million for Kenya,
1.25 for Zimbabwe and 1.2 million for Algeria (Centre for
Affordable Housing Finance in Africa 2011).
On the other hand, Lefebvre (2003[1970]: 83) argues
“never has the relationship of the ‘human being’ with the
world (…) experienced such profound misery as during
the reign of habitat and so-called ‘urbanistic’ rationality”.
South African mass housing delivery of the past two
decades (and more so that of the preceding apartheid era)
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exemplies this well: large-scale projects on the distant
urban periphery, devoid of social or retail amenities and
at long distances from economic opportunities. Layouts
with small free-standing units ensure that homogeneous
spatial dispersion prevails. Attempts (though not always
successful) are made to maintain this pattern through
restrictions and regulations. This stands in contrast to the
residents’ wish to actively inhabit or to be able to shape not
only their housing but, more collectively, the city.
Lefebvre’s concept of ‘centrality’ applies not only to city
centres but to spaces with an intensity of functions,
activity and encounter. These may emerge spontaneously
and may rapidly change (Lefebvre 2003[1970]: 130-131).
Centrality is possible only in its existence alongside and in
contrast to relative dispersion. This inevitably inscribes a
certain (necessary) spatial inequality into the city (Lefebvre
2003[1970]: 125). A built environment made up of equal
dispersion (exemplied by suburban residential zones under
rational town planning) with no centralities or places of
intensity, cannot constitute a city in Lefebvre’s sense.
In a context of spatial restrictions and regulations,
Lefebvre conceptualizes inhabitants’ active process of
creating centrality, complexity and difference in the built
environment as “appropriation” (Lefebvre, 1991/1974: 373,
374). Lefebvre refers to informal settlements as examples.
He writes that in “[t]he vast shanty towns of Latin America
(…) [a]ppropriation of a remarkably high order is found
(ibid: 373, 374)”. He uses the term ‘negative appropriation’
for the autocratic state’s response to such activity. In the
case of a shanty town or informal settlement, negative
appropriation involves forced removal and replacement
of the formally unplanned and unauthorized settlement
with uniform, state-approved development. In some cases
residents manage to ‘re-appropriate’, although this is often
“but a temporary halt to domination” (ibid: 168). This is
exemplied by those displaced from demolished informal
settlements invading land anew (mostly due to the lack
of alternatives). Lefebvre criticizes modern or rational
urban planning for facilitating this spatial domination. He
(1996[1968]: 79) talks of planning practice that has “set
itself against the city and the urban to eradicate them”.
Lefebvre provides a tting phrase for the environments
from which eviction is prevalent: the “urban survives in the
ssures of planned and programmed order” (Lefebvre ibid:
129). These ssures are urban environments that either
have come about outside the reach of or predate rational
planning – informal settlements, or neglected historic
parts of town labelled as ‘slums’.
An existence in the ssures weakens dominated space
(Lefebvre 1991[1974]: 373, 374). This, in turn, justies the
state’s destruction of such spaces. Thus in South Africa,
the KZN Slums Act, which unconstitutionally increased the
state’s powers to evict, was, in a Lefebvrian sense, an in-
strument for the domination of space. Subtly, the Act was in
favour of deepening the reach of capitalism in the everyday.
Ofcially, it was justied on the basis of the need to meet
global standards in the hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup
in South Africa (Huchzermeyer 2011). With its title reading
‘Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums’, the
Act was an instrument for negative appropriation, and for
preventing even temporary re-appropriation.
The right to the city in Lefebvre’s sense requires the
subordination of the economic function of the city, for
instance the drive for global competitiveness, to social
life. This subordination must enable ordinary citizens to
spontaneously participate in the shaping of their homes and
the city, thus allowing complexity, diversity and difference to
ourish in urban space. It must confront the contemporary
paradox through which cities nd themselves compelled to
comply with standards that make them globally competitive,
while expected to upgrade informal settlements in situ (often
in proximity to sites of global economic potential) to vastly
inferior standards. Planning and regulation must depart
from uniformity and separation to embrace spontaneity, thus
preventing evictions that result from processes of spatial
domination. In this sense, a right to the city framework
developed from below, if it were adopted into law at city and
national level, needs to provide a critical link between, on the
one hand, the existing socio-economic human rights that are
invoked in the defence against eviction and, on the other, the
essence of what a city ought to be.
Forced Evictions and ‘The Right to the City’
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35Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
According to UN-Habitat, one billion people, a third of the
worlds urban population, live in slums. The vast scale
of the problem forces us to confront the tension between
the right to shelter and the right to private property.
This chapter draws on the work of John Locke, one of the
foremost theorists of private property, to show why the right
to life, which includes shelter, must have priority.
The right to the city has slowly developed from Lefebvre’s
theory (see also Marie Huchzermeyer’s essay in this book)
to a new theme in international human rights discourse.
UNESCO and UN-Habitat have advanced the view that
the right to the city is an important part of the broader
human rights agenda (Purcell 2014). The European Charter
for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City and
the World Charter for the Right to the City are two recent
manifestations of the growing inuence of this idea. The
Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, which
draws explicitly on UN human rights principles, recognizes
emerging urban rights such as the right to affordable
housing, municipal services, and participation in urban
planning. In this chapter I explain and defend one of the
most important dimensions of the right to the city: the right
to housing or shelter in informal urban settlements. The
right to shelter is only a small part of the broader ‘right to
the city’ but, given the rapid growth of megacities and the
precarity of life in informal settlements in the Global South,
the moral and legal recognition of this basic right is a
particularly urgent human rights priority.
In March 2011, New Delhi, UNESCO and the Centre des
Sciences Humaines organized an international meeting on
the topic of the right to the city. One goal of the meeting
was “to raise awareness among key decision-makers (local
authorities) on the need to adopt a rights-based approach
to urbanization for a better inclusion of marginalized and
vulnerable population in Indian cities” (UNESCO 2014).
Indian courts initially recognized a limited right to shelter
but subsequent decisions have become less sympathetic to
social rights. This article begins with a brief overview of the
key legal case Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation
(1985) and then draws on Lockean liberal theory to provide
a more thorough defence of the rights of people living in
informal settlements.
The right to shelter versus private
On 13 July 1981, the chief minister of Maharashtra, India
announced that all pavement dwellers would be evicted
from public property. Their make-shift shelters would be
destroyed and the inhabitants would be sent back to their
villages. One of the pavement dwellers was P. Angamuthu,
a landless labourer who migrated to Bombay in 1961 in
order to nd work. He left Salem, Tamil Nadu because of
a drought which exacerbated unemployment and hunger
in his village. He found a low-paying job in a chemical
company. Unable to afford even the most basic dwelling,
he paid a ’landlord’ for plastic sheeting and access to a
bit of pavement adjacent to the Western Express Highway.
Some of his neighbours were construction workers who
built the highway and then remained after it was nished.
Angamuthu lived there with his wife and three daughters
until 23 July 1981 when his shack was destroyed and his
entire family was forced onto a bus to Salem. Unable to nd
work, he soon returned to Bombay.
Margaret Kohn
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Angamuthu’s story is not unique. According to the
2011 census, 41% of the residents of Mumbai live in
informal settlements (Rahman 2013). His name is known
because he was one of the petitioners who challenged
the dispossession and deportation in a case that made
it to the Indian Supreme Court. The resulting decision
Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) is
considered a trailblazing case of public interest litigation.1
The petitioners challenged the slum clearance project on
procedural and substantive grounds. They argued that there
is a right to occupy public land and this right is derived
from the constitutional protection of the right to life in
Article 21 of the Indian constitution. They also claimed that
the municipal statute that allowed for eviction without prior
notice was unreasonable insofar as it failed to provide the
opportunity for those affected to plead their case. Finally,
the court considered the underlying issue, which was the
paradoxical assertion that an individual could have a
natural right to public property.
The UN-Habitat program has begun to encourage countries
to adopt rights-based legislation to help secure housing and
inclusion for the most vulnerable urban residents. In the
30 years since the Olga Tellis decision, the right to shelter
has become an even more pressing issue. Urbanization has
dramatically increased the size of cities in the developing
world and the proportion of people living in informal
settlements has outpaced even this rapid growth. In India
alone, 64 million people live in urban slums. Article 11 of
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights includes the right to adequate housing among the
rights that are derived from the principle of human dignity.
The Covenant frames these rights as aspirational rights that
should guide both domestic and international institutions.
A number of countries, including France, Brazil, and South
Africa have introduced constitutional or statutory language
explicitly recognizing the right to housing, yet the number
of people without adequate shelter has increased. What
then is the role of rights? The right to housing is one of the
frameworks that policy-makers, judges, and citizens use
1 Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, AIR 1986
SC 180.
in evaluating whether it is acceptable to displace people
from their homes and whether it is obligatory to provide
adequate shelter. This idea competes against other powerful
frameworks such as the right to private property, the
efciency of the market, and state sovereignty. This chapter
aims to clarify and strengthen the theoretical arguments
in favour of a right to shelter in order to convince policy-
makers, judges, and citizens that this should be a priority.
It is important to deepen our understanding of these
normative issues, because the political and legal climate
has become much more hostile to social and economic
rights such as the right to shelter. Fifteen years later in
Almitra Patel (2000) the Indian Supreme Court revisited this
issue and rejected the claims of the pavement dwellers.
Strongly inuenced by urban developmentalism which
emphasizes “the city as growth machine” (Peterson 1981)
and de-emphasizes redistribution, the court accused
pavement dwellers of privatizing public space and theft.
Slum clearance and displacement is a global phenomenon.
Mega-events such as international sports competitions and
meetings have also driven massive displacement of urban
populations, most recently in Rio de Janeiro, the host city for
the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In the favelas
outside Rio, 19.000 residents have been displaced to make
space for new roads and facilities (Gibson & Watts 2013).
This chapter provides a theoretical defence of the right to
shelter. The right to shelter can be justied in two ways, as
a dimension of the right to life or as a kind of property right.
I explore these concepts through an extended analysis of
John Locke’s arguments justifying the private appropriation
of common land and the right of subsistence. Locke
provides the most inuential defences of private property,
therefore his account of the limits of private property is a
powerful tool that can help us think through cases where
property rights and human rights are in conict.
Locke and the right to property
Recent arrivals in the modern metropolis do not discover
terra nullis. As Doug Saunders points out in Arrival City
(2010), most people who move from the countryside to the
urban periphery gain access to land through the market.
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Even though they acquire neither secure title nor urban
amenities, they have to pay the previous occupant, landlord,
or neighbourhood boss a purchase price or rent. Even new
land invasions are often organized by political/economic
entrepreneurs who use their political inuence or muscle
to ensure that the settlement is not dismantled before
newcomers establish a physical presence (Saunders 2010:
221). The legality of these transfers, however, still rests
on the legitimacy of the original acquisition of previously
undeveloped land. Property rights rest on two principles:
initial acquisition and legitimate transfer. How is it possible
to acquire the right to occupy empty, common, or unused
land? John Locke helps to answer this question.
In The Second Treatise of Government (1980 [1689]), John
Locke introduces three different theories of property. He
argues that all property was originally held in common but
private property is justied when it results from mixing
one’s labour with external materials. He illustrates this
principle by giving examples of the individual appropriation
of the bounty of nature: water in a stream, apples on a
tree, a deer running through the forest. The apple on the
tree belongs to everyone but an apple that was harvested
becomes the legitimate private property of the person who
picked it. Locke argues that the same idea applies to land.
The person who clears, cultivates and improves land has
mixed his labour with it and therefore deserves ownership of
both the produce as well as the land itself.
Locke notes that there are some natural limitations
on appropriation. The rst is the spoilage limitation, a
principle of natural law that dictates that no one should
take more than he or she can use, since the bounty of the
earth is not meant to be wasted. This limitation, however,
loses its force after the introduction of trade and money,
because these make it possible to accumulate value in
durable goods such as gold and silver that do not spoil.
The second limitation is the famous Lockean proviso.
According to Locke, “this initial appropriation of land, by
improving it, (wasn’t) any prejudice to any other man, since
there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the
yet unprovided for could use” (1980 [1689]: par. 33). Some
scholars have interpreted this through the lens of concepts
introduced by the political philosopher John Rawls. The
Rawlsian difference principle requires that any unequal
distribution is justied only if the worse off are better off
than they would be under strict equality. Locke claims
this is also true of private property. He insists that “he
who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not
lessen, but increases the common stock of mankind” (ibid:
par. 37). According to Locke, enclosed, cultivated land is
ten or even 100 times more productive than uncultivated
land. Even though the practice of unlimited private
appropriation does leave some people without access to
property, Locke insists that they still benet because a day
labourer in England is fed and housed much better than
the indigenous people in the Americas.
Scholars have drawn attention to a number of problems
with Locke’s analysis of property. Some have pointed out
that the labour theory, despite its intuitive plausibility, is
not convincing. Mixing individual labour and commonly
owned material could just as easily enrich the value of
common property. Why shouldn’t my labour become part
of the common stock instead of turning the common stock
into my private property?
Furthermore, the phrase “as much and as good” has been
subject to considerable scrutiny. Even if we accept the
empirical claim that the day labourer is better off than
the person in the state of nature, this does not mean
that their share is ‘as good’ as the one taken by the rst
privatizers. Additionally, this framing rests on the ’either/
or’ fallacy. By implying that the only choices are ‘common-
property-with-low-productivity’ or ‘large-estates-and-day-
labour’, it denies the possibility of other more equitable
arrangements, for example distributing land more widely by
limiting the size of estates or farming co-operatively. These
alternatives were hardly unimaginable in Locke’s day. The
former was proposed by the 17th century republican political
theorist James Harrington and the latter was practised
by the Diggers, an egalitarian agrarian movement in 17th
century England.
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Locke also introduces two other principles that limit property
rights: political agreement and the right to life. Although
the right to property is described as a pre-political natural
right, it can only be enforced after the social contract
creates a state. Property becomes something more than
mere possession when it is recognized by others and
this recognition is guaranteed through enforcement. In a
puzzling passage, Locke points out that the natural-right-
to-appropriate-land works until land becomes scarce and
then people must switch to using ’consent’ to settle dispute
over grazing lands and territorial boundaries. It is hard to
overlook the fact that Locke uses the biblical families of Cain
and Abel as examples of clans that might hypothetically
reach the point where their expanding land claims came
into conict. Not only politics, but also the threat of violence,
haunts the text. In this formulation, political institutions
are not limited to protecting property rights that are derived
from natural law; they create property rights, presumably by
balancing different interests and claims. This conventional
understanding of property is widely accepted today and, in
fact, Locke endorses it explicitly later in the text, but it still
sits uneasily with the pre-political right to property.
Another factor that complicates the view that Locke is
simply an apologist for an unlimited right to private
property is the principle of self-preservation. In the opening
paragraphs of the Second Treatise, Locke emphasizes that
humans are obliged to preserve themselves and the law
of nature commands the preservation of all mankind. In a
time and place where premature death from overwork and
malnutrition was common, this seems to imply some type of
minimal obligation to provide charity, and Locke did defend
a limited, draconian form of poor relief. He also noted that
the right to preservation included a right to the means for
preservation, including subsistence and that this entailed
an obligation on others: a wealthy man could not rightfully
deny another person “surplusage of his Goods” when
“pressing Wants call for it” (Tully 1993: 113).
Informal settlements and property
We now have all three components of Locke’s theory: labour
(improvement); subsistence; and politics. Can we use
them to think about the right to housing found in Article
11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social,
and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)? I think we can. The rst
step is to consider whether there is a way to establish
a priority amongst these three features. This is not too
difcult. Self-preservation is the natural end of human
beings and property is a means to that end. Human beings
are naturally vulnerable to the environment and need
protection from the elements in order to thrive. Building
and shaping the landscape in order to create shelter and
order is a basic human need, similar to the need for food
and physical security. Even Hobbes, who had a limited view
of natural law, included the right to a place to live among
the most basic rights.
The right to property is a means to the end of self-
preservation and the end takes precedence over the means.
We appropriate the apple or water or shelter because
otherwise we could not employ them for survival. Private
property is justied because it can increase productivity
and thereby provide subsistence for more people. This has
clear implications for human rights. The right to shelter, if
conceived as a basic requirement of survival, has priority
over the general right to private property.
The private property rights of an individual or group are
subordinate to the right of self-preservation, but private
property can potentially secure preservation and, under some
circumstances, can increase efciency and productivity. We
do not have to choose between unlimited private ownership
of land and a common property regime that allows only
personal use and never ownership. A core principle of welfare
liberalism is to allow markets and private ownership in order
to increase aggregate productivity and then redistribute
resources to compensate for increases in inequality and to
secure a basic standard of living for all.
How does this help us think about and strengthen the right
to housing? If the right to self-preservation has priority
over property rights, then it is wrong to evict someone when
eviction makes them vulnerable to harm from exposure or
unable to work to support themselves and their families.
This is especially true when the occupier has inhabited
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and developed the property over time. This was recognized
in the Roman legal doctrine of usucapio and the British
common law principle of adverse possession. In these
cases, the rights to self-preservation and acquisition-
through-improvement reinforce one another.
Even if we accept these arguments, however, there
are still a number of difculties. First, if 41% of the
residents of Mumbai live in informal settlements, then this
expansive approach to the right to shelter has enormous
consequences. Especially in poorer countries, it may not be
economically feasible to provide appropriate public housing
or even municipal services to informal settlements. Second,
this approach may seem to undermine the traditional
understanding of public property rights. If needy people
can erect shelters on the side of the road, then why not
in a park or even in a museum? In fact, the government
made precisely this argument in the Olga Tellis v. Bombay
Municipal Corporation case. The road in question, it
insisted, was not empty space but rather a place that
was needed for the safe circulation of pedestrians and
trafc. Recent court decisions have endorsed this view
and concluded that the use of public space for dwelling
is a privatization of public space and equivalent to theft.
Pavement dwellers take land that the general public could
use for purposes such as recreation or circulation and turn
it into the private home of a family.
The right to housing may be the most difcult of human
rights because of its distinctive characteristics. It is
complicated because physical space is limited and
exclusive in a way that health or education or even food
(in wealthy countries) is not. It is also very different
from the right to free speech or a fair trial, which can be
universalized more easily. Your right to a fair trial makes
my right more secure but your right to a housing unit
leaves one less place for me to live. Despite the challenges
involved in judicializing this right, it articulates an
important ideal that can serve both to guide policy and to
criticize government actions.
Can the right to housing be incorporated more thoroughly
in the language of human rights treaties or the practice of
human rights organizations? The answer to this question
depends on how we understand rights. If we conceive of
rights as some philosophers do, as abstract principles or
‘trumps’, then the answer is no. Locke’s theory of private
property (ownership through improvement), for example,
was used to justify colonialism. Claiming a right does
not always secure right, in the sense of a just outcome.
Rights such as the right to housing must be interpreted
and applied in the context of a broader project of human
rights, which links them to goals of self-preservation and
human ourishing. If we understand rights broadly, as
‘high cards’ rather than trumps, then they are useful in
guiding policy and advancing social justice. They do this
by identifying fundamental interests that entail obligations
for governments and priorities for non-governmental
organizations. UN-Habitat has taken the correct approach
in urging member countries to incorporate urban rights into
domestic law. France’s Droit au Logement and Brazil’s City
Statute are promising examples for expanding social and
economic rights to the level of the city.
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From the Zòcalo and Tiananmen to Tahrir, Taksim, and
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, mass protest movements discover
both their site and symbol in a centrally located public
space in the nations capital. But local laws and practices
do not acknowledge any right to public space, even though
the UN Declaration of Human Rights recognizes rights
to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly that can
only be enjoyed through access to it. In most cities, apart
from outright repression, the exercise of human rights is
challenged by a blurring of responsibility for public space
between the public and private sectors, and a gap between
global rights and local governance.
Whether they are streets, parks, or public squares, public
spaces sit between the governments that rule and those
who challenge their authority. Public space is the city’s
commons, where dissident views nd a voice. Therefore, the
right to occupy public space offers the basis of citizenship
in the broadest sense.
Yet, in recent years, city governments around the world
have increasingly supported the privatization of public
spaces. Privatization may involve transferring ownership,
management, or control of an existing space from the local
government to a private business owner or private non-
prot organization. Or it may involve new public spaces
built, owned, or managed by private businesses rather than
by the public sector. Sometimes these privatized public
spaces are physically separated from city streets by gates
or walls. In other places, they are open to the public, but
only during limited hours. They are under surveillance both
electronically and by private security guards. Although
privatization may reect a city government’s lack of
money to maintain public space, on the one hand, or its
willingness to cede social control to businesses on the
other, management of nominally public space as if it were
wholly private property restricts the exercise of human
Privatization limits human rights more subtly than direct
prohibition, but just as effectively. When the Ukrainian
President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly outlawed most
forms of public protest in January 2014, the decision was
interpreted as an infringement of the human right to free
speech, and there was widespread international outcry.
But when the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan tried to transform Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a
shopping mall and luxury ats, amid a background of ofcial
actions against freedom of the press and of assembly, the
commercial redevelopment was not considered a human
rights issue. Business trumped human rights.
In this essay we begin with observations on how one protest
movement - Occupy Wall Street - used public space to create
a local commons for global human rights. We then review
the ways in which today’s regimes of privatization limit
the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly by
occupying public space, and conclude with the suggestion
that the global movement for human rights should join local
initiatives to free public spaces from private control.
Occupying the public square
In 2011, the Occupy movement won support in many cities
around the world for reshaping centrally located public
spaces that were associated with global nancial power
into multidimensional public squares that were both
democratic in scope and equally local, national, and global
Gregory Smithsimon & Sharon Zukin
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in scale. The initial protesters who formed Occupy Wall
Street in New York raised their voices against the nancial
domination of a small elite - the ‘one percent’- who control
the major share of wealth in the US and inuence the
government’s decisions. They established an encampment
in Zuccotti Park, a small but prominent piece of land in the
city’s historic nancial district.
Occupying the park was a means and condition to exercise
rights to freedom of speech and assembly, which are
embedded in both the UN Declaration of Human Rights
and the rst amendment to the US Constitution. Like
occupations elsewhere, notably in public squares of the
Arab world, Occupy Wall Street created a place of encounter
between sympathizers, curious visitors, and those activists
who occupied the centre of media attention for many weeks.
During this time, Zuccotti Park became New York’s public
square. Yet the park sits in a legal limbo as a privately
owned outdoor space that is open, under city zoning law, to
the public. It is not clear whose law applies there: a law of
public use or private property? Can the public international
law of human rights be used by protestors to contest
the private property owners who ask the police to evict
protestors from a ‘public’ space?
In global nancial capitals, the answer is no. The New York
Police Department waited two months for the owners of
Zuccotti Park to request action before they cleared the park
and arrested everyone who had been inside. In London, a
high court injunction prevented Occupy protestors from even
entering Paternoster Square, a privately owned, open space
like Zuccotti Park in that city’s historic nancial district.
These two nominally but not legally public spaces are not
unique. Hybrids like them are proliferating in cities large
and small. We now turn to two examples of such hybrids of
privatized public urban spaces: bonus plazas and business
improvement districts.
Bonus plazas
Zuccotti Park is a ‘bonus plaza’ which allows private
developers to build larger, taller buildings than zoning
laws otherwise allow, in exchange for providing open public
space at street level. These ‘plazas’ are usually connected
to ofce towers. They may be indoors or outdoors. They may
offer benches, tables, or movable chairs, sell beverages
and sandwiches at small kiosks or cafés, and offer entry to
stores. Most US cities and many outside the US have bonus
plaza programmes, and each city devises its own rules. The
advantage for developers is that they are allowed to build
more rentable space; the advantage for city governments
is that more ‘public’ space is created and paid for by
businesses. Attractive public spaces also increase property
values for the building owner.
In New York, the rules that have governed bonus plazas
since the 1960s require building owners to keep the
plazas open for everyone to use. Signs must be posted
that show the area is a public space, although these signs
sometimes also state limited hours when members of the
public can enter. In reality, the bonus plazas are often
empty or underused. This reects unwillingness on the
part of most developers and building owners to design and
maintain a space that truly encourages public use, in part
because such a space could be ‘occupied’ by unpredictable
strangers; the homeless, dirty, or politically offensive
(Kayden 2000; Whyte 1988; Shepard & Smithsimon 2011).
During the 1980s, when homelessness in US cities
increased dramatically, bonus plazas were specically
designed to repel rather than to encourage public use.
Vigorous policing in recent years, the increased use of
electronic surveillance, and more aggressive removal of
homeless people has led to more attractive designs while
also limiting opportunities to use these spaces in ways that
building owners would not approve.
On paper, local laws governing bonus plazas ensure open
access and broad use. In practice, access is sometimes res-
tricted for groups that are deemed suspicious, dangerous or
simply unwanted. This raises serious human rights concerns
with regard to, for instance, non-discrimination and equality.
BIDs and parks conservancies
Since the 1980s, New York mayors have encouraged the for-
mation of public-private partnerships in the form of business
improvement districts (BIDs) to manage the public space of
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shopping streets throughout the city. At the same time, and
for the same reasons, the city government has supported the
formation of private, non-prot conservancies to manage a
small but growing number of public parks in partnership with
the city’s Parks Department (Zukin 1995, 2010).
Private management not only cleans the streets and parks,
it also builds amenities for consumption. BIDs engage the
public in a “pacication by cappuccino” (Zukin 1995),
and provide elegant landscaping, by contrast with less
well-funded public spaces (Loughran 2014). Because they
are nanced not by the state, but by commercial building
owners and their tenants, BIDs have been adopted in many
cities, from the Netherlands to South Africa (Ward 2011).
BIDs and conservancies work together with city government
agencies, including the police department, to accept or
reject specic uses of the public space that they manage.
Their operational inuence on local norms of ‘acceptable’
public use gives them a signicant authority over the
universal human rights of free speech and assembly. Their
private security guards evict people who they think are
violating these norms, from sunbathers who show too much
skin to homeless people who are sleeping on park benches.
Privatization and securitization of
urban space
Privatization of urban public space has expanded together
with the securitization of both public and private spaces
(as highlighted by Rivke Jaffe and Erella Grassiani in this
volume). Since the 1970s, private security guards have
been one of the ten fastest growing occupations around
the world. Alongside doormen in New York or armed guards
in Sao Paulo, residents protect their homes with burglar
alarms and ‘safe rooms’, and patrol their neighbourhood
streets in teams, sometimes with guns. Their diffuse fears
have propelled the growth of gated communities in all
regions of the world.
In the absence of gates, municipalities and private property
owners have built many new kinds of fortications against
potential robbers and terrorists. Shoppers in larger stores
routinely pass uniformed security guards. So do students
entering university buildings, and visitors entering
hospitals and ofce towers. In US cities, BIDs and parks
conservancies also hire security guards.
The awkward physical barriers that cities have erected to
thwart terrorists also inhibit the right to gather in public
spaces. Government centres and nancial districts are
heavily barred, and are now designed to facilitate the
barring, isolation, and removal of ‘disruptive’ public uses.
London’s ‘Ring of Steel’, created in the 1990s during the
last terrorist campaigns of the Irish Republican Army, and
Manhattan’s adaptation, installed after the deadly terrorist
attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, use thousands
of surveillance cameras to track movement through central
business districts. If everyone is tracked, everyone must
be a potential terrorist. Anti-terrorist installations such
as London’s and New York’s ‘ring of steel’ preclude social
activism by enacting surveillance, personally identifying
activists, and creating archives of ‘criminal suspects’. This
anti-terrorist infrastructure has a chilling effect on the
freedom of speech. If local practices prioritize pre-emptive
securitization of the streets, there is no space to exercise
universal human rights.
Conclusion: a right to public space
Nowhere are the global and the local more intimately
joined than in the exercise of free speech and assembly.
But only recently has the discourse of universal human
rights, centred in the UN, explicitly recognized the access
to public space as a necessary condition for human rights,
as well as the right to safety and free movement in cities’
public spaces. For example, UN Women, which advocates
for gender equality and women’s empowerment, now
emphasizes a need for ‘Creating Safe Public Spaces’.
UNESCO species “inclusion through access to public
space” as a strategy for the social integration of migrants.
The UN Human Settlements Programme envisions
sustainable urban development through access to quality
urban public spaces.” In each case, urban public space
is a material base for achieving the human right of full,
individual development.
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In the World Charter on the Right to the City, UNESCO
and UN-Habitat negotiate this relationship from the other
direction. They lay out rights to the city (see also the
contributions of Huchzermeyer and Kohn in this volume),
which are to a signicant degree the rights to public space.
Article 1 includes the right to establish unions, the right
to information, political participation, and peaceful co-
existence, and the right of people to organize together and
demonstrate their opinions. Where else can men and women
do this, but in public spaces? Even in the age of social
media, organization and demonstration require physical
spaces. The public square is not just a metaphor, it is a
central space, paved or landscaped, where people are free
to gather. It is a commons - the peoples space - which
ultimately anchors the public sphere.
During the past 40 years, city governments have abdicated
both their scal and their moral responsibility to protect
citizens’ basic rights. Migrants, protesters, and socially
marginal groups have been excluded from the body politic
and repressed. Today, however, some of the ideas that
support privatization - the assumption that the private
sector is efcient and benecent, and that social equity
is less urgent than market freedoms - have been called
into doubt by a newly elected mayor in New York and city
councillors in Portland and Seattle. Also the dysfunction
of nancial institutions is increasingly seen as being
problematic by both voters and public ofcials. This
creates momentum to defy and reverse the privatization
of cities’ public spaces. To do this requires a rebalancing
of local governance of public space and global norms of
human rights. Only by joining the global and the local can
we create spaces for both development and citizenship, the
spaces in which human rights are practised.
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How do the urbanization of our planet, the growth of
inequalities, and the increasing preoccupation with cities
amongst security and military forces intersect with threats
to human rights across the world? This essay focuses on
understanding how human rights are being threatened by
claims that conventional laws and freedoms need to be
compromised because of purported security risks. Such
human rights threats are woven into the changing geography
and architecture of cities, which increasingly become like
giant airports: archipelagos of fenced enclaves linked by
check points and guarded by militarist security techniques.
As our planet urbanizes more rapidly than ever before,
a new and insidious trend is permeating the fabric of
cities and urban life. Fuelled by, and perpetuating, the
extreme inequalities that have mushroomed as neoliberal
globalisation has extended across the world, this ‘new
military urbanism’ is a constellation of ideas, techniques
and norms ofsecurity and military doctrine.
As I demonstrate in my book Cities Under Siege (2011),
these ideas, techniques and norms centre on the notion
that contemporary cities are the key strategic centres
of our world; that security and military forces need to
be redesigned specically to control burgeoning cities;
and that states must permanently mobilise against
a wide range of lurking threats within cities and the
infrastructures and ows that lace them together.
Crucially, such thinking increasingly blurs ‘homeland
security’ drives in domestic urban areas, the widening
reach of global electronic surveillance and intelligence
gathering, and urban counterinsurgency operations in war-
zone cities. Policing becomes increasingly paramilitarized,
warfare centres on attempts to control urban civilian
populations, and notions of the global and the local threats
blur more powerfully together.
National security states thus increasingly concentrate
on trying to remake cities and urban security practices
to pre-emptively snuff out a range of perceived threats –
political protests, social unrest, cyber attacks, terrorism,
disruptions to major events, infrastructures and spectacles
and so on. Such policies are mobilized in order to try and
interrupt events and ows deemed to be threatening
whilst maintaining the on-going ows and connections
necessary to sustain key strategic cities and geographic
sites in terms of nance, logistics, communications, power,
tourism, and corporate and tourist travel.
Security cities
With the new military urbanism linking Western cities and
those on colonial frontiers, fuelled by the anti-urbanism of
national security states, it is no surprise that cities in both
domains are starting to display startling similarities. In both,
hard, military-style borders, fences and checkpoints around
defended enclaves and ‘security zones’, superimposed on
the wider and more open city, are proliferating.Jersey-
barrier blast walls, identity checkpoints, computerized CCTV,
biometric surveillance and military styles of access control
protect archipelagos of fortied enclaves from an outside
deemed unruly, impoverished, or dangerous.
In the former case, these encompass green zones, war
prisons, ethnic and sectarian neighbourhoods and military
bases; in the latter they are growing around strategic
nancial districts, embassy zones, tourist spaces,
Stephen Graham
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airport and port complexes, sports event spaces, gated
communities and export processing zones.
Imagining cities as threats
Crucially, trends linking security and military doctrine in
cities with those on colonial peripheries are backed up by
the cultural ideas about cities which underpin the political
Right and Far-Right, along with hawkish commentators
within Western militaries themselves. These tend to deem
cities per se to be intrinsically problematic spaces – the
main sites concentrating acts of subversion, resistance,
mobilization, dissent, ethnic and racial difference, and
protest challenging national security states.
In rendering all mixed-up cities as problematic spaces
beyond the rural or exurban heartlands of authentic
national communities, telling connections representing
cities within colonial peripheries and capitalist heartlands
are forged. The construction of sectarian enclaves modelled
on Israeli practice by US forces in Baghdad from 2003, for
example, was widely described by US security personnel
as the development of US-style ‘gated communities’ in the
country. In the aftermath of the devastation of New Orleans
by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005, meanwhile, US Army
Ofcers talked of the need to ‘take back’ the city from Iraqi-
style ‘insurgents’.
Urban research amongst militaries
and security forces
In such a context, and given the increasingly extreme social
inequalities already highlighted by other authors contributing
to this volume, it is no surprise that Western military
theorists and researchers are now particularly pre-occupied
with how the geographies of cities, and especially the cities
of the Global South, are beginning to inuence both the
geopolitics and the techno-science of post-cold war political
violence. After long periods of preaching the avoidance
of conict in cities if at all possible, or their attempted
annihilation from afar through missiles of strategic bombing,
military doctrines addressing the challenges of military
operations within cities are rapidly emerging from under
what Jean Servielle (2004) termed ”the dust of history and
the (…) weight of nuclear deterrence”.
Indeed, almost unnoticed within ‘civil’ urban social
science, a large ‘shadow’ system of military urban research
is quickly being established. Funded by Western military
research budgets, this is quickly elaborating how such
effects are allegedly already becoming manifest, and how
the global intensication of processes of urbanization will
deepen them in the future. As Keith Dickson (2002), a US
military theorist of urban warfare puts it, the increasing
perception within Western militaries is that, “for Western
military forces, asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be
the greatest challenge of this century (…). The city will be
the strategic high ground – whoever controls it will dictate
the course of future events in the world”.
The central consensus amongst the wide variety of Western
military theorists pushing for such shifts is that “modern
urban combat operations will become one of the primary
challenges of the 21st century” (DIRC 1997:11). Major Kelly
Houlgate, a US Marine Corps commentator, notes already
that between 1984 and 2004 “of 26 conicts fought over by
US forces (…) 21 have involved urban areas, and 10 have
been exclusively urban” (Houlgate 2004).
In addition to the massive military and geopolitical
catastrophe that is the overwhelmingly urban war in Iraq,
military operations to note here include iconic operations
like the US military’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ humiliations in
Mogadishu in 1991, their operations in Kosovo in 1999 and
Beirut in the 1980s, and their various recent operations
in the Caribbean and Central American regions (Panama
City (1989), Grenada (1983) and Port-au-Prince (1994).
Inuential urban conicts such as those at Grozny in
Chechnya (1994), Sarajevo (1992-1995), Georgia and
South Ossetia (2008), and Israel-Palestine (1947- to
present) also loom large in current military debates about
the urbanization of warfare.
The US military’s focus on military operations within
the domestic urban sphere is also being dramatically
strengthened by the so-called ‘war on terror’. This deems
cities and their key infrastructures to be key ‘battlespaces’
whether they are located at home or abroad. Through
such an analytical lens, the Rodney King riots of 1992
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in LA; the various attempts to securitize urban cores for
major sports events or political summits; the military
responses to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005;
or the challenges of ‘homeland security’ in US cities, all
become ‘urban’ or ‘low intensity operations’ as much as
counterinsurgency warfare on the streets of Baghdad (see
Boyle 2005). ‘Lessons learned’ reports drawn up after
military deployments to contain the Los Angeles riots in
1992, for example, credit ‘the success’ of the mission to
the fact that ‘the enemy’ - the local population - was easy
to outmanoeuvre given their simple battle tactics and
strategies (Cowen 2007: 1). High-tech targeting practices
like unmanned drones and organized satellite surveillance
programmes, used previously to target spaces beyond
the nation to (purportedly) make the nation safe, are also
starting to colonize the domestic spaces of the nation.
Military doctrine also now often treats the operations of
gangs within US cities as forms of ’urban insurgency’,
‘fourth generation warfare’ or ‘netwar’ directly analogous to
that on the streets of Kabul or Baghdad (Manwaring 2005).
Inner city orientalism
Such trends of domestic urban militarisation are fuelled by
a new ‘inner city Orientalism’. This relies on the widespread
depiction amongst security or military commentators of im-
migrant districts within the West’s cities as ‘backward’ zones
threatening the body politic of the Western city and nation.
In France, for example, post-war state planning
orchestrated the mass, peripheral, housing projects of
the banlieues effectively as ‘near peripheral’ reservations
attached to, but distant from, the main metropolitan cores
of the country (Kipfer & Goonewardena 2007). Here bitter
memories of the Algerian and other anti-colonial wars live
on in the discourses of the French Right about waning
‘white’ power and the ‘insecurity’ caused by the banlieues;
a process that has led to a dramatic mobilization of state
security forces in and around the main immigrant banlieues
housing complexes. Discussing the shift from external
to internal colonization in France, Kristin Ross (1996:12)
points to the way in which France now “distances itself
from its (former) colonies, both within and without”. This
has operated, she writes, through a “great cordoning off of
the immigrants, their removal to the suburbs in a massive
reworking of the social boundaries of Paris and other
French cities”. The 2005 riots (see also the interview with
Parag Khanna in this volume) were only the latest in a
long line of reactions towards the increasing militarization
and securitization of this form of internal colonization
and enforced peripherality within the ‘badlands’ of the
contemporary French Republic (Dikeç 2007).
However, similar trends have long operated well beyond
France. In all Western nations, it is the postcolonial
diasporas, and their neighbourhoods, that are the main
targets of the new, internal, and often highly racialized
security politics (which grow more stark with the growing
mainstream political success of the Far-Right). Along with
a proliferation of increasingly militarized camps to process
immigrants at home and abroad, they are amongst the
key sites where the “codes of a colonial condition have
inltrated the metropolitan West” (Veracini 2005). In
many nations, resurgent anti-urban or ethno-nationalist
movements work to portray such communities as primitive
threats to white power or as ‘impure’, ‘primitive’ contagions
within some putatively ‘pure’ ‘homeland.
’Invasion by immigration’
Worrying, such parties are gaining more and more mainstream
success in elections across Europe as they exploit widespread
disaffections with conventional austerity politics and traditio-
nal mainstream parties and are supported by xenophobic and
racist media. However, extreme xenophobia and racism are
also present amongst security and military theorists.
Indeed, such is the conation of terrorism and migration
these days that simple acts of migration are now even
being deemed as acts of warfare within contemporary
military doctrine. In Understanding Fourth Generation War
(2004), William Lind, an inuential theorist of war in the
US wrote: “Invasion by immigration can be at least as
dangerous as invasion by a state army”. Under what he
calls the “poisonous ideology of multiculturalism”, Lind
argues that immigrants within Western nations can now
launch “a home grown variety of Fourth Generation war,
which is by far the most dangerous kind”.
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This discursive shift has been termed the ‘weaponization’ of
migration (Cato 2008). This is a shift away from emphases
on moral obligations to offer hospitality to refugees toward
criminalizing or dehumanizing migrants’ bodies as weapons
against purportedly homogeneous and ethno-nationalist
bases of national power.
Here the latest debates about ‘asymmetric’, ‘irregular’ or
‘low intensity war’ within security and military journals,
where nothing can be dened outside of boundless
and never-ending denitions of political violence, blur
uncomfortably into the growing clamour of demonization
by Far-Right commentators of the West’s diasporic and
increasingly cosmopolitan cities.
Urban life as societal threat?
Such ideas quickly transpose the prosaic social acts that
together forge urban life into existential, societal threats.
Acts of crime are rendered as acts of ‘war’. All too easily,
counter-terror and anti-immigration laws, and surveillance
increasingly blur into joint state activities centred on
tracking, monitoring and targeting the Orientalized other in
the name of ‘security’ (Veracini 2005).
Thus, racial proling is used to shape ID checking
programmes on city streets. Special surveillance and
mapping systems are installed in certain parts of cities
to scrutinize racialized neighbourhoods and communities
(the UK Secret Service’s covert CCTV system in parts of
Birmingham and LAPD’s mapping system for ‘Muslim’ parts
of LA spring to mind). Pressure is also placed to undermine
national visa waiver policies for certain ‘races’ within a
national citizenry (the US has considered abandoning visa
waiver policies for UK citizens of Pakistani origin).
Laws and traditions based on notions of human rights or
the rights of national citizenship are now routinely eroded
or suspended and replaced by explicitly colonial tropes. In
Italy, such demonization is already being translated into the
specic registration of Roma groups and state-orchestrated
violence against them.
‘Security’ as economy
Crucially, the new military urbanism is sustained by a
rapidly growing new security economy. This encompasses
sprawling, transnational industrial complexes fusing
military and security companies with technology,
surveillance and entertainment organizations; a wide range
of consultants and industries who sell ‘security’ solutions
as silver bullets to complex social problems; and a complex
mass of security and military thinkers who now argue that
war and political violence centre overwhelmingly on the
everyday spaces and circuits of urban life.
As vague and all-encompassing ideas about ‘security’
creep into and infect virtually all aspects of public policy
and social life, so these emerging industrial-security
complexes work together on the highly lucrative challenges
of perpetually targeting everyday activities, spaces and
behaviours in cities and the circulations which link them
together. The proliferation of wars sustaining permanent
mobilization and pre-emptive, ubiquitous surveillance
within and beyond territorial borders means that, as Georgio
Agamben (2002) has put it,the imperative of ‘security’ now
“imposes itself on the basic principle of state activity”.
Amidst the global economic crash, so-called ‘homeland
security’ industries – sometimes more accurately labelled
by critical commentatorsthe ‘pacication industry’ – are in
bonanza mode. As the post 9/11 US paradigm of ‘homeland
security’ is being diffused around the world, the industry
– worth $142 billion in 2009 – is expected to be worth a
staggering $2.7 trillion globally between 2010 and 2012.
Growth rates are between 5 and 12% per year.
Thus, Israeli-designed drones created to vertically
subjugate and target Palestinians are increasingly
deployed by police forces in North America, Europe and
East Asia. Private operators of US ‘supermax’ prisons
are heavily involved in running the global archipelago
organizing incarceration and torture that has burgeoned
since the start of the ‘war on terror’. Private military and
security corporations heavily colonise ‘reconstruction’
contracts in both Iraq and New Orleans whilst also running
security operations for Olympics and World Cups. Even the
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‘shoot to kill’ policies developed to confront risks of suicide
bombing in Tel Aviv and Haifa have been adopted by police
forces in Western cities (a process which directly led to the
state killing of Jean Charles De Menezes by London anti-
terrorist police on 22 July 2005).
Meanwhile, aggressive and militarized policing against
public demonstrations and social mobilizations in London,
Toronto, Paris or New York now utilize the same ‘non-lethal
weapons’ as Israel’s army in Gaza or Jenin. Constructions
of ‘security zones’ around the strategic nancial cores of
London and New York (see also the contribution of Zukin &
Smithsimon in this volume), or around political summits,
echo the techniques used in Baghdad’s Green zone. And
many of the techniques used to fortify enclaves in Baghdad
or the West Bank are being sold around the world as leading-
edge and ‘combat-proven’ ‘security solutions’ by corporate
coalitions linking Israeli, US and other companies and states.
Importantly, the same constellations of ‘security’ companies
are often involved in selling, establishing and operating
the techniques and practices of the new military urbanism
in both war-zone and ‘homeland’ cities. The main security
contractor for the London Olympics– G4S, more familiar
under its old Group 4 moniker – the world’s largest security
company, is an excellentexample here. Beyond its £130
million Olympic security contracts, it operates the world’s
largest private security force – 630,000 people - taking
up a myriad of outsourced contracts. It secures prisons,
asylum detention centres, and oil and gas installations,
VIPs, embassies, airports (including those in Doncaster and
Baghdad) and infrastructure and operates in 125 countries.1
Conclusion: threats to human rights
The new military urbanism is stealthy and insidious. Its
effects often operate beyond democratic scrutiny and
1 According to its website, G4S specializes in particular
in what they term “executive style life-support in hazardous
environments” (Presumably, this refers to Baghdad and not
East London). After buying up the ArmorGroup mercenary
company in 2008, it also now runs a large number of
Blackwater-style security operations in Iraq.
undermine democratic rights of dissent. Above all, the
various elements of the new military urbanism outlined
briey here work together to stealthily constitute a new
notion of ‘normal’ urban life. This is based on pre-
emptive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, the
evisceration of civil rights, and the obsessive securitisation
of everyday life to support increasingly unequal societies.
Such trends are clearly deeply troubling from the point
of view of human rights. In the worlds of increasingly
paramilitarized and globe-straddling policing, based on the
kinds of pre-emptive surveillance revealed by the Snowden
leaks, legitimate political and democratic protests are
increasingly bundled together with violent terrorism and
violent insurgency. Such conations, legitimized by the
idea that ‘warfare’ these days involves states mobilizing
‘asymmetrically’ against a myriad of lurking non-state
threats, lead all too easily to the suspension of rights
of protest, due process and habeas corpus. These occur
as ‘special’ and ‘emergency’ powers, and are routinized
and generalized to undermine human rights built up over
centuries through mobilization on urban streets.
The prime challenge for those struggling against such
trends, therefore, is to demonstrate that they are not an
inevitable given in the nature of things. Rather, they are
elements of a wider project of market-fundamentalist
neoliberalism which, whilst deeply awed, rumbles on
without (yet) a fully edged competitor.
For human rights organizations in particular, three lessons
are stark and clear. First, efforts to challenge all aspects
of anti-democratic shifts in policing, intelligence gathering
and the blurring of policing and military action must be
informed by the crucial roles that ideas about cities and
urban life have in shaping these shifts.
Second, such efforts must fully address the crucial
importance of urban democratic rights as pivotal bases
for human rights in contemporary societies. The legal
and geographic aspects of these shifts need to be seen
together. What, after all, is the point of notional legal bases
for democratic and human rights if the geographies of
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cities are progressively and stealthily re-engineered to be
like giant airports - archipelagos of fenced enclaves linked
by checkpoints - as the norms of the new military urbanism
are established into geographic ‘facts on the ground’?
Finally, human rights struggles must be specically aware
of how notions that contemporary cities face vague and
boundless threats requiring ‘emergency’ solutions, which
prevail in mainstream media as well as in security and
military doctrine, work as justications to dismantle
human rights. History demonstrates that such acts of
dismantling are much harder to reverse than instigate.
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Walking through Downtown Kingston, you might see a
tank roll past on its way to an inner-city neighbourhood.
In Jerusalem, entering the bus station involves passing
through a metal detector and having your bags scanned by
private security. As these examples indicate, militarization
and privatization of security are especially visible at the
urban level. What are the implications of these processes
for human rights in cities?
In cities across the world ‘security’ has become an
increasingly central concern, legitimizing various measures,
such as increased surveillance, pre-emptive regulation
and even military intervention. Two main trends can be
identied as both citizens and governments prioritize
urban security: the militarization of urban space and
the privatization of security provision. These trends are
particularly evident at the urban level, as security risks
involving crime and terrorism are increasingly projected
on the city rather than on the nation state. The measures
associated with these trends often involve a trade-off
between security and human rights, including the rights
to privacy, freedom of movement and equal treatment
before the law. The militarization of urban security involves
a move towards more aggressive and intrusive forms of
policing and punishment, which tend to intensify socio-
economic and ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, urban residents
increasingly rely on private as well as public security
providers. This shift towards the private provision of urban
security often diminishes transparency and accountability.
Below, we sketch these two trends, followed by two brief
urban case studies – of Jerusalem and Kingston – that
illustrate how the militarization and privatization of urban
policing affect human rights.
Militarizing the city
The militarization of urban space can be dened as the
visible integration of security elements into the built
environment, with the aim of defending certain groups
of residents against the perceived threat posed by other
groups. This trend of militarization relates to shifts in
urban governance as well as a changing military logic. In
recent decades, war has become increasingly urbanized,
as ‘enemy combatants’ or ‘terrorists’ mix with civilian
populations and cities become military battleelds.
Well-known recent examples include cities in the Balkan,
Iraq, Palestine and Syria. Importantly, this has meant
that the boundaries between combatants and civilians,
and between battleground and home front, have become
increasingly ambiguous. In addition, the military tactics
and technologies designed for these urban conicts have
travelled from cities such as Baghdad and Gaza City to
London and New York (Cowen 2007). The urbanization of
military conict is accompanied by the blurring of ‘external’
threats such as terrorism and ‘internal’ threats related
to crime. This blurring of terrorism and crime in policies
aimed at urban security can be seen in, for example, the
mobilization of military forces to prevent football violence
or the extension of possibilities for police ofcers in
urban areas to frisk people without specic suspicions.
This blurring has also entailed both new entanglements
and increased competition between military intelligence
agencies and the police (Fussey 2013; Altheide 2006;
Ekman, Lettinga & Verbossen 2012).
Stephen Graham (author of the previous chapter of this
volume) sees such developments as part of what he terms
the ‘new military urbanism’, which includes the use of
“militarized techniques of tracking and targeting [to]
Rivke Jaffe & Erella Grassiani
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everyday life” (2011: xiv). As the city has become the central
locus of security concerns, this militarization of everyday
life includes highly visible or spectacular elements, such as
the increased presence of uniformed personnel and military
vehicles on city streets. However, the new military urbanism
also involves the normalization of ‘things military’: the
process by which citizens come to accept and even rely on
the presence of military and security-related themes and
logic in our daily lives. Civilians are increasingly accustomed
to encountering military technologies and ideas in civilian
space: not just strict security measures at airports or
camera surveillance of public urban space, but also the use
of drones to police cities.
This type of militarized urbanism has implications for the
rights of city dwellers. The multiplication and diversication
of urban ‘threats’ means that political protests are often
policed through similar security measures and laws as
those applied to terrorists, restricting freedom of opinion
and of peaceful assembly. Militarized policing is generally
applied differentially across the urban landscape,
resulting in benets to some and harm to others. Often,
security techniques are focused on specic urban areas or
populations that are branded as ‘problematic’ and isolated
from the rest of the city, on the basis of class, ethno-racial
or religious markers. Mike Davis (1992) refers to this as
the destruction of democratic urban space. Urban planning
and architecture – from public parks to shopping malls
– are increasingly oriented towards the security needs of
more privileged groups, undermining the ideal of freely
accessible public space.
A newly militarized police force relies on stop-and-frisk
techniques and punitive zoning laws to harass urban
‘undesirables’, often young people, racialized minorities,
homeless people and other low-income groups. This type of
discriminatory, pre-emptive policing – which in some cases
culminates in extra-judicial killings by security forces1
involves several human rights risks: it limits the freedom
1 ’Police shot Brazilian eight times’, The Guardian, 25 July
2005. Available at:
of movement of criminalized groups, subjects them to
arbitrary arrest, and prevents their access to a fair trial by
undermining the presumption of innocence. In addition,
the proliferation of surveillance through CCTV and drones
impacts on all urban residents’ right to privacy.
Privatizing security
The militarization of urban life has coincided to a large
extent with the privatization of policing. Urban residents’
lives and property are no longer protected primarily by the
public police. Increasingly they are also protected – as
well as endangered – by formal and informal private
security providers. While the state’s monopoly on the
provision of security has always been more imagined than
real, neoliberal policies have meant that citizens and
businesses are now actively being ‘responsibilized’ for
safeguarding their own physical integrity and material
belongings (Garland 1996). This transfer of responsibility
for security from state to non-state actors has resulted in
a diversication of the agencies and agents that deliver
security and policing services. This diversication is often
characterized as a shift from police to policing: the activity
of policing is performed by actors other than the police.
State actors such as the police and the military still play
a role in security provision, but are often outanked by
non-state providers such as private security companies,
neighbourhood watches and vigilante groups.
The private commercial security industry in particular has
come to play a prominent role within this shift from police
to policing, and their prominence is especially visible in
urban contexts.2 In many cities, private security guards
and armed response ofcers far outnumber the public
police, and they have taken on many functions traditionally
associated with the police, from crime prevention to
apprehending suspects. In certain cases, the police and
private companies enter into collaborative relationships,
2 However, mining enclaves form an important non-urban
site where private security companies also tend to have a
larger presence than the public police. The discussion here
does not focus on private military companies, which also
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with private security bolstering state authority. In other
cases, they function as rivals, as private companies
compete for contracts and entice police and soldiers to
become private guards with offers of better salary and
equipment (Jones and Newburn 2006).
Especially in contexts where police corruption is widespread,
citizens may place more trust in non-state security agents
than in the police. In transitional democracies and other
contexts where police legitimacy is low, non-state security
providers can play a positive role (Baker 2010). In some
cases, the private security industry may be at least as
effective and accountable as the public police. However, in
contexts where the industry is not regulated strictly, it is
often plagued by serious problems in terms of effectiveness,
professionalism and democratic accountability (Loader
2000; Stenning 2000). The plural and fragmented nature of
private security provision tend to complicate regulation, in
part because many regulatory bodies tends to operate at the
national rather than the urban level.
While many private security ofcers themselves are often
underpaid and risk their lives on a daily basis, they are also
involved in human rights abuses. In cities where citizens
have limited condence in the state justice system, private
security providers may act as vigilantes, using violence to
punish suspected criminals. More generally, private security
often poses a threat to social equity (Loader 2000). When
security is no longer seen as primarily a state responsibility
or a democratic right, it becomes a commodity that only the
well-to-do can afford. In addition to beneting wealthier
citizens more than the urban poor, private security can
also exacerbate ethno-racial inequalities. Although private
security guards are often members of underprivileged
populations, their everyday practices often involve ethnic
and racial proling as guards target criminalized groups as
security threats. In particular, young men from such groups
are harassed or denied entrance to urban spaces of leisure
and consumption by private security forces, exacerbating the
ethnic and racial proling common amongst many public
police ofcers (O’Dougherty 2006; Kempa and Singh 2008;
Open Society Institute 2009). While it is already difcult to
hold the police accountable for human rights abuses, this
is perhaps even more so in the case of private companies,
given that (international) human rights law is still
predominantly focused on state authorities.
In what follows, we present two brief urban case studies
of militarization and privatization. As we note above,
these processes are especially evident in cities, which
have increasingly become the focus of security policies.
The cities discussed here, Jerusalem and Kingston,
are somewhat extreme examples of these processes.
Although they differ markedly in terms of social, political
and economic context, both are cities characterized by
high levels of insecurity, the blurring of anti-crime and
anti-terrorism policies, and an extensive private security
industry. As such, they present useful cases that provide
a more in-depth illustration of how militarization and
privatization shape and impede human rights.
Case 1: Jerusalem
East Jerusalem is part of the Occupied Palestinian
Territories (OPT), which have been under the control of
Israel since 1967. Palestinians living in this part of the
city – where the Old City and some of the world’s most
important religious sites are located – have a permanent
residency status. They do not enjoy full citizenship rights
within the Israeli state. Jewish settlers have increasingly
claimed territory within East Jerusalem as their own.
Importantly, under international law these and all other
settlements in the OPT are illegal. As the result of these
settlements, numerous Palestinians have been evicted
from their homes and suffer decreasing access to services
such as education and water.3
In addition to these problems, increasing numbers of
private security personnel patrol the streets of East
Jerusalem. It is estimated that some 350 Israeli private
security ofcers protect approximately 2000 Israeli settlers
3 
Affairs, ‘Settlements in Palestinian residential areas in east
Jerusalem’, April 2012. Available at:
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living in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods.4 These
private guards take on what is generally seen as one of
the core functions of the state: the protection of citizens.
However, these private guards by no means protect the
population of East Jerusalem equally: their main role is to
protect one group of urban residents (Jewish settlers) from
another group (Palestinians) whom they view as consisting
of terrorists or enemy combatants.
As private actors operating in the OPT, the security
activities of these guards are not governed by clear rules
or regulations. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
(ACRI) has petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice,
arguing that the private guards’ presence has a very
negative impact on the daily lives of Palestinians. In
the words of ACRI’s attorney: “The operation of a private
security force constitutes an unlawful privatization of core
policing responsibilities (…) and violates the basic rights
of Palestinians”.5 The report goes on to state: “The armed
guards endanger Palestinian life and limb, and they harm
the normal exercise of residential daily life due to the
improper and illegal discretion they wield”.6
The privatized military checkpoints in Jerusalem are another
example of both the militarization of urban space and
the privatization of security. While military checkpoints
have long been a standard element within Jerusalem’s
urban landscape, since 2006 increasing numbers of these
checkpoints have been privatized. Rather than being
staffed by military personnel, the checkpoints are now run
4 Association for Civil Rights in Israel petition to the High
Court (2012), ‘High Court to State: Explain use of private
guards in East Jerusalem’, 13 December. Available at:
5 Association for Civil Rights in Israel petition to the High
Court (2012), ‘High Court to State: Explain use of private
guards in E- Jerusalem’, Available at:
6 Association for Civil Rights in Israel petition to the High
Court (2012), ‘High Court to State: Explain use of private
guards in East Jerusalem’, 13 December. Available at: www.
by private security guards. These guards are expected
to stop unwanted, suspect people from entering Israel
from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The military
checkpoints that have been present in the OPT for decades
are known for their facilitation of human rights abuses,
including the arbitrary restriction of movement, the
harassment of Palestinian citizens by soldiers, and the
use of violence by soldiers (Grassiani 2013; Breaking the
Silence 2012; Amnesty International 2014).
However, the recent privatization of security adds another
layer to the problem. As private security guards replace
soldiers, the privatized checkpoints can be understood as
an effort to naturalize the occupation. They normalize the
warlike situation, as sanitized language from the world of
management (such as ‘efciency’ and ‘professionalism’)
is introduced. Human rights abuses are not necessarily
worse at privatized checkpoints than at those operated
by soldiers. However, these abuses become less visible as
the occupation is presented, and increasingly perceived,
as a ‘normal’ daily situation. In addition, accountability
continues to suffer; it is more difcult to monitor private
guards and to prosecute the human rights abuses that
they commit as there is less supervision and their rules of
engagement are often unclear.
Case 2: Kingston
While Kingston is in many ways quite different from
Jerusalem, certain parallels appear in relation to the
militarization of urban space and the privatization of
security. In Kingston, insecurity is related to criminal rather
than to political violence. The city has extremely high rates
of violent crime, and is known as one of the world’s ‘murder
capitals’. Crime is concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods
in Downtown Kingston, where the majority of residents are
low-income, darker-skinned ‘black’ Jamaicans. Much of the
violence is perpetrated by members of politically aligned
criminal organizations. While national homicide rates have
been around 60 per 100,000 population for over a decade,
in certain inner-city communities local homicide rates are
over 150 per 100,000 residents – rates as high as those
in contexts of low-level war. Indeed, inner-city residents
commonly refer to the urban violence as ‘war’.
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The warlike level of violence is also reected in the
militarization of urban public security provision. Public
security interventions in Downtown Kingston are often joint
military-police operations, and Jamaica Defence Force (JDF)
personnel, weapons and armoured vehicles are increasingly
utilized in the name of ‘internal security’. In addition, the
Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) frequently engages in
warlike gun battles with suspected criminals. The numbers
of inner-city residents killed by JCF members every year
are very high. While local and international human rights
organizations decry these police killings, citizens’ desperation
in the face of brutal crime has meant that many Jamaicans
tolerate or support extrajudicial executions. Despite the
recent establishment of an Independent Commission of
Investigations (Indecom) to investigate these fatalities and
other human rights abuses involving public security forces,
the extremely low rate of convictions means the police can
use excessive force with impunity.
Fear of crime has resulted in the retreat of wealthier, often
lighter-skinned ‘brown’ Kingstonians into fortied enclaves
in Uptown Kingston. These groups rarely trust the police
to protect them effectively, and their gated residential
communities, ofce complexes, restaurants and shopping
plazas are all guarded by private security companies. There
are nearly twice as many private security guards than
JCF members. While security guards are themselves often
from low-income urban environments, they are tasked with
policing the border between Uptown and Downtown spaces,
excluding poor black Kingstonians from the city’s more
privileged spaces on the basis of their appearance.
In Downtown Kingston, inner-city residents cannot turn
to private commercial security for protection, while police
legitimacy is very low due to their reputation of brutality
and corruption. Many of these neighbourhoods are governed
by ‘dons’, local leaders who are often linked to criminal
organizations. Residents increasingly rely on these dons for
the informal, extra-legal provision of security and dispute
resolution. Even as dons are the source of much violence,
they are also the only form of protection that many of the
urban poor have against this same violence. Dons whose
neighbourhoods have low levels of insecurity often enjoy
high levels of local legitimacy, but this is achieved through a
violently punitive style of maintaining local order (Jaffe 2012).
The growth of both formal commercial security and
informal, don-led security are directly related to a lack of
condence in the police. However, the range of competing
irregular armed actors also generates additional insecurity.
While the state security forces have a record of human
rights abuses, these formal and informal non-state security
providers also run counter to the rule of law and equal
protection of all citizens, and tend to operate partially or
completely outside of systems of democratic accountability.
As our case studies illustrate, the maintenance of urban
order is no longer predominantly the domain of the police.
Contemporary urban policing is characterized by both
militarization and privatization, two trends that result
in the blurring of distinctions between military and
police responsibilities, and between public and private
roles. In many cases, public police forces operate in a
militarized style, using military weapons and techniques,
or engaging in joint operations with soldiers. The
urbanization of military logic has meant that suspected
criminals are treated as enemy combatants, encouraging
shoot-to-kill attitudes amongst the police. In addition
to this entanglement of military and police operations,
contemporary urban security provision often also involves
a blurring of public and private roles. Even as they
contribute to the privatization of formerly public urban
spaces, commercial and extra-legal non-state security
providers also assume a semi-public role as they take on
the responsibility of protecting shopping plazas or entire
neighbourhoods. In some cases, private security providers
take on a broader governance role, competing with the
state for the trust and support of local residents. Like the
militarization of urban space, the privatization of urban
security provision is often related to citizens’ fear of crime
and terrorism, and their frustration with the inability of
state security forces to protect them.
While both trends are associated with human rights
violations, in the absence of widespread local support
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for more peaceful, democratic and accountable forms
of policing, tackling such violations will be an uphill
battle. Human rights law and practitioners have tended to
concentrate on abuses perpetrated by agents of the state,
and focused their efforts on the level of the nation state.
As our analysis in this chapter and other contributions
in this book demonstrate, human rights violations, as
well as possible solution strategies, often play out at the
urban scale. In addition, in many cases the blurring of
public and private roles means that violations may be not
enacted by state agents, but by private actors. Academics,
Securing the City: Challenges to Human Rights
lawyers, NGOs and governments concerned with human
rights should take into account the urbanization and
privatization of violence. Rather than directing their
efforts exclusively or primarily at the national government
and at the state security forces, they should also engage
with municipal authorities. City-level local governments
also have a responsibility to protect the human rights of
urban residents, and to prevent and prosecute abuses by
private security companies and violations related to the
militarization of public space.
57Changing perspectives on human rights
The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World | Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges
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... The emphasis on the implementation of human rights has called increasing attention to cities as logical settings for realising human rights (van den Berg and Oomen 2014) and to the idea of 'localising' human rights (De Feyter et al. 2011). What has, however, been less examined within this context are the types of actors and what elements influence how these actors act. ...
The authors aim to explore how human rights are implemented and interpreted in the context of ‘burkini’ policies in local public swimming pools. They will analyse four case studies in Flanders based on the involved actors, factors that influence the process, and the actors’ human rights understanding. It will be found that external actors mainly play a role in initiating discussions on the ‘burkini’. Occasionally, their requests seem to be inspired by or couched in human rights terms. During the decision-making phase, local politicians and civil servants are the ones involved. One of the factors that seem crucial for the interpretation of human rights are the personal beliefs of an individual. It will be argued that a human rights framework, whether in the legal or moral sense, may not necessarily offer much concrete guidance to local authorities on how to determine desirable outcomes regarding this issue. Nevertheless, applying a human rights approach could lead to more inclusion of Muslim women’s voices in the discussion, thereby limiting the impact of personal convictions on human rights interpretation. Lastly, it will be noted that lifeguards may impact human rights implementation in practice by deviating from official policy due to its apparent unfairness.
... It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life». 27 And the author concluded that: «one only has to open one's eyes to understand the daily life of the one who runs from his dwelling to the station, near or far away, to the packed underground train, the office or the factory, to return the same way in the evening and come home to recuperate enough to start again the next day. The picture of this generalized misery would not go without a picture of 'satisfactions' which hides it and becomes the means to elude it and break free from it.» ...
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Inhabitants are simultaneously the main actors and subjects of law and policy within the environment of a city. Since the rise of cities, to the ultimate reality of megacities in the 21 st century, sociologists, philosophers and lawyers tried to find solutions to improve well-being in urban spaces. Lefebvre's right to the city or the more recent ideas of happiness are some of the pathways suggested. This essay proposes a vision based on an aspiring right for social-ecological resilience in the city, examining the example of Lisbon in Portugal and how local administrations try to respond to the needs of citizens.
To address the most pressing issues of our day, the United Nations must be redesigned to transform global social relations in ways that reduce corporate power and empower civil society and local authorities as global actors. People's movements have made deliberate efforts to advance what I have called human rights globalization, building foundations for an alternative global order from the ground up. These emerging transformative projects can end corporate impunity and foster global norms and identities that contest corporate governance and the monopoly authority of states.
Social movement organizations are increasingly developing human rights strategies at the municipal level, particularly in European urban contexts. Yet critical scholarly work on human rights has overlooked two related realities: non-state-centric, social movement use of the tools and discourses of rights, and the strategic participation of citizen groups in municipal urban policy spaces. This article builds on critical human rights theory through the experiences of three grassroots organizations claiming and exercising social rights in urban policy spaces of Barcelona, Valladolid, and London. It engages with a number of scholarly critiques of the state and human rights, particularly focusing on those critiques that question their compatibility with autonomy, democracy, and self-government at the local level. While the value of such critical literature is undeniable, we show how urban grassroots practices and experiences with social rights-based strategies in the context of housing, water, and participation can circumvent some of these critiques on the ground, pointing at new avenues for critical legal research when infused with other critical discourses, including urban politics.
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The innovation stream that is at the centre of this chapter is self-organised community development with refugees. Self-organisation and bottom-up collective action is not a new development as such. The novelty lies in the increasing recognition of the importance of such activities by established players and governments. As in other studies, we define community development as an activity for the benefit of a particular social group (Bhattacharyya, 1995). In this chapter, we focus on heterogeneous groups of refugees-including those who have obtained the refugee status, those awaiting their procedures and those whose status applications have been denied-in particular localities.
The contributors to this volume have provided ample evidence to support calls for fundamental, transformative change in the world-system. If there remained any doubts, their analyses show that the capitalist world-system threatens not only the well-being of a majority of the world’s people but also the very survival of our planet. Indeed, the urgency of the ecological and economic conditions that many people now face and the immense inequalities that have become more entrenched require that scholars become more consciously engaged in the work of advancing social transformation. Revolutionary change is emergent in movement spaces where people have long been working to develop shared analyses and cultivate collective power and agency by building unity among a diverse array of activists, organizations, and movements. We discuss three examples of transformative projects that are gaining increased visibility and attention: food sovereignty, solidarity economies, and Human Rights Communities. If widely adopted, these projects would undermine the basic processes necessary for the capitalist world-system to function. With these projects, defenders of environmental and social justice not only work to prevent their own (further) dispossession by denying capital its ability to continue appropriating labor and resources from working people and communities, but they also help deepen the existing systemic crisis while sowing the seeds of a new social order.
The 20th century has been described as the bloodiest in human history, but it was also the century in which people around the world embraced ideas of democracy and human rights as never before, constructing social, political and legal institutions seeking to contain human behaviour. Todd Landman offers an optimistic, yet cautionary tale of these developments, drawing on the literature, from politics, international relations and international law. He celebrates the global turn from tyranny and violence towards democracy and rights but also warns of the precariousness of these achievements in the face of democratic setbacks and the undermining of rights commitments by many countries during the so-called 'War on Terror'.
In postapartheid Johannesburg, tensions of race and class manifest themselves starkly in struggles over "rights to the city." Real-estate developers and the very poor fight for control of space as the municipal administration steps aside, almost powerless to shape the direction of change. Having ceded control of development to the private sector, the Johannesburg city government has all but abandoned residential planning to the unpredictability of market forces. This failure to plan for the civic good-and the resulting confusion-is a perfect example of the entrepreneurial approaches to urban governance that are sweeping much of the Global South as well as the cities of the North. Martin J. Murray brings together a wide range of urban theory and local knowledge to draw a nuanced portrait of contemporary Johannesburg. In Taming the Disorderly City, he provides a focused intellectual and political critique of the often-ambivalent urban dynamics that have emerged after the end of apartheid. Exploring the behaviors of the rich and poor, each empowered in their own way, as they rebuild a new Johannesburg, we see the entrepreneurial city: high-rises, shopping districts, and gated communities surrounded by and intermingled with poverty. In graceful prose, Murray offers a compelling portrait of the everyday lives of the urban poor as seen through the lens of real-estate capitalism and revitalization efforts.
Naked City is a continuation of Prof. Sharon Zukin's earlier books (Loft Living and Cultures of Cities) and updates her views on how people use culture and capital in New York. Its focus is on a conflict between city dwellers' desire for authentic origins and new beginnings, which many contemporary megalopolises meet. City dwellers wish to defend their own moral rights to redefine their places for living given upscale constructions, rapid growth, and the ethics of standardization. The author shows how in the frameworks of this conflict they construct the perceived authenticity of common and uncommon urban places. Each book chapter tells about various urban spaces, uncovering different dimensions of authenticity in order to catch and explain fundamental changes in New York that emerged in the 1960s under the mixed influences of private investors, government, media, and consumer tastes. The Journal of Economic Sociology published "Introduction. The City That Lost Its Soul," where the author explains the general idea of the book. She discusses the reasons for the emergence and history of the social movement for authenticity, having combated both the government and private investors since the 1960s. Prof. Zukin also traces the transformation of the concept of authenticity from a property of a person, to a property of a thing, to a property of a life experience and power.
Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens. Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.
The relationship between space and politics is explored through a study of French urban policy. Drawing upon the political thought of Jacques Rancière, this book proposes a new agenda for analyses of urban policy, and provides the first comprehensive account of French urban policy in English. Essential resource for contextualizing and understanding the revolts occurring in the French 'badland' neighbourhoods in autumn 2005. Challenges overarching generalizations about urban policy and contributes new research data to the wider body of urban policy literature. Identifies a strong urban and spatial dimension within the shift towards more nationalistic and authoritarian policy governing French citizenship and immigration.
Do Human Rights truly serve the people? Should citizens themselves decide democratically of what those rights consist? Or is it a decision for experts and the courts? Gret Haller argues that Human Rights must be established democratically. Drawing on the works of political philosophers from John Locke to Immanuel Kant, she explains why, from a philosophical point of view, liberty and equality need not be mutually exclusive. She outlines the history of the concept of Human Rights, shedding light on the historical development of factual rights, and compares how Human Rights are understood in the United States in contrast to Great Britain and Continental Europe, uncovering vast differences. The end of the Cold War presented a challenge to reexamine equality as being constitutive of freedom, yet the West has not seized this opportunity and instead allows so-called experts to define Human Rights based on individual cases. Ultimately, the highest courts revise political decisions and thereby discourage participation in the democratic shaping of political will.
In the face of the most perilous challenges of our time-climate change, terrorism, poverty, and trafficking of drugs, guns, and people-the nations of the world seem paralyzed. The problems are too big, too interdependent, too divisive for the nation-state. Is the nation-state, once democracy's best hope, today democratically dysfunctional? Obsolete? The answer, says Benjamin Barber in this highly provocative and original book, is yes. Cities and the mayors who run them can do and are doing a better job. Barber cites the unique qualities cities worldwide share: pragmatism, civic trust, participation, indifference to borders and sovereignty, and a democratic penchant for networking, creativity, innovation, and cooperation. He demonstrates how city mayors, singly and jointly, are responding to transnational problems more effectively than nation-states mired in ideological infighting and sovereign rivalries. Featuring profiles of a dozen mayors around the world-courageous, eccentric, or both at once-If Mayors Ruled the World presents a compelling new vision of governance for the coming century. Barber makes a persuasive case that the city is democracy's best hope in a globalizing world, and great mayors are already proving that this is so.