U.N. resolution seen as key win for New Urban Agenda’s contentious rights language

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets last year at its Geneva headquarters, beneath a ceiling painted by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló. A new resolution means the council could be taking up more cities-related issues in the future. (Jean-Marc Ferré/UN Photo)

A new resolution from the United Nations’ top human rights body is being lauded by supporters in part because it solidifies contentious new language included in last year’s New Urban Agenda strategy on sustainable urbanization.

The U. N. Human Rights Council adopted the resolution, which was submitted by the Brazilian and Ecuadorian governments, last month at its headquarters in Geneva. Diplomats say the document could now lay the groundwork for more cities-focused work by the council.

The resolution reinforces many provisions of the New Urban Agenda word for word, for example in its call to “[reaffirm] the vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all, that envisages cities and human settlements that, inter alia, fulfil their social function.”

The move came eight months after 167 countries approved the New Urban Agenda at a conference known as Habitat III was held in Ecuador’s capital. At that time, some advocates expressed concern that the document did not go far enough to underscore the role of governments in securing human rights for those living in cities.

With the Human Rights Council’s imprimatur on much of the agreed language in the New Urban Agenda, however, some say they have newfound hope.

“This resolution is very important because Human Rights Council resolutions are considered international norms for the protection of human rights,” said Brazilian lawyer Nelson Saule, who leads a human-rights-focused campaign, the Global Platform for the Right to the City. “They generate commitments that are more binding than a declaration or global agenda.”

[See: Observatory shifts focus to global implementation of ‘right to the city’]

Saule’s campaign pushed for the “right to the city”, an academic concept turned progressive rallying cry that does not currently have standing in international law, to be included in the New Urban Agenda. After tense negotiations, the term survived several rounds of talks but was ultimately referred to as an idea “in some countries”, not one with universal applicability.

Brazil was one of the countries that pushed for the right to the city to remain in the New Urban Agenda. The goal of the new resolution, according to Brazilian diplomat Lucianara Andrade Fonseca, was to “offer an integrated and transversal vision of human rights from the viewpoint of cities and other human settlements.”

She added that her government hopes the resolution will contribute to the implementation of both the New Urban Agenda and the urban dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals, which also went into effect last year.


The Human Rights Council resolution borrows liberally from the rigorously debated New Urban Agenda, copying and pasting language on infrastructure, access to basic services, public space, urban governance and urban violence.

“This resolution is very important because Human Rights Council resolutions are considered international norms for the protection of human rights. They generate commitments that are more binding than a declaration or global agenda.”

Nelson Saule
Global Platform for the Right to the City

As a result, the resolution passed with relative ease, although the United States made a point of reminding other countries where it stands. “We do not recognize any ‘right to the city’, nor do we have any obligations or commitments with respect to it,” said U. S. diplomat Jason Ross Mack.

[See: How will Mexico City pay for its new ‘right to the city’ guarantee?]

Preexisting rights, however, such as the right to adequate housing and the rights of refugees, migrants and displaced people, are acknowledged in the resolution’s text.

Fonseca told Citiscope that the resolution is a beachhead that will allow for a deeper discussion of cities at the Human Rights Council. It also will motivate the council’s special rapporteurs —  experts who monitor the state of human rights on specific topics — to, in the words of Ecuadorian diplomat Luis Espinosa, “present proposals that support states needs in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 11.” SDG 11 is the goal on cities.

The special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, whose mandate most closely aligns with urban issues, declined to comment for this story.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

Another advocate for human rights in the run-up to Habitat III, the Habitat International Coalition, likewise hailed the council’s move.

“it is significant in that it returns the focus on human rights — and the corresponding obligations of states — that was less explicit in the New Urban Agenda,” said the coalition’s Joseph Schechla. He also noted that the resolution comes from the “highest U. N. policy authority” on one of the multilateral body’s main priorities.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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