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Human Rights Day: Steering Principles into Action in the Digital Transformation of Cities

#HumanRightsDay Blog Series nº 1

It is is Human Rights Day- a moment to acknowledge that on December 10th 1948 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). When it comes to digitalisation, this day is a reminder that human rights should also be protected online. And when it comes to doing so in local contexts, city  governments can play a major role in making that happen. 

As physical and digital spaces become increasingly intertwined, cities need to ensure the protection of human rights for equitable service delivery and responsible and ethical use of digital technologies and data. The human rights frameworks and mechanisms we can count on in the physical world, should also be available and enforced in the digital space. 

During 2022, UN-Habitat, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights (CC4DR), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Eurocities  UN-Habitat, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights (CC4DR), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Eurocities  have been working on developing a comprehensive, pragmatic and normative approach to how this can be addressed. As a result, in November 2022, we launched a Guide for Mainstreaming Human Rights in the Digital Transformation of Cities to operationalize our approach and provide recommendations to cities. 

As part of these efforts we are also working with four European cities to localize this guidance. With support from a Project Grant from Open Society Foundations (OSF) we are examining how cities can ground their digital transition in a human-rights approach and to go from normative theory, to practice, to policy actions based on their own local challenges. 

This blog series that will be published during the week following Human Rights Day, will showcase how Brussels (Belgium), Dublin (Ireland), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Tirana (Abania) are exploring ways and piloting actions to drive change and increasing the cities’ capacities to deal with challenges related to digital human rights. 

This initiative is building a community of practice, with local and global approaches and advocates for such change in practice and in policy. We count on a diverse and experienced technical advisory group and digital rights champions that are helping cities implement their pilots.

The project and city pilots, in depth

The work with the four European cities has been structured into four phases that allowed us to map the challenges and develop tailored and concrete roadmaps for each of them: work with the four European cities has been structured into four phases that allowed us to map the challenges and develop tailored and concrete roadmaps for each of them:

Phase 1-Discovery: This phase started with an open call for cities aimed at understanding local challenges and exploring opportunities to address them by upholding a human rights-based approach in their digital governance. As a result of this process, four cities were selected: Brussels, Dublin, Tirana and Sofia. 

During this phase, we also launched an open call for advisors with expertise in thematic areas such as equity, digital inclusion, data protection and emerging technologies. Our Technical Advisory Group is now composed of 21 champions supporting cities in navigating the pilot implementation phase.

Phase 2- Design: The aim of this phase was to work with pilot cities to unpack the challenge and frame priorities, define clear needs and set up an actionable roadmap with deliverables to implement actions to safeguard human rights in the digital context of the city.

Phase 3- Pilot: This phase is currently in progress and focuses on exploring practical ways of driving change in both local government policies and increasing the city’ss capacity to deal with challenges related to digital human rights. 

Phase 4- Scale Up: Based on the learnings from the pilot implementation, this phase will build on these findings and define clear actions to strengthen policies, commitments and initiatives to digital human rights in pilot cities.

In this series of workshops we will further explore the challenges each city is working on.

What we learned so far

Creating awareness and finding narratives to make digital rights explainable to all: the project is exploring how to host meaningful conversations with the community and create awareness on the need to protect human rights when accessing and using technologies. Cities are also fostering collaborations with their own digital human rights ecosystem.

Breaking institutional silos: issues concerning the digital rights agenda span across departments and government agencies. The siloed nature of the digital human rights agenda, requires guidance and enabling conversations within local governments. Cities are willing to embed human rights into their existing policies and initiatives, as they might face political, communications and bureaucratic challenges. 

Common themes and challenges in pilot cities: while all cities have different challenges and priorities depending on their context, there are some common themes among all cities, opening opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration: creating awareness, building capacities, increasing collaboration with residents or specific community groups seem like common issues to collectively explore. 

Hosting meaningful conversations and peer learning exchange: we are currently learning from pilot implementation and increasing city-to-city collaboration and engagement with our Technical Advisory Group to develop a community of practice around human rights and digital governance. 

Our plans for 2023

The interest in the topic of digital human rights is only rising, and questions on how to implement human rights based digital governance in practice are coupled with that rising interest. The pilot phase will build on local capacities and existing structures, commitments and initiatives to strengthen this human rights based governance approach. 

We are also mainstreaming the technical support to cities through the ‘Digital Helpdesk for Cities’. We are setting up partnerships and exploring ways to scale the services to other regions and cities. For example, CAF, the Development Bank of Latin America, has launched an open call for cities to localize the Guide in the region.

Based on the pilot’s learnings, we will also publish guidelines and tools to operationalize the guidance provided to cities that can be used by local governments to assess, address and implement digital rights related policy instruments. This will encourage other cities in the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights to implement the approach through city action and pragmatic guidance and work towards legal, ethical and operational mechanisms to advance human rights in digital environments.


Read the article on Tirana's pilot

Read the article on Brussels' pilot

Read the article on Sofia's pilot

Read the article on Dublin's pilot

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