York, a Human Rights City: materialising international human rights law?

by Alice Trotter

This image reflects a well-known landscape in York, a small, walled city located in the northeast of England. The ancient cathedral presides over one of the three bridges that cross the river flowing through the heart of York.

There is not, however, anything particular in this photograph that marks York as the UK’s first Human Rights City. In 2017, local officials, politicians, and civil society members came together to declare that York ‘embrace[s] a vision of a vibrant, diverse, fair, and safe community built on the foundations of universal human rights’. And so, York, the Human Rights City, began.

In the years that have followed, an institutional framework has been built around the Human Rights City declaration. A civil society network, a council-led human rights group, and an annual monitoring report are three mechanisms that develop and oversee the local human rights agenda in partnership with York’s residents and institutions, voluntary, faith and professional organisations.

‘The City and The City’, a novel by China Miéville, offers one discursive avenue towards the possibility of situating York in debates around the materiality of international law. The novel is set in Besźel and Ul Qoma, two fictional cities that, as Kamlia Shamsie notes in their introduction, ‘are entirely distinct from each other, but happen to occupy the same physical space’ (xi). This quote gives rise to the comparison: does York, the Human Rights City, occupy the same spaces as York, the city?

does York, the Human Rights City, occupy the same spaces as York, the city?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond scholarship on ‘usual’ sources of international law’s physical architecture – courts, institutions, and headquarters – towards different, more subliminal spaces. Take the York Human Rights City Network’s Indicator Report, for example. Launched annually at a public forum, the Indicator Report monitors and assesses the city’s progress against five priority human rights. Selected through a process of public consultation, these are the rights to equality and non-discrimination, to education, to an adequate standard of living, to housing and to health and social care. If international law takes on a materiality when it is made to ‘matter’ (Vos&Stolk 57, 60), it is, perhaps, possible to begin to see a tangible nature to York’s identity as a Human Rights City.

Alice Trotter is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Applied Human Rights & York Law School, University of York (UK). She has a background in geography, urban studies and international human rights law.

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