Walking through York city centre on a sunny April morning, it’s clear that the town already has several claims to fame. Jorvik, an immersive historical experience based on the city’s Viking roots, boasts a queue so long it goes around the corner and blocks the road. And it’s hard to get anywhere without stumbling over yet another chocolate or fudge shop.
Dubbed the ‘chocolate city‘, York was the base for Rowntree’s and Terry’s factories and the birthplace of chocoholic staples such as the KitKat, the original blue Smarties and, of course, Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Perhaps this explains why it’s so easy to spend almost a tenner on gin and tonic fudge. However, on April 24, 2017, the city adds another act to the line up, as it becomes the UK’s first ‘human rights city’.
A global idea to ‘make human rights real’
Stephan Pittam from York Human Rights City Network (Picture: Jack Satchell/RightsInfo)
In making the declaration, York is joining the ranks of more than 100 other cities and villages across the globe, including Graz in Austria, Richmond in California, and Bandung in Indonesia. On a practical level, it means organisations across York, including the council and the police, will work to incorporate the values of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights into their everyday decisions and practices. On a wider level, campaigners hope it will make human rights more tangible for local people.
“What we’re doing in York is about making human rights real,” explains Stephan Pittam of York Human Rights City Network, the group which has been working towards the declaration since 2011. “We want to make [human rights] real for everybody. Human rights are not just an abstract concept, they’re about the realities of our everyday lives.”
Keen to bring the idea of rights as close to home as possible, the group hit the streets, trying to work out exactly what matters to the people of York. “We thought we ought to go to the people, to ask them what they thought about human rights and which rights were important to them,” Stephan explains. “We went out onto the streets, we had conversations, we had an online survey, and out of that process, five rights clearly emerged as a priority for York.”
These five ideas – the right to decent housing, good health services and social care, education, a good standard of living, and the right to non-discrimination – will form York’s key human rights priorities as a city, with the group annually checking up on progress or setbacks.
A diverse collaboration of local people and organisations
Jake Furby, the Secretary and Health and Wellbeing Co-Ordinator of York LGBT Forum (Picture: Jack Satchell/RightsInfo)
The group aren’t going it alone. To help incorporate human rights into people’s everyday lives across the city, York Human Rights City Network have already enlisted the support of several organisations. As well as securing backing from the City Council and North Yorkshire Police, they’re also supported by the local LGBT Forum and City of Sanctuary York, a movement to help refugees, asylum seekers and other people in need.
“We’ve been involved since the very beginning,” explains Jake Furby, Secretary and Health and Wellbeing Co-Ordinator at York LGBT Forum. “York is a beautiful place to live, it combines a lot of history with great activism in the city and a human rights movement. We work with human rights a lot with our members, especially with our trans members. An everyday thing, just going to the GP, for example, is somewhere trans people might experience discrimination or be unable to access services.”
Paul Wordsworth, Co-ordinator for City of Sanctuary in York (Picture: Jack Satchell/RightsInfo)
“York City of Sanctuary and human rights go hand in hand,” says Peter Wordsworth, Co-ordinator for York City of Sanctuary. “They are together. I can’t imagine how we would function without human rights.” As well as using human rights to help asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Peter has also seen human rights in action locally during his 27 years as a parish priest.
“I began by working with homeless people, many people sleeping on the streets,” he explains. “Here in York, human rights are for everyone. In my work amongst elderly people, for example, going into care homes, I want to ensure that they’re treated with the respect and the dignity they should have as they come to the end of their life.”
A framework for cities across the country – and the globe
Cecile Lansford, a year eight pupil in York is also an advocate of the project (Picture: Jack Satchell/RightsInfo)
While the project in York remains focused on local people and how human rights affects the city, this doesn’t mean the group aren’t looking outwards. Currently the city is the only place in the UK to have declared itself a ‘human rights city’, but they want to see that change.
Cecile Lansford, a year eight pupil and advocate of the human rights city project, is especially keen to see people everywhere recognise their rights. “I’ve received free education for most of most of my life and that’s really helped me understand the world around me, and really get to grips with human rights. It’s enabled me to do everything I can do now,” she says.
“I would like everyone to get education, a house, getting the social and healthcare they need and everyone being equal. The first step is everyone being aware of human rights and how we need them. I would definitely like other cities across the UK to take part in things like this and become human rights cities. Especially here, where we’re very lucky, everyone needs to still be aware that we have human rights, get more of them, and help the rest of the world.”
Want to know more about your human rights?
- Check out our explainers on what your human rights actually are
- See our timeline of how human rights have changed the world