Human Rights Cities: A New Frontier for Human Rights in Asia?

Ken M.P. Setiawan

The University Of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

The term ‘Human Rights City’ -referring to local authorities that explicitly base all, or some, of their policies on human rights as laid down in international treaties- was introduced in the late 1990s. Arguably Human Rights Cities contribute to the development of a ‘human rights culture’ at local levels, contributing to a conducive context for the successful implementation of human rights norms. Over time, the concept has been adopted by many cities across the world, including in the Asian region. This is a remarkable development as this region is commonly regarded as one that is reluctant, or even adversarial, towards the implementation of global human rights norms and mechanisms. The implementation of human rights is also often complicated by the dominance of alternative value systems, historical trajectories, as well as skewed distribution of power and resources. Based on a literature review, this paper discusses what human right cities may mean in, and for, the Asian region. The paper argues that while urban engagement with human rights holds significant potential for the realisation of rights, the manner in which human rights are invoked and applied is highly dependent on specific social and political contexts, as well as strategic considerations.


Ken Setiawan is a Lecturer in Asian and Indonesian Studies at the Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include globalisation and human rights as well as historical violence and transitional justice. She has widely published on the politics of human rights in Indonesia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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