In our more and more disrupted world, the concept of human rights remains the only valid universal principle which connects us as human beings beyond the many features dividing us. The belief in the dignity of the individual is one of the driving forces that give us the power to fight for a better world.
Compared to the period in history when the concept of human rights was first expressed in political declarations (1776 in the United States and 1789 in France) our understanding of human rights has become infinitely more complex and comprehensive. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave proof of the wide scope which the notion had attained after one and a half centuries of deepest social, economic and political transformations and two World Wars of unprecedented slaughtering of humans by humans. The UDHR added to the classic catalogue of civil and political rights a wider understanding of freedom connected to economic, social, and cultural prosperity. As we face today’s political challenges in a globalized world amidst a further and ongoing technical revolution the inclusive approach of the 1948 declaration remains the primary referential document in the 21st century.
In its struggle to further the aims expressed in its declaration, the UN relies primarily on the policy of its member states. These, however, even if based on democratic principles, are often caught in external (geopolitical) and internal (domestic) exigencies which make it hard to meet the high moral standards expressed in the UN declaration. Under these circumstances, it has been the achievement of Non-Governmental Organizations to put pressure on the nation-states and their political leaders. Apart from the large transnational organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, high credit should be given to the numerous local initiatives. Most of them emerge out of specific cultural milieus which are largely based in cities. Urban communities have always been spearheads of change and incubators of new ideas. The German saying “Stadtluft Macht Frei” (city air liberates) which derives from a medieval legal context can be applied to the contemporary city. Cities offer creative spaces where citizens together with their chosen governments work out practicable ways of implementing the human rights agenda.
Lviv is well-known for its vivid NGO scene. While in Western cities volunteering is often bound to existing institutions, political parties for instance or large environmental organizations (Greenpeace and others), the case of Lviv exemplifies the power of civic initiatives to actually create new structures in response to the deficiency of state institutions. Certainly, not all NGOs are sufficiently target-oriented and some may even be mere legal vessels driven by commercial or political goals. Nevertheless, the proactive engagement of a young generation for the sake of the urban community should be regarded as one of Lviv’s major assets in realizing the goal of becoming a City of Human Rights. Essentially, civil society groups have the potential to bring afore and articulate matters of concern inherent in society and thus supplement the democratic mission of elected representatives. If set up professionally and driven by a constructive spirit, these groups can become a valuable factor within a political system open for change.
NGOs can supplement but not replace the crucial role of the state. In the 19th century, the struggle for human rights evolved from the quest to liberate society from state oppression. The way to prosperity for all was imagined as being paved by the productive forces of a self-organized society. In today’s modern and complex societies this perspective is reversed: Building a country based on human rights is seen to require not a passive but a strong and resolute state which actively promotes the agenda of equality, protects the rights of minorities and intervenes into the mechanisms of the free market by proactively promoting economic and cultural prosperity for all. Again, the city due to its intermediate size located between state and citizen and its proximity to the facts of life can claim the best preconditions to push development in this direction.
Knowing the city from the mid-1990s when I first came to Ukraine for research purposes, I have experienced the enormous progress Lviv has made in the last quarter of a century. This concerns infrastructure (I remember quite well having to deal with running water only twice a day) but also the quality of governance. Lviv has certainly benefited from its role as a regional centre and its attraction as a touristic hub. One should acknowledge that opportunities arising from this situation have been seized rather well. My experience as a founder of two institutions (the Center for Urban History in 2004 and recently the Jam Factory Art Center) rather underscore the impression of a city open for change. Personally, I have the privilege that all the tedious work with state or municipal authorities are in the hands of my proficient employees who would never overtly complain to me about these issues. What matters most in my view is the overall success of my cultural initiatives which benefit from the curiosity of a young urban community highly receptive to new forms and contents in science and culture.
Visualization of the future space of the Jam Factory Art Center | photo: Harald Binder Cultural Enterprises
My overall positive judgement certainly does not mean that Lviv is anywhere close to qualifying as a City of Human Rights. Such a distinction, especially given the broad meaning of the term today, would evoke expectations among locals as well as visitors which cannot realistically be met. Locals would rightly hold the administration accountable for the unsolved infrastructural shortcomings, namely in the area of public transport and the poor maintenance of roads and buildings. I personally know no city where the danger of breaking a leg in winter, stumbling into an uncovered hole in the pavement or being hit by a piece of façade falling from a building is equally high. If anything of this kind happens, there is hardly a chance for the victim to receive compensation. Public health is a massive general issue in itself to which the problem of polluted air contributes significantly. Living in a healthy environment and having access to qualified health service are among the principal demands addressed to a City of Human Rights. The administration has tools at hand to tackle these issues, for example through strict measures of controlling emissions of private vehicles. Other cities can serve as an example.
These and other related problems are chiefly of concern to the locals in their everyday experience. However, other core issues in the area of human rights do transcend the city’s borders and influence its image abroad. The attack on participants of the equality festival in 2016 even made their way to the pages of the Washington Post. The non-reaction from city officials was clearly below expectations. The same can be said about the case of the burning of a Roma camp in the outskirts of Lviv in 2018. From a city of Human Rights, one expects that the politicians in charge take a clear stance whenever the rights (and lives) of minorities are being violated. It would mean taking a proactive role in protecting and promoting what makes cities unique: diversity. Tolerance and diversity are the opposite of what right-wing nationalists want to express in their torchlight marches on Stepan Bandera day. Freedom of public expression is certainly key in human rights but symbolic elements alluding to inhuman regimes of the past should not be tolerated in public space. Aspiring to become a City of Human Rights requires a level of knowledge regarding the international perception of certain practices and accepting common values within a globalized (Western) cultural language.
Lviv is not a city of fascists and anti-Semites. The best way to show this to the world is to actively encourage all those who through their everyday engagement prove the opposite. Lviv will always be seen and judged through the prism of its past. For its prosperous future, it is absolutely vital that the facts of history are addressed and discussed in an open and sincere way. This concerns first of all the role of Ukrainians during World War II and the Holocaust. I remember the discussions in Switzerland about this period and how it made the country stronger when the facts about collaboration with Nazi Germany became common sense. Then there is the fact of Lviv’s multi-ethnic past which is abundantly used as a commercial asset and a PR instrument but too sparsely internalized or truthfully endorsed as a piece of identity. Why not give more room in state education and research to this perspective instead of adhering to an exclusive ethnic understanding of history? In her book “Inventing Human Rights” the historian Lynn Hunt has argued that empathy is the key to reaching out to others. Empathy includes building up a relationship to those individuals and communities who co-created the city but were forcefully removed. When Lviv opens its museum of urban diversity (my utopia) I will be the first to offer to the Washington Post an article about this great town in Ukraine and its confident march towards becoming a City of Human Rights.
This text was published within the project "Lviv: Becoming a Human Rights City", which is implemented by the Educational Center for Human Rights in Lviv in partnership with the Lviv City Council and with the financial support of the Human Rights Fund of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ukraine.