7 June 2001


Press Briefing


At a Headquarters press conference this afternoon a coalition of non-governmental organizations issued a statement “to strongly protest both the process and the outcome” of this week’s General Assembly special session.

The special session is reviewing implementation of the 1996 Habitat Agenda, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul, Turkey.  The statement by the Habitat International Coalition, entitled “Back to the Future” and endorsed by some 33 organizations, focused on two issues:  the degradation of civil society’s role in the process; and the abandonment of human rights principles in human settlements policy.

Read out on behalf of the coalition by Bharti Ali, of the Centre for Child Rights in New Dehli, it states that the lack of progress in translating the words of the Istanbul agenda into action was behind the two “backward steps” at the current special session -– exclusion of non-governmental organizations from effective deliberation, and weakening the language of the principal conference document.  As a result, the legitimacy of both the human settlements process and the present session was in question.

According to the statement, the dilution of the role of non-governmental organizations and their exclusion from the drafting negotiations had far-reaching implications and set a dangerous precedent that “contradicts the goals and spirit of the United Nations and contradicts the Secretary-General’s vigorous promotion of partnership in the UN’s work.”  Such exclusion risked reversing all the gains made since 1994 in the process and substance of the Habitat Agenda.

Further, it states, delegations gathered for the Habitat review “have deliberately evaded” developments in human rights norms, “categorically rejecting any acknowledgement of the human right to housing and other related standards”.  The statement acknowledges that this “regressive post-Istanbul trend” has been championed by a very few States, including parties to the relevant human rights covenants, “as well as at least one State that remains outside the relevant human rights treaties”.  In some cases, States that rejected the guidelines on implementing the right to adequate housing and on forced evictions, apparently because of sovereignty concerns, had already incorporated those norms into their own domestic laws.  Unfortunately, the rest of the States had jointed the lowest common denominator of States and drafted a new, inferior standard.

The regressive trend within the session to foreclose non-governmental inputs “turns back the hands of time”, it says.  The special session “has chosen to exclude an essential partner” from the future implementation process and, since their concerns have been neither reflected nor respected in the proposed final document of the session, “it is not possible for us to endorse it or consider it seriously".  What had become apparent in the preparatory meetings leading up to the session had proven true –- it was neither a fair assessment, nor an inclusive process.  As it stood, the final document “is evidence of a failure to live up to the noble standards we jointly set for ourselves five years ago”.

Asked by a correspondent what the implications were for the future of the Habitat Agenda, Jamil Dakwar of the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, cited several issues -- the exclusion of non-governmental organizations, the abandonment of the whole issue of human rights, and civil society not having had a chance to influence the language -– which together had prompted them to at least sound an alarm.  For another example, the exclusion of the protection of vulnerable groups.  Minorities, people under occupation -– none of those were part of the final document and they must be included.

Another correspondent noted that the language of the final document had been considerably watered down, in particular concerning the right to housing, and the United States, of course, was opposed to language about a right to housing.  In light of that, what did they intend to do next?  Davinder Lamba, of the Mazingira Institute, Nairobi, Kenya, responded that there were still one and a half days to go.  The text had been distributed as a way of saying “we can still work together” to improve the final declaration.  But, there was absolute resistance to that idea.  As for the position of the United States, it was a very persistent position, but not a very accurate one.  The United States was a signatory to the convention against racial discrimination, which recognized a right to housing.  They were confusing the situation, as usual.

Asked by a correspondent why the statement didn’t just name the United States, instead of using the language “at least one State,” Mr. Lamba said because “that’s an open secret -– that it’s the United States”.  It had been done that way before.  Further asked if he could name the countries that supported the non-governmental organization position, he said that because the United States had taken such a hard line position on the human rights framework, and since they work by consensus, most of the other countries had finally just given in.

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For information media. Not an official record.