7 June 2001


Press Briefing


Most States had failed to implement the Habitat Agenda and were now backing away and giving up on the responsibilities that they had collectively assumed in Istanbul (Habitat 11, 1996), Miloon Kathari, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Also briefing correspondents was Virginia Bonoan Dandan, Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The commitments made by Governments in the 1996 Habitat Agenda included adequate shelter for all; sustainable human settlements; enablement and participation; gender equality; capacity-building and institutional development; financing shelter and human settlements; international cooperation and coordination; and implementation of the agenda and follow-up.

Over the past decade, said Mr. Kathari, the right to adequate housing had been consistently reaffirmed as a distinct human right by various bodies in the United Nations human rights systems, numerous national constitutions and legislation, and by civil society organizations across the world.  That fundamental human right also found repeated and consistent recognition in the Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda, in which Governments reaffirmed their commitments to "full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments".

Yet, noted Mr. Kathari, in spite of such reaffirmation of the right to adequate housing, both universally and in many national constitutions, its implementation and realization were far from a reality to the majority of poor and vulnerable people and communities across the world.  The global report on human settlements had given a very grave picture of the state of housing and living conditions across the world.

Mr. Kathari said there were 600 million urban dwellers and one billion in the rural areas of the South who lived in overcrowded and poor-quality housing with inadequate provision of water sanitation, drainage or garbage collection.  Women comprised 70 per cent of those living in absolute poverty, with

30-70 million children living on the streets.  In addition, 1.7 billion people lacked access to clean water while 3.3 billion were without proper sanitation facilities.  Obviously, the lives and health of all those people were quite simply under threat in such hazardous circumstances.

Elaborating on the type of distressed housing that people were forced to live in, Mr. Kathari cited slums and squatter settlements, old buses, shipping containers, pavements, railway platforms, streets, roadside embankments, cellars, staircases, rooftops, elevator enclosures, cages, cardboard boxes, plastic sheets, and aluminium and tin shelters.  Many of those forms of distressed housing could be found in New York, the very city where Istanbul + 5 -- the Special Session of the General Assembly for an Overall Review and Appraisal of theImplementation of the Habitat Agenda -- was currently taking place.

"If we acknowledge this global reality and the assault on the dignity of people and entire communities, it is clear that only the human rights paradigm in general, and a housing and land rights approach in particular, can offer radical and systemic solutions to this crisis", continued Mr. Kathari.  Such a focus on human rights, in particular cultural, economic and social rights, was all the more critical as "we live in a rapidly globalizing world which has brought growing inequality, poverty and social exclusion".  As governments assembled at the United Nations to conduct their review of the Habitat Agenda, it was of the utmost importance that they recommit themselves to human rights principles and instruments and the language of rights contained in the Agenda.

Mr. Kathari said he was deeply concerned that in the continued deliberations currently under way, the draft declaration on cities and other human settlements in the new millennium did not build on the strong human rights foundation of the Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda.  It also failed to explicitly acknowledge the international human rights instruments and the right to adequate housing. 

If governments were serious about carrying out the review, continued

Mr. Kathari, they would acknowledge the many lessons that had been learned in the ongoing work by civil society on the right to adequate housing.  Those included conceptual work and standard setting, human rights education, community finance, formations of campaigns and documentation of violations.  The declaration would also clearly spell out how to enhance the role of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, particularly its two global campaigns on secure tenure and urban governance, and mainstreaming human rights in its policies and activities.

Mr. Kathari went on to say that the declaration should also draw lessons from innovations and strategic cooperation that had led to the realization of housing rights, including taking notes of policy prescriptions that had emerged from court decisions stressing the right to adequate housing.  It was also very important to realize the critical value of the obligations that countries owed to international human rights instruments such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The declaration could also make a step forward by recognizing that developing countries, which were States parties to that Covenant, could use their obligations to counter the negative implications of inequitable debt, adjustments, trade investment and finance agreements.

Mr. Kathari further stressed that the Declaration must recognize that there were particular groups that disproportionately bore the brunt of globalization. The protection of women, children and vulnerable people and communities must form the primary imperative in all the conclusions emerging from the current special session.  So far they did not.  It was also particularly important for the special session to draw a clear link between the perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty, and the continued discrimination faced by women in all process related to their having the right to own, control and inherit land, property or housing. "As you are all aware, this is one of the most contentious issues at the Conference and is still under negotiation", he said.

Mr. Kathari said the special session must also take into account the reaffirmation of the right to adequate housing recently articulated by the Human Rights Commission at its fifty-seventh session in April.  Of particular note was the Commission's resolution on women's equal ownership or access to and control over land, and their equal right to own property and to adequate housing. 

Governments therefore needed to grasp the opportunity provided by the special session to promote greater understanding of the critical issues and the impediments to the human right to adequate housing.  If that were not done, a wrong signal would be sent to the international community.  "There is a great deal of concern in these halls among civil society groups and informally by Governments, that what is happening here will undermine the aspirations and human rights of women, men, the elderly, youth and children worldwide."

Ms. Dandan said that since 1986, in performing its task of monitoring States' compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had found that more and more States had enshrined the right to housing in their laws and constitutions.  That was one of the obligations that they voluntarily took upon themselves as they tried to ensure that their legislation did not run counter to any of the provisions under the Covenant.

Ms. Dandan went on to say that the provision on the right to housing fell under Article 11 of the Covenant.  The Committee was very concerned about the fact that in the draft declaration, there was neither mention of the Covenant, nor the work of the Committee, in particular its two general comments on adequate housing and forced eviction respectively.

If that omission were carried forward in the final declaration, continued Ms. Dandan, it would seriously undermine the achievements made over the last decade at both the international and national levels in promoting the right to adequate housing.  It would constitute a step backwards from Istanbul.  It was very alarming that "we are reinventing language again that will really go against Habitat II", she said.  Right now no one was even looking at the language of the Commission on Human Rights when they adopted the resolution on adequate housing. That too was a cause for concern for her Committee.

Ms. Dandan said the Committee called on governments to look at the draft declaration once again, particularly to include language like the "right to adequate housing" as well as the "rights of women".  Most people believed that the rights of women were only protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  That was not really true, because the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights offered the widest protection of women's rights.  Also, the right to housing touched on all rights in the instrument.

Responding to a question on the present state of affairs, Mr. Kathari said that five years after Istanbul, according to all the available statistics and information, conditions had worsened.  There were more people living in slums and squatter settlements, there were more poverty, inequality, and growing disparity of income and wealth.  That was all the more reason why States needed first to acknowledge that reality and second to reaffirm their legal commitments to human rights instruments.  "What we see here is that the will is not present, nor is there the interest to even just recognize their obligations, let alone build upon them in terms of concrete solutions that can be proposed", he said.

A correspondent drew attention to the fact that just this morning, the United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Mel Martinez, had said that rather than a human right to adequate housing approach, he felt that the way

to ensure adequate housing was through the development of democratic, economic and social institutions.

Ms. Dandan said the United States was not a State party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  She did not really know if the right to adequate housing could be realized merely through economic stabilization -- or whatever it was that the United States said this morning.  "For me the bottom line is when a State is obliged to do something.  A legal protection for the right to adequate housing is the most important step that can be taken by any State to prove its commitment and its support for the human right to adequate housing."  Experience in the Committee had proven that when there was no legal protection in place nothing went forward, because it was always the lowest priority of governments.

Mr. Kathari said the United States was evading the real issue –- defining its legal commitments.  That country had not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but it had ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  That Convention specifically obliged States to "prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all of its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone without distinction as to race, colour or national or ethnic origin to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of the right to housing".  That was a clear legal obligation of the United States.

Mr. Kathari went on to say that given the fact that there was growing discrimination and segregation against particular communities in the United States, the indigenous people, African Americans, the homeless, and where a large percentage of the homeless were single women, it made no sense at all for that country not to acknowledge that reality and to say what steps it would take.

Mr. Kathari said that if one just looked at the situation in New York, the extent of homeless and the types of conditions people were living in, what would be correct would be for the United States to acknowledge the reality and then say "okay, we have legal obligations and this is what we are doing about it".  They were merely evading their own legal obligations.

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For information media. Not an official record.