As United Nation’s SR, she urges all governments to recognise homelessness as a human rights crisis and eradicate it by 2030
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | March 19, 2016
Leilani Farha is UN’s special rapporteur (SR) on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. She was appointed in May 2014 by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
The feisty Ottawa-based lawyer presented her UN report themed ‘homelessness’ on March 7 to the HRC in its 31st session, urging all governments to recognise homelessness as a human rights crisis and committing to eradicate this global phenomenon by 2030, in line with the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Within the UN human rights system, she helped spearhead the first resolution regarding women and the right to adequate housing. Farha’s next country visit will be to India during April 11–22 where she will examine homelessness, precariousness of informal settlements, the prevalence of insecure tenure systems in urban settings, and the recurrence of forced evictions, and other concerns.
She spoke to Governance Now on why she views homelessness the result of government acquiescence to real estate speculation, among other issues.
What is ‘adequate’ in the context of your UN mandate as SR on adequate housing?
The UN human rights system has defined ‘adequacy’ to some extent. So they have come up with some broad terms and concepts that have to be present – characteristics, you could call them – in order for housing to be ‘adequate’. There are some that are cornerstones, like you cannot have adequate housing without these things.
The first one, in that regard, is security of tenure. That means you don’t fear being evicted like that [snaps her fingers]. There are legal processes in place. That you have some claim, title to land, in some way, shape or form. It doesn’t have to be a formal title – but that you are not in fear of being displaced or evicted.
The second is to live free from discrimination and for your housing not to be related to some characteristics that you have – you are poor, therefore, you should live there, you are from a certain race, or ethnicity or creed, or religion, you should live there. That is, obviously, unacceptable. That can lead to ghettoisation. Migrants and refugees – this is a big issue. That’s [ghettoisation] precisely what’s happening.
Another cornerstone is affordability. And this is something that is of real concern with rapid urbanisation because we are seeing it is not affordable for most people to actually live in cities. Big cities, especially, are becoming the place for the affluent and people with no means even though that’s where they go because that’s where there is employment, but they simply cannot earn enough.
There are other issues like you should have protection from the elements – protection from violence. And this is something that is often forgotten – it should be culturally adequate. For indigenous populations, for example, housing might need to look different and be different in order to meet the cultural needs of indigenous people.
Those characteristics can be applied across the board [in different socio-political contexts].
You have argued that homelessness is a violation of human rights. What status does the right to housing have under international human rights law?
Homelessness is the failure of states to implement the right to housing. States have an obligation under international human rights law to implement the right to adequate housing. The right to adequate housing was originally included in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, way back into the 40s. And then when the two covenants were formed – the covenant on civil and political rights and the one on economic and social rights – the right to adequate housing was included under the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Most states in the world have signed and ratified [this convention] with the exception of just a few. It appears in other treaties as well. On convention on the rights of children – you will see a reference there, on the convention of the elimination of racial discrimination – there’s a reference there, on the convention on elimination of discrimination against women – there’s a reference, albeit, focused on rural housing. And so, it is very much part of international human rights law and standards. What some people don’t realise is that it’s embedded to a right to an adequate standard of living but it has emerged as a separate and independent right – it is perceived that way, it is implemented that way.
Your mandate includes examining homelessness, insecure tenure systems, forced evictions, informal settlements, etc. While these social problems exist in developing as well as developed countries, would you say that some of these social problems have typical traits that are specific to developing countries?
The problems exist across the board. You will see homelessness in cities in India, you will see homelessness in cities in the US and Europe and Malaysia. If you see the practice of eviction and displacement, they often happen for different reasons depending on the region of the world. So, for example, in developing countries, they are developing, so often eviction happens as a result of development. And in the [global] North, you see less evictions about straight development, like, let’s get rid of these homes because we are going to put up a building. But what you do see is constant gentrification in western countries, constant converting an apartment building into luxury apartments. It’s still development in a way but it is ratcheted up. And so, I do think that the phenomenon is universal but the way they play out can be context-specific and region-specific.
You have written in your articles that homelessness is the result of government acquiescence to real estate speculation. Could you elaborate? Also, what about government projects like big dams that engender insecure housing, forced evictions, etc.?
By pointing fingers at real estate developers and investors, [the idea] was not not to point the finger at government policies and programmes, because for sure, governments are enacting policies, programmes and legislations that result in forced evictions and homelessness, without a doubt. Big dam projects, of course. Not particular to one region of the world actually – big dam projects are happening in many parts of the world, in many countries and there is, sometimes, a correlation between big dam projects and evictions, especially of indigenous people, unfortunately.
And, there are certainly things that governments could do to improve women’s access to housing, titles, and lands. There’s certainly room for improvement and we are seeing that around the world that even when the state has decent laws, there is customary practice that makes it difficult for women to actually own land and property – that doesn’t mean that the state still does not have a role. They have a role that their laws become part of customary practice as well and that is not big-stick kind of action that the state should be taking but rather an education, changing of culture on the ground.
Governments regularly demolish slums as illegal occupation of land, particularly, when international events are scheduled. How does international human rights law view such demolitions?
I think the international community may be moving in the direction of recognising that you cannot just eradicate slums, bam [snaps fingers]! And the reason I am saying this is the 2030 agenda that the states have committed to and there is a target in the 2030 agenda that says that slums should be upgraded and it said in the context of the need to secure adequate housing for everyone. And so, upgrading slums cannot be confused or conflated with eradicating slums [laughs]. This is my hope. I am, of course, concerned with the 2030 agenda but I am hoping that that’s understood, I am hoping that states are now understanding that people need a place to live and so, in the urban context, especially, it’s untenable for everyone to be able to afford existing units or housing. There aren’t existing units, there’s not enough supply, and when there is supply, it is not affordable. I think, states are starting to realise that they have a major problem on their hands – that, maybe, the right path is the regularisation or normalisation of slums and providing people in those slums to services and title, some kind of title. I hope there is some new enlightenment as we move towards implementing the 2030 agenda.
Right to adequate housing is not mentioned in the SDGs and MDGs. It is not even mentioned in the upcoming global Habitat III conference. Why is that?
It was completely excluded from the MDGs. It does make an appearance, not as a goal but as a target, in the 2030 agenda or the SDGs and the question is as we are on the road to Habitat III: what is going to happen? Can we get states to continue the commitment that they initiated in the 2030 agenda under target 11.1 in Habitat III? And that is part of my role to try to make sure that happens. I am not going to put it only on my shoulders [laughs], there are many other people and organisations that can work towards this, and states that are friendly to this. People are engaged with water and sanitation right now, which is important and it should be – that’s not a critique – but only to say let us continue to have a real focus on housing. If you ask anyone – what is important to you and your well-being and the well-being of your family, they will say housing.
India is planning to build ‘smart cities’. But un-regulated urbanisation has been the cause for homelessness. What suggestions would you offer when such cities are being built vis-à-vis adequate housing?
I have not been privy to a ‘smart city’ conversation with a state that is actually implementing a smart city or trying to implement these notions. But what I would say, which I say to government officials, regardless of what they are doing around urbanisation, housing, is to make sure they are acutely aware of what their international human rights obligations are and where those obligations extend because one of the things that is little known and I did myself write a report on this early on in my mandate is that sub-national level governments have international human rights obligations as well. And so, the national level state is responsible for ensuring that sub-national governments, including municipalities, have the capacity, the knowledge and the resources to implement the right to adequate housing. I think that’s one starting point.
In terms of understanding their human rights obligations, there are some really simple principles that I would ask states to consider. The one that I am pushing a lot, you will have seen in some of my articles, is the notion that housing is not a commodity. It has become a commodity, yes. I am not denying that. I am not denying the important role it plays in the economy, but first and foremost, housing is a human right. If it’s possible to treat it as a human right, and still have its commodification, [it’s] OK. But first show me that you are treating it as a human right and what it means is ensuring that those who are most vulnerable, the most marginalised groups have access to decent, adequate housing.
Another basic principle that states don’t always know, or consider – the obligation is that a state must spend the maximum of its available resources to implement human rights. If a state looks at its budget, it should be asking itself: what percentage of my budget am I spending on social expenditure and how does that compare with how much the state is spending on security, on fostering business, on fostering investment in the country, etc. A country needs to generate resources. I am not being idealistic to say you have to throw away all your investment ideas, throw away making money – that is not realistic. But it is making sure that proportions are right. I am not saying it’s an easy thing to do but I think a more cross-sectoral approach would be useful.
I have heard that since the agenda 2030 was adopted, that one state – I am not going to name the state – is reviewing all its policies and programmes to see how their policies and programmes might be contributing to poverty.
In your upcoming visit to India do you plan to examine only homelessness or the whole gamut of your mandate?
When we do a country visit we focus on all of the issues that relate to the right to adequate housing
This article appears in the March 15-31, 2016 issue
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