Since Habitat I in 1976, international summits concerned with human settlements have dealt with the need to confront the magnitude of problems and devise solutions. However, apart from the achievements at setting international agendas and resolutions, for many observers, the UN Habitat conferences and current World Urban Forums are not seen as effective platforms toward substantial changes in human settlements. Moreover, experiences show that, even in countries that have commitment to UN resolutions, state and government performance has manifest not only a lack of attention to these promises, but also evident contraventions.
Habitat I in Vancouver 1976 signed the momentum where Civil Society Organizations (CSOs from now) were globally uncovered as actors on human settlements. In this conference it was recognized that human dignity and the exercise of free choice consistent with over-all public welfare are basic rights, must be assured in every society. It was also acknowledged that basic human dignity is the right of people, individually and collectively, to participate directly in shaping the policies and programmes affecting their lives. Nevertheless, the official recommendations were focused on governmental and international agencies, requiring them to devote all their efforts to urgent actions.
Habitat II in Istanbul 1996 represents the global struggle to advance housing as a right. CSOs pushed the agenda with an emphasis on the definition of housing as right and to stop all evictions. Some countries along the US representatives tried to overturn this definition by just conceding that there should be ‘full and progressive realization’ of a right to housing and that forced evictions should not be carried out. Such word-play was of the essence of the official conference and the documents flowing out of the Conference reduced these matters to desirable goals rather than as fundamental rights.
Istanbul+5 in New York marked a further backtracking to Habitat II due to its denial of agreed norms and guidelines on implementation of the right to adequate housing and on forced evictions. It also erased the statements related to these matters and replaced, i.e. the concept of women participation under an equity basis for the word equality. These rearrangements of Habitat II declaration revealed the powerful interests lobbying behind scene. CSOs were included just as observers in the drafting committee and did not have a meaningful participation. According to a representative of the Habitat International Coalition the denial of CSOs was part of “systematic effort to eviscerate the human rights content of the draft declaration and is part of a wider strategy to roll back international legal norms, particularly in the area of economic, social and cultural rights.”
According to UN-Habitat, Current World Urban Forums are meant “to create a common platform, open forum and a dialogue between different levels of governments, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and civil societies”. This statement should be taken not more, nor less than as an opportunity to CSOs to share their ideas and experiences with other participants and to be heard by governmental and international agencies.
After 30 years of Habitat I we gather again in Vancouver. In 30 years CSOs have accumulated invaluable experience on field-working, research, networking, and advocacy to improve people’s rights. Now, WUF III asks us to put “ideas into action”. CSOs had already translated many concepts into concrete accomplishments. We must continue showing our experience and action, but at the same time we must again and again to renew efforts to advance further in the acceptance and empowerment of people’s voice and capabilities.