Why bother about the UN?
During recent years it has appeared that there is no unanimous view among HIC members on the organization’s relations with the United Nations. Is the UN really important for us? What is the force of its decisions? Why should we go to its meetings? What do we hope to achieve there? In the following paragraphs some arguments are mentioned in favour of a consistent HIC policy towards the UN.
The history of HIC is strongly connected with the UN. HIC was established following the first UN Conference on Human Settlements, held in Vancouver in 1976.More than 20 000 participants attended the NGO Forum which was held simultaneously with the conference. At the conference the world started to become aware of the enormous problem of inadequate housing brought about by the mass migration from rural to urban areas in large parts of the world. It was the first occasion on which the potential role of inhabitants to improve their own living and housing conditions was recognized. In order to promote the implementation of the recommendations adopted at the Vancouver conference and to follow world-wide developments in the field of housing, the UN set up a Commission on Human Settlements, which meets once a year, as well as a Centre for Human Settlements, located in Nairobi.
HIC has been represented at meetings of the Commission (now called Governing Council) since its beginning. It took an active part in the second UN Conference on Human Settlements which was held in 1996 in Istanbul. In the course of the years HIC has become to be recognized as the leading NGO in the field of human settlements. HIC’s mission HIC, first called Habitat International Council, was founded in 1978 and originally consisted to a large extent of European and North American NGOs dealing with technical and financial assistance in the field of housing.
At a conference in 1986 in Limuru (near Nairobi) the organization changed both its name and its policy orientation. Although it still believed that individual projects for the improvement of houses and human settlements could be useful as experiments and learning objects, it had become convinced that HIC’s main goal, the recognition and implementation of housing as a human right, could only be achieved through structural change. One of its main tasks was therefore to put pressure on governments so that they would -2- implement the right to housing which they had recognized when they had ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other treaties dealing with housing rights. In short, what HIC strives for is that each government recognizes that it has the duty to enable all its inhabitants to obtain adequate housing and that, for this purpose, it should adopt the necessary legislation, promote the necessary institutions and make the necessary funds available. (The world “enable” indicates that governments are not the only actors in this field.)
As poverty is a major cause why a satisfactory housing policy of this kind is not realized in many countries, HIC is also a strong supporter of the anti-poverty movement and those who fight for greater international solidarity. A third pillar of its policy is that of popular participation. HIC defends the right of all inhabitants to take part in the planning and decision-making of their houses and communities. In particular, it advocates the right of the homeless and the inadequately housed to form community-based organization for the construction and management of their own shelter. It helps these CBOs through the exchange of experiences and by acting as their spokesperson in contacts with international organizations.
How does this affect HIC’s relations with the UN?
Most of the subjects with which HIC is concerned figure from time to time on the agenda of the UN or its related organizations. In the UN a continuous process of defining international norms and standards in the field of housing is taking place in the form of recommendations and resolutions of governmental conferences and committees. Most of the international treaties which refer to the right to housing find their origin in the UN. As experience has shown, NGOs like HIC, by actively participating in the bodies concerned, can have an influence on their decisions. One may rightly ask, however, what is the use of these decisions if their implementation leaves so much to be desired? One has to realize that the UN is not a world government and that it has only limited means to enforce its decisions. Nevertheless, its decisions carry considerable weight because they are the unanimous result of deliberations among 191 governments. They are often quoted in parliaments and courts; they are used by NGOs in their exchanges of view with governments.
The UN is aware of its weakness with regard to the implementation of its decisions. One of the ways it uses in order to put pressure on governments to carry out their commitments is by asking them to report regularly on the progress they have made. In doing so they make use of the fact that governments usually do not like to be accused of not fulfilling their promises. -3- Although one cannot close one’s eyes to the slow progress and the many frustrations of the process, one has, on the other hand, also to see, and support, the new initiatives which are taken from time to time to keep the subjects in the limelight. A recent example are the Millennium Development Goals, several of which touch upon the field of human settlements, most notably the one aiming at “a significant improvement in the living conditions of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020”.
In the UN we see reflected a permanent struggle between national interests and international solidarity, between the international rule of law and hegemony. As HIC we cannot remain absent from this struggle as far as its affects human settlements. The UN provides HIC with a unique opportunity to pursue one of its main tasks: to try and influence government policies. At the same time it offers a forum to HIC for its publicity and public relations. The UN and human settlements Many organs of the UN and UN related bodies are dealing with one or more aspects of human settlement policies. The most comprehensive in this respect are the Habitat Governing Council and the Centre for Human Settlements (UN Habitat). In the Governing Council the housing ministers of 58 governments meet once a year to discuss a wide area of problems and current thinking about possible solutions. General policy trends propagated through the years can be characterized by the slogans “low-cost housing”, “sites and services”, “slum upgrading”, “enablement”. From time to time the Centre launches new campaigns or special actions like those on Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, Good Governance, Security of Tenure, Urban Observatory, Best Practices. The celebration of the UN Year for Shelter for the Homeless (1987) was an attempt to draw public opinion to world-wide human settlement problems. The holding of the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996, of which the Centre acted as the secretariat, was another attempt in that direction. The Habitat Agenda adopted in Istanbul contains, like the final resolution of the Habitat I Conference in Vancouver and Agenda 21 adopted by the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a large number of recommendations to governments with regard to their human settlements policies. In several cases NGOs have been able to influence their contents. These recommendations have a moral value as international norms and standards, but they are not automatically carried out at the national level. NGOs can and should put pressure on public opinion and national parliaments to make sure that governments do not forget their commitments. For the same purpose the UN -4- organizes from time to time review conferences where governments are expected to report on what they have done in this respect. These review conferences (Istanbul+5, Johannesburg, etc.) have not been an unqualified success: governments do not report negatively about their own performances and in a few cases they tried to come back from their previous commitments. A more institutionalized review takes place in the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which meets every year in Geneva. There, governments which have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights report on the implementation they have given to the article of the Covenant which recognizes the right of everyone to adequate housing. By presenting additional information on the housing policy of the countries under review, NGOs can make a considerable input in the discussions (and decisions) of the Committee. Land and housing rights are also sometimes on the agenda of the Commission on Human Rights, the main human rights organ of the UN. There are contacts between the UN Human Rights Centre in Geneva and Habitat in Nairobi about the drafting of a covenant on housing rights, but the enthusiasm among governments for such an idea is lacking. The fact that the present UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Rights is a member of HIC’s Housing and Land Rights Network is an asset. Human settlement issues are sometimes on the agenda of the UN regional commissions. Those for Asia and Europe have habitat committees. UN bodies concerned with gender issues deal sometimes with women’s land and housing rights as well as other human settlement subjects: the Commission on the Status of Women, the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the UN Development Program (UNDP) are important actors in the field of human settlements. Because of their financial resources they often carry more weight than Habitat and have, through the guidelines for their own projects, a considerable influence on human settlement policies. Recently these bodies seem to be more willing to listen to NGOs. Other “members of the UN family”, where human settlement matters are sometimes on the agenda are WHO, FAO, ILO, UNESCO and the regional development banks. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which must help to ensure that the commitments undertaken by governments at the UN conferences on -5- environment and development and sustainability (Rio de Janeiro 1992 and its follow-up in Johannesburg in 2002) are being implemented, is at present dealing with the subjects of water, sanitation and habitat. At its session in April 2004 it discussed the progress made so far as a preparation for the 2005 session when it will make proposals for making up for the shortcomings. The UN and NGOs The formal relationship between the UN and NGOs is based on article 71 of the UN Charter which mentions that the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) can make rules for the consultation of NGOs. These rules are laid down in an ECOSOC resolution; they contain criteria for the admission of NGOs to the so-called consultative status as well as the privileges and obligations of the admitted NGOs. Among the privileges are the circulation of written statements during the meetings of ECOSOC and its related committees and working groups (not the UN General Assembly, nor the Security Council) and the presentation of short oral explanations. For the large UN conferences similar rules are decided in each separate case. Experience has taught these formal rights are in themselves not sufficient for NGOs to reach their objective of influencing UN decisions. They hardly lead to a dialogue between NGOs and UN members. In UN meetings NGO representatives are the last to speak after governmental delegates and representatives of intergovernmental organizations. Some governmental representatives politely stay in the room to listen, but no discussions follow and NGO ideas and suggestions are not taken into account in the decision-making. During the last decades NGOs resorted more and more to another strategy which has proven to be more effective: They tried to convince friendly government delegates “in the corridors” to propose the NGO suggestions as their own in the meetings. This lobbying often started already some time before the meeting through contacts at the ministry concerned or with interested members of parliament. Through close cooperation between NGOs this approach reached significant results during the Environment and Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, where NGOs were successful in changing and adding important elements in the final document of the conference, Agenda 21. International women’s organization took a leading role in developing effective lobbying techniques. They approached all government delegates at UN conferences with a complete copy of the draft conference resolutions together with their proposed amendments. Successful NGO initiatives and actions were at the base of international treaties against torture and landmines and campaigns to forgive the debts of the most deprived nations. -6- HIC’s participation At present HIC is participating in the meetings of the Habitat Governing Council and the NGO Forums at UN conferences. HIC thematic and regional bodies participate in some of the meetings of UN bodies in their field. The most active is the Housing and Land Rights Network, for which relations with the UN are an important part of its programme. It has developed a considerable expertise in this field, which HIC should make use of without imposing unreasonable limitations upon the Network’s autonomy. As, on the other hand, the question of housing rights is such a core element of HIC’s objectives, there cannot be a division of labour by which matters related to housing rights would exclusively be left to the Network. The Habitat Governing Council has lost some of its significance during recent years. Yet, it is the meeting of senior policy-makers – ministers of housing – of UN member-countries. HIC should be represented there by its President and/or Secretary-General in order to make the voice heard of the homeless and inadequately housed. In 2005 the international debate on human settlements will be dominated by two events: one is the 14th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the second one of this body dealing with water, sanitation and human settlements. During the first (2004) session HIC was represented by Michael Kean, who succeeded in having most of HIC’s points included in a joint NGO statement. A major issue was the fact that mass migration from rural to urban areas will, during the next decades, increase much more than had been expected a few years ago. Even if the MDG of improving the living conditions of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020 will be met (which seems unlikely at present), there will by that date still be considerably more slum dwellers than today. In his report to the CSD the UN Secretary General called the present MDG on slum dwellers therefore “patently inadequate”. The 2005 session of the CSD will make recommendations for speeding up the implementation of Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg resolutions. In 2005 will also take place a special session of the UN General Assembly to review progress of the implementation of the MDGs. It will be useful to watch which arrangements will be made for the involvement of NGOs in that session. HIC might decide to make promoting the implementation of the (revised) Millennium Development Goal on slum dwellers one of its main policy objectives of the next 18 months. It would for instance be useful if the World Urban Forum in Barcelona could be made to pronounce itself clearly about this subject. 7 Proposed guidelines # With all its shortcomings, the UN is, through its influence on national policies, a major actor in the field of human settlements. HIC would fail in its mission if it would neglect its relations with the organization. # In view of its limited human and financial resources HIC should in each specific case consider whether its participation is worthwhile. # In all cases HIC´s standpoint should be well prepared, among other ways through a study of the agenda and related documents of the meeting concerned. In the meetings it is not sufficient to inform government delegates of HIC´s point of view on the subject under discussion: HIC representatives have to ask themselves how they can influence the decisions of the meeting. # Overall coordination of HIC´s policy towards the UN and its main contacts with the organization should be in the hands of the Secretary-General under the general guidance of the HIC Executive Board. # If possible, HIC should appoint permanent representatives at the UN headquarters in New York, Nairobi and Geneva. # HIC´s working groups, networks and regional sections should be aware that in participating in UN activities, they act on behalf of HIC. They should be in frequent contact on these matters with the HIC Secretariat and regularly report on them to the Executive Board. As a rule, they represent HIC in UN bodies exclusively on subjects in their field of specialization or region. With regard to meetings where their field of activities touches only upon one or two items on the agenda, they should consult with the HIC Secretariat on HIC´s standpoint as well as its representation. The Hague, 10 July 2004 Han van Putten