Housing for all: 30 years after Habitat I

For Habitat International Coalition, looking back upon the foregoing 30 years is more than a mere nostalgic exercise. It carries with it a reaffirmation of work and identity, as well as an assessment of performance and progress. Vancouver, from whence we came, has provided us with both a geographical and a documentary reference point. The 1976 Vancouver Declaration was an articulation of principled commitment by governments, but it also expressed the values shared with civil society and social movements working to ensure the liveability of human settlements.

By 1976, the human right to adequate housing had been codified as a State obligation already for ten years.[1] The right and the corresponding State obligations achieved legal specificity 15 years later.[2] In another five years, the States members of the United Nations met at Istanbul to elaborate their common commitments to standards of civilized policy behaviour in the development of our community environments. Appropriately, the 1996 Istanbul Declaration affirmed human rights, in general, and the “commitment to the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments,”[3] in particular, as the framework for human-centered settlements and their further development. Thus, the accompanying Habitat II Agenda refers to human rights generally in 26 articles,[4] dedicates five articles to re-emphasising adequate housing as a human right, and elaborates the content of that right in ten articles.[5] Included also the explicit recognition of “the legal traditional rights of indigenous peoples to land and other resources” and the commitment to protecting those rights.[6]

Habitat II acknowledged also that, “although the structural causes of problems have often to be dealt with at the national and sometimes the international level, progress will depend to a large degree on local authorities, civic engagement and the forging of partnerships at all levels of government with the private sector, the cooperative sector, nongovernmental and community-based organizations, workers and employers and civil society at large.”[7] Undoubtedly, we have seen some progress and innovation in the partnerships forged in the spirit and follow-up of Habitat II. These have manifest in some of the most unexpected places, and the social production of habitat has demonstrated how the inhabitants themselves are, typically, the authors of the most appropriate and durable solutions.[8]

Social progress and settlements development are not the product of charity or a stroke of official magnanimity. Adequate housing is a human right essential for human dignity and well-being; consequently, it is a subject of government obligation. Realising that, nonetheless, also has suffered an ideological setback. That was starkly evident in the Istanbul+5 process, which failed the dual test of a fair assessment and inclusive process. Now, the ambitions enshrined in the Habitat II Agenda have so lost their momentum that their enshrining documents seem to have passed into oblivion. Exactly ten years after Habitat II, the programme of the World Urban Forum III at Vancouver makes virtually no mention of it.

States that had assumed these same treaty obligations and prior commitments agreed to the Minimum Development Goals in 2000 as an interim effort. Despite the Millennium Declaration’s general international law and human rights grounding,[9] the MDG guidance for States avoids any reference to concurrent treaty obligations or the jurisprudence that guides their implementation.

Despite the minimalist nature of the MDGs, global progress reports indicate that most States are falling far behind expectations. Meanwhile, from the perspective of Goal 7, Target 11, the most conspicuous State actions are all to the contrary. Many of the States that are treaty bound to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to adequate housing are conducting waves of arbitrary and punishing forced evictions, one of the surest ways to deepen poverty and deprivation.

A review of HIC’s “Housing for All” statement to Habitat II (1996) suggests that the same text would apply today. In fact, precisely the same deprivation continues at no lesser scale as it did ten years ago, despite Habitat II, certainly despite Istanbul+5, and no more impeded under the global MDG drive or the various Secure Tenure Campaigns. The 1996 reference to “structural adjustment” today would be replaced by its latter-day counterpart. The reforms imposed by international finance institutions effectively bring about the withering away of the State, withdrawing its self-determined regulatory and service-provider functions, transferring public goods and services to private hands, and raising impoverished people’s costs to meet their vital needs. This global pincer effect on the planet’s most vulnerable inhabitants makes public goods and services dearer for them, while systematically destroying their social production.

Development and market trends are running at cross purposes. Despite some bright moments of encouragement, the past thirty years have seen governments progressively shedding previously affirmed commitments and institutionalising collective amnesia about their Habitat II promises. A few militarist States do so by eschewing economic, social and cultural human rights outright, and denying the very existence of adequate housing as a human right. The reckless neoliberal obsession with enabling markets at all other costs is disabling people and, thus, making the MDGs ever more elusive. Without the needed integrity of honouring or even acknowledging foregoing promises, and follow them with structural and behavioural change, we are now seeing the tunnel at the end of the light.

[1] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, currently ratified by 152 States parties, provides in Article 11: “1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international cooperation based on free consent. “

[2] In General Comment No. 4 “the right to housing,” which the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in its sixth session, 12 December 1991.

[3] Article 8.

[4] Articles 4, 23–26, 32, 39–40, 43, 55, 59, 61, 78, 98, 116, 177, 182, 186, 190, 199, 233, 237, 241.

[5] Articles 27, 39, 40, 61, 72, 75–76, 78, 179, 182.

[6] Article 40.

[7] Article 55.

[8] See Anatomies of a Social Movement (Cairo: HIC-HLRN, 2004).

[9] Paras. 4, 6, 9, 11, 24–26, 29.