Human Rights for People-Centered Sustainable Development


For 30 years, the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) has served as the leading global membership coalition of more than 400 social movements, CBOs, research centers, professional associations CBOs and NGOs concerned with housing and land rights in human settlements. Through the CSD-13 process, HIC remains concerned that the growing number of homeless and inadequately housed in the world, in the South as in the North, is inconsistent with the targets and commitments affirmed in Agenda 21 (1992) and Agenda Habitat II (1996). The trend also outstrips the MDG 7, target 11, whose benefits to 100 million slum dwellers, were they to achieved, would be overshadowed by the fact that slum dwellers would increase by some five times that number in the same period. What is also troubling is the prevailing assumption that these trends are inevitable and without viable alternatives.

It would be our hope, rather, that the urbanist and real state approach would give way to needed development alternatives, allowing people and communities to develop on their land, instead of despairing and repairing only to the cities, where they often face discrimination and new kinds of deprivation. HIC and its members daily face the phenomenon in which urbanism, by dismissing rural people’s rights and sustainable development, carries the seeds of a self-fulfilling human-migration philosophy. Meanwhile, many urban decision makers blame the putative victims, minimizing their development alternatives and treating them as “problems” to be solved, or “illegal” settlements to be removed and/or resettled in order to “beautify” cities or make them more “sustainable” for private, acquisitional interests.

This common “urbanist” ideology becomes manifest through planning policies, like-minded institutions and implementation strategies and budgets. By channelling the experiences of rural and urban inhabitants across the globe, HIC attempts here to present real-life principles for sustainable development that reflects the wider human experience and carries a more-human face.

Thus, the following recommendations to CSD refer back to the human principles codified in the UN and regional human rights instruments. Though conscientiously applied only in rare cases, those long-established obligations and instruments of guidance for States remain a resource and reference that should be applied to all aspects of development, if it is to be truly sustainable, and do not discriminate between rural and urban humans.

HIC would like to draw the attention of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Commission on Human Rights to some very essential points, including those applying to most States and arising from already binding international public law.

Proposal 1: Human Rights for Sustainable Development

That States, governments and civil society reconfirm and guarantee application of the framework of human rights and corresponding obligations to all sustainable development measures in the fields of water, sanitation and human settlements. The recognition, implementation and realisation of those human rights related to human settlements, inter alia, the human right to adequate housing, alternatives to forced eviction, the human right to water and public goods and services –without arbitrary discrimination and without prejudicing the people’s sovereignty over these public goods and services. This can be accomplished only by:

(a) promoting the following wording in the CSD 13 documents:

“Civil, economic, cultural, political and social rights are the fundamental and interdependent bases for truly sustainable social, economic and environmental development.”

(b) ensuring that, in practice, States and governments apply the universally binding principles of self-determination, nondiscrimination, gender equality, rule of law, progressive realization (nonretorgeression) and international cooperation toward the implementation of rights;
(c) citing the relevant provisions of the applicable binding treaty instruments CSD 13 documents*.
(d) referring also to the declaratory instruments and commitments CSD 13 documents**.
(e) evaluating all proposals for CSD 13 outcomes under the criterion that the proposed measures must and shall serve the realisation of basic human rights for liveable human settlements toward sustainable development for all, everywhere. This requires their analysis in the light of hazards and impediments to human rights, as such, for instance:

  • the destruction of human habitat caused by military operations, political violence, wars, forced evictions and related criminal acts;

  • the social and economic consequences of natural catastrophes;

  • market and private-sector interests without proper strengthening of public and community capacities to orient markets and private-sector;

  • the opening of local service, land and housing markets to multinational corporations without sufficient measures to guarantee corporate accountability and uphold human rights and corresponding State obligations;

  • the separation of indispensable and interdependent elements of livable human settlements, such as water, sanitation, education, access to services, income generation and security, etc., into sectoral approaches, rather than the needed holistic approach;

  • the isolation of the MDG slum-improvement approach from the general orientation on sustainable, equitable and decent human settlements within the urbanisation processes and good governance, including human settlements of the industrialised countries, which are the main source of both the ecological burden on the planet and the ideological pressures leading to the inefficiency of measures to reduce the consumption of global natural resources and other destructive practices. All parties must cooperate toward fundamental change to the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production of industrialized cities and wealthier populations and the further deterioration and neglect of rural environments, development and sustainable human settlement on the land.

(f) affirming a charter of basic civil rights, including participation, association, freedom of expression and security of person, etc., as well as ensuring the rule of law and the judiciability of all human rights for all at local levels, with special effort to guarantee civil rights of marginalized populations, including those living in irregular or non-legalized settlements;
(g) endorsement of the World Charter for the Right to the City, as proposed by the government of Brazil and numerous social movements, NGO’s and HIC, and recommendation of its adoption by the United Nations Habitat III Conference in 2006 in Vancouver;
(h) specifying a charter of rights to services;
(i) developing consistent instruments at all levels that guarantee regular and participatory monitoring of human settlements development under the criteria of habitat-relevant human rights.

Proposal 2: People-centered Sustainable Development

Develop international minimum guidelines for integrated local sustainable development plans and territorial management, which are, inter alia, orientated toward realising human rights for every inhabitant, including:

  • equitable allocation of resources within the territory and the population;

  • protection of democratic public and community ownership of housing, land, water and other necessities against their privatization by predatory multinational corporations;

  • the reduction of local and global consumption of natural resources to a sustainable level;

  • a sustainable territorial balance with the natural living conditions, including water resources, green spaces, soils etc.;

  • the prevention and redress of spatial social segregation;

  • overcoming marginalisation and social exclusion;
    the prevention of forced evictions;

  • adequate housing for all, such that meets the requirements of: legal security of tenure; access to public goods and services; access to environmental goods and services; affordability; habitability; accessibility; appropriate location; cultural appropriateness; participation and freedom of expression; freedom of movement, resettlements (and rehabilitiation), nonrefoulement, restitution and return; freedom of information, education, capacity and capacity building; security of person and privacy;

  • income generation for, and managed by the poor;

  • strengthening participation of all population groups, especially the vulnerable, in decision making;

  • strengthening the capacities of civil society to promote sustainable and equitable human settlements with a long-term perspective, through skill training, information, legal awareness, etc.;

  • standards of accountability and good governance grounded in human rights and corresponding obligations upon States and their agents, including public servants and local authorities;

  • strengthening local authorities capacities for urban planning and other services, particularly in the context of decentralization of public responsibilities;
    community based disaster prevention and disaster preparedness, including measures in the field of territorial planning, infrastructure and construction.

Such common guidance can be achieved by:

(a) an internationally organized review of existing instruments of demonstrated multilateral agreements for sustainable local development, such as Local Agenda 21, the Aarhus Convention, the Healthy Cities Project, etc., coupled with the binding human rights instruments. Such a review would have to include all major groups and lead to an efficient globally applicable policy tool for local action, including permanent monitoring and bench marking. That would build on a global network of local initiatives to evaluate other national and international measures for comparative analysis and practical strategy exchange;
(b) taking into consideration the wealth of local expertise arising from governmental and nongovernmental experience to apply these common public-law principles and monitor their application, in order to exchange and disseminate practical problem-solving strategies. HIC realizes that applying international commitments to development and human rights obligations is, ultimately, a local matter;
(c) such guidance also must be applied to avoid environmental degradation in urban and regional contexts that aggravate vulnerability and lead to a higher propensity to natural disaster. Linking disasters to natural causes and not perceiving the collective development of a city or a region makes risk prevention more difficult. Training an multidisciplinary action are keys to preventing the causes and mitigating the effects of natural disasters, especially through measures in the field of territorial planning, infrastructure and construction.

The recent horrific tsunami disaster in Asia, and the continual destruction caused by armed conflicts and forced evictions globally, have caused massive dispossession and displacement of persons and communities. Long and short term rehabilitation actions must guarantee return, restitution and resettlement in full safety and sustainability; affected people must be fully involved in the decision-making process. Measures must ensure that distribution of disaster aid is managed so as to reduce –not aggravate– social injustices and oppression of marginalized communities, especially in areas suffering from civil conflicts.

Proposal 3: International Aid Strategies

On the basis of integrated local sustainable development plans and territorial management detailed in Proposal 2, focus international aid strategies so as to, inter alia:

  • apply the framework of human rights for all; apply standards of corporate accountability and new global regulatory mechanisms to stop the unwarranted privatization of public and community owned housing, land, water and other essential needs;

  • concentrate on long-term strengthening of local authority and civil society capacities to meet the needs of the population, primarily those of the vulnerable groups and the marginalized;

  • respect the poor and excluded parts of the population as equal citizens, especially those living in irregular settlements, who are most often subjected to discrimination and exclusion;

  • promote actions to mitigate the effects of social and spatial segregation in the cities and the region, by guaranteeing full access to public goods and services, including, inter alia, water, sanitation, education, health, income generation and civic entertainment, seeking for equilibrium and justice between, among and within the different neighbourhoods;

  • allow a community or locally controlled transfer of knowledge and technology;

  • improve governance with greater capacity and integrity of civil servants;

  • commit democratic and inclusive participation of all stakeholders, the rule of law, a conducive regulatory environment, accountability, transparency, and enforced corporate social responsibility, including efforts to combat corruption, nepotism and financial secrecy as essential measures to achieve good governance.

These strategies would be implemented by:

(a) a higher priority of human settlement support within the existing financing and aid mechanisms, including Official Development Aid;
(b) a bottom-up approach for capacity building of public authority and civil society that allows the generation of adequate strategies, allocation of resources and infrastructure;
(c) accepting that the building of adequate local capacities and strategies is a long-term project needing persistence and sufficient time;
(d) basing aid on contracting that applies strict criteria that meet the above priorities.

Proposal 4: Good Practice of Wealthiest Nations

The continued disruptions of human settlements and infrastructure caused by wars, occupation, forced evictions, population transfer and natural disasters underscore the urgent need to redirect the resources of wealthier nations away from weapons of war and toward sustainable habitats for peace. The CSD–13 and CHR–61 Conference should exploit this occasion to recommend that other wealthy nations at least match the recent commendable commitments made by the Government of the United Kingdom to:

(a) write off the debt of the poorest countries, so that national revenues can be utilized fully to accelerate achievement of MDG goals;
(b) meet the MDG goals of 0.7% of GDP for development assistance from wealthy countries;
(c) at a minimum, deepen recent initiatives to declare a moratorium on debt owed by countries affected by the Asian tsunami by completing writing off debts owed by these countries so that more resources are available sooner to rebuild without prejudice to their future access to sustainable development capital;
(d) provide low cost finance to leverage the issuance of massive development bonds to provide immediate development aid.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit these views. On behalf of HIC, we request that our organization be granted an opportunity to present and comment on the proceedings of the CSD–13 CHR–61 sessions during the time slots allotted for presentations by Major Groups in the Draft agendas.


Enrique Ortiz Flores Ana Sugranyes
President General Secretary

* Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), Biodiversity Convention (1992), Desertification Convention (1994), Kyoto Protocol (1997), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969).

** General Comments and jurisprudence of the treaty system, Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 (1992), Vienna Declaration and Programme (1993), Istanbul Declaration and Habitat II Agenda (1996); Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (2002).