Geneva, 13 October 2016
As independent human rights experts1/ appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, we welcome the first XXI century global gathering to discuss urbanization and its critical role in the lives of millions of people: the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Human Development (Habitat III, Quito 17-20 October 2016).
Habitat III is a unique opportunity. It comes at a pivotal moment for cities and urban settlements, where over 56 per cent of the world’s population now resides. It will be a much needed rich gathering of varied actors and delegations, with over 30,000 participants registered, from around the globe. This coming together could be an occasion to develop new and unusual partnerships, to work collaboratively in pursuit of a single common goal: the development of a plan that ensures cities and human settlements are places where everyone, regardless of their status in life, including migration status, can live in dignity, security and inclusion, as a matter of human rights.
The New Urban Agenda, the outcome document that will be adopted in Quito, is aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and particularly with its aim to ensure sustainable urban development, social inclusion and the elimination of poverty. It recognizes the transformative potential of human rights with respect to some of the most pressing issues of our times. But does it go far enough? Will the New Urban Agenda offer a compass for the next 20 years that shifts the focus from infrastructure and investment to cities with and for people and their human rights?
In addressing this question, it cannot be ignored that Habitat III is taking place, for the first time, in Latin America. A bittersweet, yet perfect symbol for the Summit: on one hand, this region, has experienced rapid and unplanned urbanization, massive migration flows, displacement of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, criminalization of the poor, frequent evictions and gentrification. Informal settlements converge with mega-cities; what used to be rural land has been swallowed into ever-growing suburban outskirts of cities, high-end walled neighbourhoods face meagre card-board and tin shelters - sometimes on the same street. It is a region that knows well the devastating impact that unregulated development can have on the most vulnerable or the poor. It is, after-all, and regardless of progress achieved, one of the most unequal regions in the world.
On the other hand, this is also a region of hope, strength and persistence. It is a region of inspiring diversity, of vibrant civil society organisations and social movements fighting for social justice, for human rights and for access to justice. It is the region where the ‘right to the city’ movement has taken shape and brought meaning and substance to the essential need to ensure that cities are regarded as common goods, where all human rights are protected and all persons are given genuine access to spaces, services, facilities and opportunities, as well as a voice and a seat at decision making tables. For many of the social movements gathering in Quito next week, recognition of a ‘right to the city’ in the New Urban Agenda crystalizes, for the first time, their push to look closer and more seriously at what has been lacking for decades in the rapid boom of globalized urbanization.
Habitat III must bring to the fore the contradictions and contrasts that coexist in Latin America and in urban centres throughout the world. This Conference should provoke a sense of outrage at the conditions in cities and settlements, and a sense of urgency to develop people-centred solutions. Egregious violations of human rights are occurring in urban centres everywhere.
The majority of the world’s population lives in urban and peri-urban centres, often in deplorable housing conditions: homeless living literally on the streets, or in informal and grossly inadequate housing. Approximately one in every four persons does not have a safe place to live, one in five does not have safe drinking water, one in three does not have sanitation. Millions have been internally displaced in 2015, not only due to conflict but also due to development projects, violence and natural disasters, and are now scattered in cities struggling to find a place to live? - yet the scale of their situation remains unknown. Forced evictions, segregation and ghettoization, extreme violence and discrimination, unaffordability, xenophobia and racism, are often rampant in many cities. Those employed in jobs in cities that ensure others have a decent life most often cannot even afford to reside there themselves, forced into temporary and inadequate shelter. These conditions are an affront to human dignity, and yet are seldom treated as human rights matters demanding urgent responses. These are the realities that need to be taken stock of and addressed at the global conference on sustainable urbanization.
The New Urban Agenda must come to life in the next twenty years by embracing these immense challenges with ambition and with a sense of urgency. There is no room for complacency. An effective response to the conditions in cities for the most marginalized and discriminated against groups will require all levels of government, the private sector, multi-lateral banks, international financial institutions, donors as well as UN agencies to accept and take on board the human rights dimensions of urban life.
It is for this reason that we wish to jointly demand that Habitat III establishes a plan of action for the implementation of a New Urban Agenda that is embedded in human rights, and includes the following four central conditions:
1. The New Urban Agenda must commit to the genuine engagement and empowerment of women, and other population groups that are often discriminated against and marginalized, as rights holders in and residents of the cities they contribute to. It is a small but insufficient step to simply list these groups and their particular needs. Persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, older persons, children, homeless, migrants and refugees, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTI, and others must all be included as active participants and beneficiaries of specific services and rights in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. The New Urban Agenda must provide clear, meaningful plans for inclusion and participation, which consider their lived experiences, specific concerns and fears, as well as their essential contributions.
2. The New Urban Agenda must be implemented in a manner consistent with international human rights, and the core rights to life and to non-discrimination. Every single person is inherently human and – as Desmond Tutu once said – deserves the ‘full menu of human rights, not only picking up the crumbs of compassion thrown from someone else’s table’. In other words, in its implementation, the New Urban Agenda must uphold the broad range of human rights necessary to ensure the right to a life of dignity in all human settlements: access, without discrimination, to adequate housing, water, sanitation, education, food, employment opportunities, and health goods, services and facilities, freedom of expression, assembly, access to justice and to effective remedies.
3. Habitat III must undergo a significant SHIFT - away from extolling the virtues of profits and prosperity and toward the individuals and communities whose human rights are at stake. As it stands, the New Urban Agenda includes an unqualified interest in economic growth and the financial dimensions of urbanization without effectively addressing the tension between these policies and the enjoyment of human rights by the most marginalized. The New Urban Agenda must challenge, not pander to, real estate agents, developers, contractors, and investment funds using housing and land as an asset for personal gain. It must also challenge the multilateral banks and financial institutions which continue to fund urban projects and infrastructure developments that lead to forced evictions, displacement, ghettoization and further exclusion. In order for this shift to take place, the New Urban Agenda must require of all levels of government bold action for the rigorous regulation of the private market and private actors to curb “market trends”, using human rights standards.
4. Local governments must be supported to acquire or enhance the knowledge and capacities to ensure the New Urban Agenda is implemented. The New Urban Agenda rightly recognizes the essential role local and subnational governments play in every aspect of cities and settlements. It also recognizes the need for better cooperation between different levels of government. Local and subnational governments cannot fulfil their human rights obligations if they are not fully supported to do so by national level governments and other key actors.
If these four key areas are given centrality in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, Habitat III won’t just have been another global conference, full of rhetoric and empty promises to the people it is meant to protect and whose lives it is meant to improve. Participants in Quito will know that they were at a history-making, life altering venture. They will have made an investment that will make the world far richer – an investment in human rights.
1/ Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha; Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar; Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Koumbou Boly; Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston; Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver; Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky; Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras; Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz; Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau; Independent Expert on the human rights of older persons, Rosa Kornfeld-Matte; Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonovic, and Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation, Léo Heller.