Law students in Uruguay help secure a family a safer home


Squatters stand near shelters in an unoccupied lot on the outskirts of  Montevideo January 19, 2011. © REUTERS/Andres Stapff

Law professor, Juan Ceretta, may not be a bricklayer, but he devotes much of his time securing people's access to safe roofs and walls.

As an expert on human right strategic litigation at University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, Ceretta has championed the work of his students to provide legal assistance to poor families struggling to access economic, social and cultural rights. He has established a programme to demand housing solutions, which, rather than a roof over the head, can be called a home. Single mothers, migrants, and persons with disabilities visit him weekly.

More than 1.8 billion people worldwide lack adequate housing, according to estimates from UN-Habitat. Every year, two million people are forcibly evicted, many more are threatened with evictions and some 150 million people worldwide are homeless. In these times of COVID-19 pandemic, as people are being called upon to stay at home, staying put and practising physical distancing is extremely hard for people living in overcrowded conditions, homeless people, and those lacking access to water and sanitation.

This year, Ceretta and his students took on the case of a family with six children between the ages of 2 and 14, living in extreme poverty. The family had been occupying a house in Montevideo for the past 14 years that was now on the brink of collapse

For the professor and his team, this case represented a challenge as, he recalled, not many precedents can be found in Uruguay regarding the enforceability of the right to housing, unlike other social rights such as healthcare.

"In the research we carried out at the University of the Republic Law School, we only found five records of litigation claiming the effective enjoyment of the right to housing. In three of these cases, actions of protection were promoted by the Strategic Litigation Clinic of the Faculty, in 2018, 2019 and the last one in 2020," Ceretta pointed out.

"All these cases referred to extreme circumstances of vulnerable people - migrants, women and children who were not enrolled in State housing programs, who occupied land or had been forcibly evicted; however, no successful case was known to date."

In an unusual move, they collaborated with the Public Defender who advised them to give a more comprehensive approach to the case. All the reports from social services had pointed out the risk it represented for both adults and children to continue living in a house on the verge to collapse.

The road was long and bumpy for Professor Ceretta and his students. However, a few weeks ago, they received incredible news: in an unprecedented outcome, the constitutional protection suit filed by the Strategic Litigation Clinic team, which demanded urgent housing solutions for the vulnerable family, was deemed admissible by the court.

Uruguay's Housing Ministry agreed to provide the family with adequate housing - through a rental subsidy for a period of two years - within 24 hours and cover their access to essential services, as part of their human right to adequate housing.

"This was the first time, for this specific case, that the State was able to review its public policies with the added particularity that it occurred in the framework of conciliation proceedings, with the participation of other public actors," Ceretta pointed out. "The Ministry of Social Development committed to accompanying the family in the process, and the Uruguayan Child and Adolescent Institute will accompany the children and look for suitable housing according to the family's requirements."

Since its creation in 2015 as an optional course for law students, the Clinic has focused on causes that contribute to progress realizing human rights, especially social and cultural rights. The team works in partnership with various public and social actors, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the penitentiary system, the Institution National Human Rights Committee, the Commission for the Fight against Discrimination and Racism, the Network of Elder Adults, and the Organization to Help the HIV-positive, among others.

"The Clinic was created to attempt at using a different methodology than the Consultation Area, which, despite its 60 years of experience, was unable able to address collective and social causes," Ceretta stressed.

"Unlike the Consultation Area, the Clinic does not work at the request of citizens. Instead, it proactively goes out to look for the cases it considers relevant, after a selection by the teaching team and the students themselves. We try to address the most challenging cases that would not reach the Consultation area's window, due to difficulties in access for these people," he added.

The UN Human Rights Advisor in Uruguay has been closely involved with the Clinic through a number of activities, particularly those aiming to integrate human rights standards and international jurisprudence in claims and arguments presented to courts. In September 2020, they started collaboration on litigation for the right to adequate housing, which included a conference with students, lawyers, judges and prosecutors, and activists. During the conference, UN Human Rights officers and international invitees provided them with the foundations of the right to housing and presented the standards for the enforceability of this right, in a context where regressive housing normative frameworks and laws are being promoted.

According to Ceretta and his students, that conference was key in preparing their right to housing claim as it presented a wide analysis on the national framework and its connection with the international standards; the analysis of the jurisprudence produced by the UN treaty bodies and other international and regional fora; as well as possible strategies to claim the enforceability of the right to adequate housing.

"This ground-breaking advance would have not been possible without the capacity building support of UN Human Rights," Ceretta said. "We learned to use international human rights law and standards in our exchanges with authorities, as well as good practices from other countries to turn economic, social and cultural rights into a reality."

This story is part of a series to celebrate Human Rights Day 2020, under the theme Recover Better: Stand up for human rights. No one should be punished because they are homeless or live in inadequate housing. The Sustainable Development Agenda, through Goal 11, calls for cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The recovery must protect and benefit the most vulnerable while advancing efforts to fulfil human rights of all and achieve the 2030 Agenda.


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8 December 2020


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