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Statement by Ms Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing at the seventy-second of the General Assembly

    Third Committee - Item 72 (b & c)

New York, 23 October 2017

Madam Chair,
Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates, and representatives of civil society

It is with great pleasure that I address the Third Committee of the General Assembly as Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

I would like to begin by thanking Chile for its invitation for an official visit in April of this year. It was a very successful mission and my final report will be presented at the Human Rights Council, in February or March 2018.

I would also like to draw your attention to my recent report to the Human Rights Council on financialization and the right to housing (A/HRC/34/51). In that report I examined the historic challenges to the right to adequate housing caused by the expanding role and unprecedented dominance of financial markets and corporations in the housing sector. Housing is now treated primarily as a commodity – a place to park vast amounts of global capital, and a means to accumulate wealth for a few. And at what cost? Housing has become increasingly unaffordable for those in low and even middle-income brackets, and is no longer viewed as home, a place in which to raise families and from which to contribute to community.

In response, my report called for a fundamental shift through which States must change their relationship with the financial sector to insist that markets serve the social function of housing. I think the financialization of housing and its implications is one of the most significant issues in the world today. I am working with a wide range of partners and networks to follow up on my report. In this regard, in partnership with an international umbrella organization of representatives of cities, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have launched a new global movement called The Shift – which urges all States to commit to doing what it takes, by 2030, to curb financialization and ensure cities are inclusive places with access to adequate, affordable and secure housing for all.

Distinguished delegates,

Let me now turn to the report that I present to you today, on the right to adequate housing of persons with disabilities.

When I was first appointed Special Rapporteur, I reported to this Committee my intention to write a report on this topic. My commitment turned into an imperative upon witnessing first-hand the deplorable housing circumstances of persons with disabilities around the world. Few marginalized groups suffer such egregious violations of the right to housing. Though persons with disabilities are not a homogenous group - and I understand disability to include physical, psycho-social, and intellectual disabilities – I have found that across the world, they have common experiences.  

Housing is absolutely central to dignity and equal rights for persons with disabilities. Choosing where and with whom to live, being part of a community, having access to safe and accessible housing, and forms of support is the difference between belonging and isolation, security and abuse, and all too often between life and death.

People with disabilities face widespread and severe forms of discrimination in virtually all aspects of housing and they experience extreme forms of stigmatization.

Forced institutionalization of persons with disabilities remains a systemic practice throughout the world.  When States fail to provide resources for support for living in the community, persons with disabilities may also be forced to live in institutions simply because of a lack of housing options. Institutionalization often involves cruel and inhuman treatment, including physical and sexual abuse, and deprivation of liberty in virtually every aspect of life. Living conditions are the worst imaginable: severely overcrowded, with limited or no access to sanitation and hygiene facilities. Frankly, words and United Nations’ conference rooms somehow sanitize these conditions; if any of you have not visited such institutions in your own country, I would urge you to do so.  It is heart-wrenching and demands immediate action.

Outside of institutions, housing options for persons with disabilities are not much better. In cities, persons with disabilities living in poverty commonly live in informal settlements, homeless encampments and on side-walks.  On mission, I often see people with disabilities, including young children and older persons, left to languish in isolation, sometimes in dark rooms without electricity, hidden from view.  Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are often inaccessible and in many situations, persons with disabilities are simply unable to gain access to toilets.

Distinguished delegates and participants,

While the international community has not yet said much about this situation, international human rights law has. We now have a very rich body of human rights law from which to draw. My report focuses on the need to merge the “disability human rights” paradigm developed under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with the principles that have been developed on the right to housing under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  

The disability human rights paradigm provides a number of core principles through which to accomplish this:

First, the Convention makes it clear that dignity, autonomy, and freedom to choose are critical dimensions of the right to housing. The deprivation of choice of where and with whom to live is experienced by persons with disabilities as a direct assault on dignity and autonomy. Freedom of choice means much more than freedom in a negative sense. The unique fusion of the civil and political rights with the economic, social and cultural rights in the Convention clarifies that dignity, autonomy and freedom to choose means, for persons with disabilities, access to adequate housing and to a range of residential and other support services and inclusion in the community,

Second, the Convention provides a particular understanding of the right to non-discrimination and equality. The right non-discrimination includes reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities insofar as such accommodation is “necessary and appropriate” and does not impose a “disproportionate or undue burden”. This requires both physical modifications and adapting the application of laws and policies that neglect the circumstances of persons with disabilities.  Governments must also address systemic inequality.  States must take positive action, for example, to eliminate homelessness, ensure adequate social protection; ensure an adequate supply of affordable, accessible housing; and address the scarcity of land for housing for persons with disabilities

Third, the Convention recognizes the right to accessibility for persons with disabilities. It includes physical accessibility, such as ramps and accessible doors but extends beyond that, to many other areas. Barriers to accessing work, services and public spaces must be removed — in short, States must ensure that all aspects of the housing environment are accessible.  

Fourth, the Convention recognizes the right to participate as integral to the implementation of the right to housing. In the implementation of legislation, policy or other decisions, States must closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities through their representative organizations.

And fifth, persons with disabilities must have access to justice. States should establish complaints and accountability mechanisms and ensure that courts are able to hear and adjudicate claims relating to the right to adequate housing of persons with disabilities.

These and other principles in the Convention must be applied to ensure the equal enjoyment of the right to adequate housing as it has been defined under the ICESCR.  They must be applied, for example, to what have been identified as its key components, which include: security of tenure; affordability, availability of services, habitability, location, and cultural adequacy.  I have outlined in the report how these guarantees have a particular meaning for persons with disabilities.

Distinguished delegates and participants,

States are obliged under both the Convention and the Covenant to take measures to the maximum of their available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the right to housing. The housing needs of persons with disabilities must be given a particular priority. Persons with disabilities must be empowered to challenge failures to address individual circumstances, through reasonable accommodation; but they must also be empowered to challenge housing, planning and zoning, social protection and justice systems that fail to address their circumstances and deny them access to adequate housing. 

In the last two years, States have committed themselves to the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including a commitment to ensuring access to adequate, affordable, secure housing for all by 2030. These commitments demand that States, private actors and the human rights community do much more to ensure the realization of the right to housing of persons with disabilities.

Distinguished delegates,

Let me turn now to four key recommendations

States should:

  1. Recognize in domestic law the obligation to realize the right to housing of persons with disabilities, tying this obligation to the New Urban Agenda and Goal 11 of the SDGs;
  2. Ensure that all persons with disabilities are able to live free from institutionalization and that access to adequate housing and requisite services and support is provided in the community;
  3. Address homelessness among persons with disabilities on an urgent basis and prioritize measures to address the circumstances of those living in informal settlements;
  4. Ensure access to justice and effective accountability mechanisms for claims to the right to adequate housing by persons with disabilities, including when States have failed to adopt reasonable programmatic measures to realize the right;

I look forward to engaging with States in the urgent task of designing appropriate strategies to achieve those commitments which, we must remind ourselves constitute binding human rights obligations.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to answering your questions and engaging in further discussion.

END