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Statements Special Procedures

Statement at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 30 August 2002)

30 August 2002

World Summit on Sustainable Development

Statement of Mr. Miloon Kothari
Special Rapporteur on adequate housing
of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

I have been encouraged by the Commission on Human Rights to bring the issues of relevance to my mandate as the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, to the attention of this Summit. From a human rights perspective, the issue of housing cannot be separated from a range of other issues related to sustainable development, including land, access to potable water and sanitation, safe and healthy environment, poverty, forced eviction, impact of national and global economic policies and international cooperation.

A decade after Rio, it is estimated that 600 million urban dwellers live in overcrowded and poor quality housing with inadequate provision of water, sanitation, drainage and garbage collection. So do over 1 billion persons living in rural areas. This grave situation puts the lives and health of dwellers continually at risk. It also impacts upon a range of human rights including the right to adequate housing. Globalization policies have accelerated the trends towards privatization of essential services for livelihood such as water, often at the expense of the poor and women.

Faced with the scale of the problem, it is my contention that only the human rights paradigm can offer fundamental and systemic solutions and changes to attain sustainable development.

To date, 145 countries in the world have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which codified rights relevant to sustainable development such as the rights to adequate standard of living including the rights to adequate housing and food, the right to health and the right to work. Moreover, the Covenant in its article 1 recognizes the right to self-determination including economic, social and cultural development. This article also protects the right of peoples to use of natural wealth and resources and to not be deprived of their own means of subsistence. Other international human rights instruments also codify rights relevant to sustainable development such as the right to popular participation, the right to security of the person and home and the right to information. Underlying and deepening the content of all these rights are human rights principles such as non-discrimination, gender equality, non-retrogression and the right to a remedy. These principles offer valuable directions so that the gains of development can be sustained for the benefit of human beings and the environment. They also underpin environment principles emanating from the Agenda 21 such as “common but differentiated responsibility” and the precautionary principle.

The right to adequate housing needs to be recognized as a crucial entitlement on the road to achieving sustainable development including environmental security. This recognition is essential since the realization of the right to adequate housing loses its meaning unless processes are put into place that ensure that people and communities can live in an environment that is free from pollution of air, water and the food chain.

This crucial linkage has been repeatedly recognized in the Agenda 21, the Beijing Platform of Action, the Vienna Declaration and the Habitat Agenda. The documents emanating from the WSSD must reaffirm and build upon these essential links and the indivisibility approach and build targets towards the realization of the right to adequate housing and related human rights, as also stressed by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in their statements submitted to the Summit.

The documents emanating from WSSD also need to recognize the value of human rights principles and instruments as a basis for sustainable development. Several Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs), such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, have close affinity to the international human rights instruments. Both the MEAs and the human rights instruments protect entitlements to self-determination, decentralization, primacy of people’s rights, gender equality, ecological sustainability, and protection of culture and traditional knowledge especially for indigenous peoples.

The WSSD must also build upon agreed commitments. The Agenda 21 in its Chapter 7.6 recognized that access to safe and healthy shelter is essential to a person’s physical, psychological, social and economic well-being and should be a fundamental part of national and international action. Significantly, the Agenda 21 also reaffirmed the right to adequate housing as a basic human right, as did the Habitat Agenda adopted at Habitat II in 1996.

In today’s context of globalization, it is important to keep in mind the obligations related to international cooperation, as enshrined in articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter and article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms contained in the Declaration can be realized. Article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urges all States parties to “take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international cooperation based on free consent”. These provisions of international cooperation place obligations on the part of the international community, including international institutions and supra-national entities and parties to various economic agreements, to remove such constraints on developing countries in pursuing their human rights obligations towards their citizens.

Indeed, there is a need to ensure coherence and consistency of these trade and economic agreements with human rights obligations, keeping in mind that “human rights are the first responsibility of the States” as recognized at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. For example, removal of trade-distorting subsidies should not be at the expense of environment or human rights protection. Another example is the call for liberalization of trade in services, as being considered by the GATS at WTO. Such a step must be taken with the utmost care as liberalization of essential human rights such as human right to drinking water often leads to privatization and introduction of user fees and cost-recovery placing this human right out of the reach of the poor. The reduction in access to drinking water including for those who do not have the ability to pay, inevitably increases inequalities in the country concerned.

At the national level, it is essential to accept that there is a need to evolve strategies for distributive justice, including land reform and increases in social spending on civic services essential to the realization of the right to adequate housing and sustainable development, such as potable water, electricity and sanitation. The “solidarity” dimension of international cooperation also requires States to initiate policies and targets aimed at reducing global warming, arresting desertification and taking preventative steps to grapple with natural and man-made disasters. In the ongoing work on climate change, this means more States ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and would call for progress at the next meeting of the Conference of Parties on explicit linkage between policies aimed at arresting climate change and the protection of human rights of the millions who will be dispossessed from their homes by the ravages of climate change.

Lastly, there are particular groups that disproportionately bear the brunt of inadequate and insecure housing and living conditions. The protection of women, children and the vulnerable people and communities, based upon relevant international human rights treaties, must form the foremost imperative in all conclusions emerging from WSSD. Valuable lessons can be gained from the protection offered for instance to housing and land rights of women in Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Similarly, article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a clear example of the need for an integrated approach to the rights of children to health, living conditions and environment free from, for example, pollution.

Women’s equal ownership of, access to and control over land and equal rights to own property and to adequate housing are critical issue for the sustainable development and livelihood of women. For the past three years, the Commission on Human Rights has been adopting consensus resolutions on this subject, and the WSSD must place this critical issue on the global agenda.

In concluding, I would strongly urge the retention of all paragraphs in the documents that refer to human rights [e.g., paras. 5, 56(a), 61(b), 121(d), 151 and 152], a specific reference to human rights as a common legacy of humankind and a cornerstone obligation of States parties in the political declaration to be adopted by this Summit, the need to ensure the consistency of national laws and policies with international and regional human rights and multilateral environmental agreements. We need to speak of these twin sets of agreements, and the common principles, that inform their provisions, in the same breath and call for an explicit linkage throughout Summit documents of human rights and environment. In fact, we need to go beyond linkage to integration of human rights and environment as a basis for sustainable development. WSSD must become an important step in this direction.

Seen from the vantage point of the landless, the struggling fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, the homeless around the world and the women and children amongst these groups, the struggle for a secure place to live is inseparable from the struggle to live in a safe environment. Let us, as we move to reaching an agreement on crucial issues in this Summit, build a world that holds hope for the poor across the world through the recognition of universal human rights. Only then, will it be said that, in reaching consensus, the criteria for this Summit was to protect the inherent dignity of all human beings including through the guaranteeing of a safe environment for all. Failure to grasp the enormous potential that human rights have on sustaining environment and promoting development will only lead to a larger scale of dispossession and homelessness across the world.