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UN Experts statement on Habitat III: New urban agenda must be based in human rights

29 June 2016

Geneva, 29 June 2016

As independent human rights experts1 appointed by the Human Rights Council, we call for a New Urban Agenda that embraces the transformative potential of human rights as a necessary framework for inclusive, vibrant and sustainable cities. At a time of unprecedented migration and urbanization, human rights are increasingly under threat and their protection is a central challenge of our time.

As the negotiations on the revised zero draft move forward in New York, this week (27 June-1 July) we appeal to Member States to ensure that human rights are placed at the centre of the agenda. This means including firm commitments to the realization of human rights in cities, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It will require the full participation of civil society and marginalized groups, including women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities, the establishment of transparent mechanisms for monitoring, as well as the assurance of ensuring access to justice for all human rights.

No other Habitat Conference has grappled with a majority of the world’s population living in urban centres. The New Urban Agenda is an exceptional opportunity to ensure that human rights engage effectively with contemporary challenges, bringing back the notion that cities are made by and for all its inhabitants to live, work and prosper. It is imperative that the New Urban Agenda prioritize the needs and the human rights of millions of urban dwellers, many of whom are minorities, or who are homeless, living in extreme poverty, and who experience forced and violent evictions and displacement, limited physical environments, lack of access to food, drinking water, sanitation, health services, land or adequate housing and rely on precarious, underpaid work.

Too many cities are in crisis. Reciting vague commitments to human rights sporadically is not enough. The new urban agenda must institutionalize and concretize human rights commitments to make all levels of government and other actors truly accountable. It must create mechanisms through which all decisions are required to be consistent with human rights and all urban dwellers are recognized as equal in dignity and rights.

The revised zero draft has evolved in its references to human rights; we appreciate the efforts so far made. It expresses a vision of “cities and human settlements that are inclusive and free from all forms of discrimination and violence, where all inhabitants, whether permanent or transitional, enjoy equal rights and opportunities.” It takes note of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international human rights treaties. The revised draft also makes explicit references to the crucial role of local and subnational governments in urban life. We welcome references to several population groups that are marginalized and in the most vulnerable situations, notably persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, minorities, indigenous peoples, women, and people who are homeless.

However, in our view, economic development and growth should not be affirmed as an overriding goal in the New Urban Agenda without considering its effect on the people living in poverty, or those who are excluded and marginalized, and in some countries, indigenous peoples who have been evicted from their traditional lands which became urbanized. While it may be true that cities have become “the engines of economic growth” as the zero draft affirms, it is increasingly clear from what we have seen in our visits and work around the world that current models of economic growth – which have been divorced from human rights – have resulted in gross inequalities, social exclusion and violence.

A realistic, credible vision of inclusive and sustainable cities cannot affirm the importance of productivity without demanding a new approach to economic policymaking based on the realization of human rights and more equitable distribution of resources in cities, including land and access to public space. Affirming the importance of affordability and non-discriminatory access to housing and essential services remains hollow if the financial forces that profit from the commodification of housing, land and property, public space and basic services, are free from robust and effective human rights monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

The human rights responsibilities of local and subnational governments cannot be fulfilled if developers, contractors, and investment funds continue to use housing and land as investment for personal gain without regard to the human rights consequences of their actions, and if multilateral banks and financial institutions continue to fund urban projects and infrastructure developments that lead to forced evictions, displacement, ghettoization and further exclusion.

The paradigm shift that would place human rights at the centre of the New Urban Agenda and provide a framework for its realization would include the following elements currently absent in the Revised Zero Draft:

  1. As part of the Principles and Commitments, a recognition (in paragraph 14) of people who are homeless as a distinct social group who experience inequality and discrimination, and a clearly stated commitment to ending homelessness and to the realization of the rights to adequate housing, food, water, sanitation and just and favourable conditions of work and participation in cultural life. The New Urban Agenda must explicitly recognize these as human rights obligations to which all levels of government will be held accountable.
  2. In light of the potential for cities to exacerbate social exclusion and extreme inequality when viewed primarily as engines of growth, the agenda should explicitly address States’ obligation to regulate private actors, such as landlords, real estate agents and utilities companies, to ensure that their activities are conducive to the realisation of human rights. While several paragraphs of the Zero Draft recognize the role of market forces in relation to a number of issues, there is no reference to the role and obligations of governments at all levels to monitor and regulate private actors to ensure that financial considerations do not trump human rights, particularly in relation to forced evictions, displacement, migration, affordable housing, lack of accessibility, waste management, use of renewable energies, land grabbing and illegal land acquisition, infrastructure development and real estate speculation. 
  3. Furthermore, international, national and multilateral financial institutions, beyond being invited to consider the priorities of the New Urban Agenda (as per paragraph 124), must also be considered as crucial actors accountable for the results of their projects, policies and programmes. Given well-documented negative outcomes of projects that undermine human rights standards and principles, it is of utmost importance that the New Urban Agenda clearly and concretely affirm that these institutions must comply with international human rights law.
  4. In keeping with Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, mechanisms must be in place in city governance structures to ensure effective monitoring, accountability and access to justice in line with international human rights treaties. In doing so, explicit references must be made to the important roles to be played by international and regional human rights mechanisms as well as National Human Rights Institutions to provide protection against violations of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.
  5. Urban laws, policies and programmes as well as land management must be in line with international human rights standards and obligations. The New Urban Agenda must refer explicitly to human rights as paramount elements of legislative and policy approaches relating to urban space, and should recognize the right of all peoples to utilize public spaces without any discrimination whatsoever, and in particular regardless of their age, socio-economic situation, ethnic, religious or minority identity, or migration or housing status. It must recognize the need to redress situations of Indigenous Peoples who have been discriminated against and displaced from their traditional territories or whose lands have been illegally acquired.
  6. The New Urban Agenda will guide the next two decades and be implemented in harmony with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. States should commit to developing goals and targets for the realization of rights in cities and be held accountable for meeting these goals, be it through financing, programming or legislation.


1. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights; Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 31/9, 26/20, 26/3, 22/9, 25/16, 24/6, 24/9, 23/8, 26/19, 25/5, 24/20 and 24/18 respectively.