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Statement by the 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 at the seventy-third Session of the General Assembly

19 October 2018

New York, 19 October 2018

H.E. Mahmoud Saikal, Chair of the Third Committee,
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 regret that some of my colleagues will not present their report in person this year. They had requested a limited number of changes to the reporting schedule in order to accommodate their professional commitments. I hope that a better consultation process will be put in place next year.

I would like to begin by thanking Egypt and South Korea for extending invitations for official visits in September and May of this year.   I will present my final reports on these visits to the Human Rights Council, in February or March next year1.

Before speaking on my report on informal settlements and human rights, I would also like to draw to your attention my Human Rights Council report on rights-based national housing strategies (A/HRC/37/53) to ensure the progressive realization of the right to housing.  My report to the Council describes ten key principles for effective rights-based strategies, including goals and timelines in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. I urge all States to use my report as guidance in developing rights-based housing strategies as the only effective means of achieving Target 11.1 of Goal 11.

In that report to the Council, I emphasized a theme that has become central to all of my work, the need for a fundamental shift in the way housing is treated and conceived, rejecting the increasingly dominant paradigm in which housing provides a financial market for the wealthy to speculate and park excess capital, and reclaiming housing as a human right to a place to live in dignity, to raise families and participate in community.

Last year I reported that in partnership with an international umbrella organization of cities and local governments, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I had launched a new global movement called The Shift to encourage local and national Governments to commit to making this fundamental change. I am pleased to report that cities have gotten on board. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Mexico City, Montreal, Montevideo, New York, Paris, and Seoul, among others, have joined the Shift by pledging to articulate very clearly that housing is not a commodity but a fundamental human right. 

The report (A/73/310/rev.1) that I present today is also central to the realization of this aim.  It addresses what I refer to as a “human rights imperative” contained in SDG 11.1, in which all States have committed to upgrade informal settlements and ensure access for all to adequate, secure and affordable housing by 2030.

As I am sure you are aware, this is a daunting commitment.  One quarter of the world’s urban population, 870 million human beings, live in grossly inadequate housing in informal settlements, usually deprived of water and sanitation services and left to construct shelter out of whatever materials they can find.  They occupy lands left vacant, often because they are vulnerable to floods or industrial contamination.  Many live under constant fear of eviction. 

This is one of the most widespread and egregious violations of the right to life, security, dignity and housing world-wide. The scope and severity of the problem makes the commitment seem impossible to fulfil but at the same time, makes it imperative that it BE fulfilled.  We must act, and we must act urgently.

This issue is close to my heart.  Over the years, and particularly since assuming this mandate, I have visited informal settlements throughout the world, from Mumbai to Los Angeles, from Buenos Aires to Cairo.  As many of you in the room will have experienced, it is impossible to visit informal settlements and to engage with their residents without experiencing a significant emotional impact. Seeing children in damp, dark over-crowded shacks without even beds in which to sleep or persons with disabilities left to drag themselves along the ground to find a place to defecate outside of their homes cannot help but make us ashamed of a world that leaves so many to live with such deprivation, in the midst of vibrant cities and luxury condominium towers.

But one also feels another emotion, equally powerful, of astonishment and admiration of the resilience and courage of informal settlement residents who claim dignity and humanity in the midst of deprivation and inhumanity.  Informal settlements are a statement: “we are here” and “we will not disappear”. They are a form of grass-roots human rights practice led by those excluded from “formal” housing: women, people with disabilities, migrants, and those facing racial and ethnic discrimination. Yet these vital communities are often criminalized, denied services, forced to pay exorbitant prices for basic necessities, constantly displaced and destroyed.

My report attempts to chart a path through this fundamental duality. On the one hand, it identifies informal settlements as egregious violations of the right to life, dignity, security, health, non-discrimination and housing - victims of deprivation, neglect, social exclusion and violence.  On the other hand, it recognizes informal settlements as incredible accomplishments, a claiming of rights to dignity and place.  Residents create homes, culture and community life in the most adverse circumstances. Streets are named, houses numbered, residents’ associations formed, community centres and schools built, and shops and services established. It is the resilience and capacities of these communities which must be liberated if the 2030 sustainable development goal is to be realized through inclusive, resilient and sustainable human settlements in line with the New Urban Agenda.

In keeping with this, my report is oriented around two key pillars of a rights-based approach to upgrading:

  • Upgrading must build on, rather than undermine, the capacities of communities to claim and realize their rights; and
  • The commitment to upgrade informal settlements is a human rights obligation of States and of international organizations for which there must be meaningful accountability.

My Report advances a number of important recommendations to support participatory, community-led approaches to upgrading based on the right to housing.  These recommendations should inform the actions of all levels of government, development agencies, non-governmental organizations and private actors involved in upgrading of informal settlements.

Allow me to highlight just a few of these.

Rights-based upgrading must embrace ALL elements of the right to housing.  Too often, I have seen upgrading projects isolate one or two components of the right to housing only to neglect others. Water and sanitation services, for example, are often provided by moving residents to a site without access to work and livelihood.  Secure title is often provided without measures to preserve affordability. 

Upgrading must be linked to the realization of the right to housing, in all of its dimensions.

In situ upgrading, wherever possible, and where desired by residents must be recognized as a right, protected in law. If relocation cannot be avoided or is preferred by those who live in an informal settlement, residents should be provided with adequate housing nearby.

Courts should authorize evictions only in the most exceptional circumstances, when there are no other viable alternatives, only when residents have been fully consulted and engaged, when alternative housing of comparable or better quality in an appropriate location is provided, and when all other requirements under international human rights law have been honoured.
As the South African High Court recently held, upgrading should protect “existing fragile community networks and support structures… ”  Relocation must be “the exception and not the rule” and any relocation must be to a location “as close as possible to the existing settlement”. 

A third key requirement is the right of residents to participate in all aspects of upgrading.  The right to participate should be recognized as a legal right that can be enforced through the courts if necessary.  

The full inclusion of women must be ensured in all participatory mechanisms. Women play key roles behind the scenes in upgrading but are too often excluded from higher level decision-making and negotiations.    

Planning and zoning must be reconceptualized so as to realize the right to housing in informal settlements.

Planning and zoning is too often applied to displace informal settlement residents in order to make way for other forms of development. Inclusionary planning principles should focus instead on meeting the needs of informal settlements for housing, for transportation, services and access to livelihood.
Urban development proposals should not be approved if they fail to include housing that fully meets the needs of existing residents, in terms of affordability, design and adequacy.

Punitive and discriminatory treatment of informal settlements must be prohibited in law. 

Denying access to water, sanitation and other basic necessities, constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and violates the rights to housing, health, water and sanitation and the right to life.
These types of policies are unfortunately also common in North America and Europe, where those living in encampments under highway overpasses or alongside of roads, are often denied even portable toilets or sanitation facilities.  Such practices must be prohibited.

Access to Justice is essential for meaningful, rights-based accountability in upgrading of informal settlements. The capacity and commitment of courts, tribunals and human rights institutions to provide access to justice should be enhanced by providing

  • hearings in locations close to residents
  • training of judges and others in the legal community 
  • support for legal advocacy organizations
  • stronger mandates and resources for national human rights institutions and
  • provisions for early intervention to address urgent circumstances, particularly when forced evictions may occur.

Environmental risks including flooding, severe storms, mudslides, toxic contamination and air pollution are disproportionate among informal settlements. 

The scope of all the environmental risks faced by informal settlements must be assessed and risk management plans developed drawing on knowledge of residents.
States should not, however, use security risks as an excuse for unnecessary displacement, where risks can be reduced or eliminated by appropriate risk reduction measures. 

Financial Institutions and development agencies must make compliance with the right to housing a condition of funding. 

And finally, private investment must be redirected to support rights-based upgrading in informal settlements.

As emphasized in the Shift initiative, housing markets and investment must be redesigned so that housing is recognized as a human right and a social good rather than treated as a commodity. 

Honourable delegates, these are just a few of the key recommendations to support rights-based upgrading of informal settlements. Concerted action by States, development cooperation agencies, business and civil society actors is required, to put my recommendations into practice.

It is my deeply held view that our shared commitment to human rights provides the most sustainable, just and democratic path to ensuring that no one living in informality is left behind. Ensuring human dignity and respecting the fundamental rights of residents of informal settlements must guide all our efforts.

It is clear to anyone who has visited informal settlements that by any measure — moral, political or legal —no one should be forced to live this way.

Refusing to accept the unacceptable is where we must begin. 

We simply must act, and we must act now if we are to have any chance of honouring the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Thank you.  I look forward to responding to your questions.


1. For more details on these visits see my preliminary observations in relation to the Republic of Korea and in relation to the Arab Republic of Egypt.