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U.N. special rapporteur on housing calls for an ‘urban rights agenda’

Expert's new report focuses on the Habitat III process.
A girl sits outside her house in Kidal, northern Mali, last month. A U.N. expert is calling on the Habitat III process to promote urban development through the lens of human rights. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

The competing visions of what makes for a sustainable city gained another perspective last week when Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, delivered her second report to the U. N. General Assembly.

On 22 October, Farha challenged the General Assembly to promote urban development through the lens of human rights. “Human rights can be transformational,” she said. “A human rights framework can provide the coherence and consistency sorely needed to achieve sustainable, inclusive cities for all.”

Farha, an Ottawa-based lawyer who runs the NGO Canada without Poverty, has been the U. N.’s special rapporteur on this issue since June 2014. She took up her position at a time when the United Nations is poised to give urban areas particular attention.

In September, the body’s member states approved a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that included a landmark goal on cities and human settlements. Next year, meanwhile, global leaders will gather in Quito, Ecuador, at Habitat III, the U. N.’s every-20-years conference on urbanization.

“Human rights have been largely absent from discussions of urban development,” Farha cautioned. “It was a noticeable trend in the creation of the SDGs that is being repeated in the lead up to Habitat III.”

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

In her report, the rapporteur argues that national and local governments must embrace the rights of their citizens to urban housing. She points out that we live in a “time when more than half the world’s population lives in cities, with the majority of urban dwellers facing homelessness, lacking security of tenure or living in inadequate conditions, and a third of them living in informal settlements.”

The report goes on to criticize the outcome of Habitat II, which took place in Istanbul in 1996, as not living up to its lofty rhetoric.

“Twenty years ago, the Habitat Agenda adopted by … [Habitat II] clearly articulated a commitment to ‘the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing, as provided for in international instruments,’” the report states. “The implementation of the Habitat II agenda, however, has not fully embraced human rights.”

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

She also offered a veiled critique of Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos. “On the eve of the adoption of the SDGs and in the lead up to Habitat III,” the report states, “we have an exceptional opportunity to change the way we think about cities, not only as engines of development but also as places where human rights are realized and celebrated.” Clos has repeatedly referred to urban areas as endogenous sources of development.

As a result, the rapporteur fears that the world’s urban future is a dystopian one. “Cities are on an untenable path, one that is encouraging vast inequalities which ultimately segregate those who have means from those who do not,” the report states. “Urbanization can too often focus on wealth accumulation at the expense of the most vulnerable populations.”

[See: Connecting housing with sustainable urbanization in the New Urban Agenda]

In her conclusion, Farha reformulates the New Urban Agenda — the global urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III — by calling for an “urban rights agenda”. This would, as a first step, commit to eliminating homelessness. Currently on the rise in cities around the world, including the U. N. Headquarters’ home city of New York, homelessness will be the subject of Farha’s next report.

“I am convinced we can end the scourge of homelessness and improve living conditions for over a billion people worldwide,” she told the U. N. General Assembly. She also announced the beginning of a yearlong campaign to ensure that a human rights framework is included in all aspects of the New Urban Agenda.

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