Home > Commentary, Conferences and Events, Human Rights in the News, International Law/International Human Rights > Former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing speaks at International Conference on ‘Budget Decisions and Economic and Social Rights’

Former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing speaks at International Conference on ‘Budget Decisions and Economic and Social Rights’

This post is contributed by Chelsea Marshall. You can read about Chelsea on our Guest Contributors page.

Speaking at the ‘Budget Decisions and Economic and Social Rights’ conference held at Queen’s University Belfast this weekend, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari warned the Saturday morning attendees that if we were “expecting an uplifting and inspiring lecture”, this was not going to be one.  In the balance of pessimism and optimism, he confessed, “pessimism triumphed”. He then proceeded to discuss the issue of budget decisions and budget work in the broader global context.  

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who hold honorary, voluntary positions and are mandated to examine thematic or country-specific issues of particular importance to the UN.  Holding the position of Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing from 2000-2008, Mr. Kothari described his mission as an “overwhelming global mandate” to investigate and report back to the Human Rights Council regarding wide-ranging barriers to the effective realisation of the right to adequate housing.  He interpreted this right broadly to include elements such as the rights to electricity, public services, as well as aspects of civil and political rights such as the right to participation and the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.  Like other Special Rapporteurs working on economic and social rights (ESR) issues, Mr. Kothari dedicated part of his tenure to developing indicators against which to monitor a country’s compliance with the right to adequate housing. These indicators are structural (indicators that reflect the ratification/adoption of legal instruments and the existence of basic institutional mechanisms deemed necessary for facilitating realization of the particular human right), process (indicators that relate State policy instruments with milestones), and outcome (indicators that capture attainments, individual and collective, that reflect the status of realization of a human right in a given context).  Developing and using specific indicators has been key, he argued, to identifying progress and room for improvement.  He also spoke about his work on developing basic principles and guide-lines on the right to adequate housing, as well as the need to develop mechanisms such as eviction impact tools.

Having made thirteen official country visits during his time as Special Rapporteur (and many more unofficially), Mr. Kothari shared with the audience many lessons learned, as well as outlining many of the remaining obstacles to the realisation of the right to adequate housing. He also outlined a few reasons for hope as we move forward.  Although his emphasis on challenges ahead dominated the lecture, his accessibility and frankness were encouraging as he spoke honestly about the realities he faced while advising the international human rights system on the right to housing.

Overwhelmingly, the lessons learned revolved around the substantial lack of information about the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing globally.  Countries very rarely accurately record the numbers of people living without adequate housing, and those countries that do collect data infrequently, if ever, disaggregate this information to answer the pertinent policy questions: ‘who is affected?’ ‘where do they live?’ ‘how many are women/children/ minorities/members of other vulnerable groups?’ ‘has there been improvement over time?’  By way of an example, Mr. Kothari relayed a conversation in which he commented on the lack of Peruvian policy responding to the housing problems faced by the ‘bottom 20%’ of the population.  “What an interesting concept!” the local politician mused, as if the idea of specifically tackling homelessness had never arisen.

Similar lessons included noting the lack of analysis on the part of governments devoted to why housing crises exist within their countries.  For example, in the case of women’s inheritance and land ownership rights – issues with which Mr. Kothari was particularly concerned during his tenure as Special Rapporteur – there exists a persistent lack of analysis on the part of States about why women are more likely to be homeless than men.  Moreover, even where information is collected and available, there remains a reluctance among policy-makers to translate this knowledge into implementation mechanisms.  Dishearteningly, even those countries that are making concerted efforts to alleviate violations of economic and social rights continue to pursue overly-specialised agendas, such as focusing narrowly on the right to health, without seeking to understand the indivisibility of all human rights.  This lack of indivisibility perspective, Mr. Kothari cautioned, will consistently result in a failure to alleviate wide-ranging rights abuses.

Finally, Mr. Kothari stressed the obsession of governments around the world with neoliberal policies – the very policies that led to the current global economic crisis.  This has resulted in State reluctance to intervene in or regulate the market.  Mr. Kothari returned to this point during the question and answer session, noting that this obsession with attracting international investment has somehow become a test of a country’s credibility in the global system. In his view, the implications of this mentality are dire.

Speaking more generally about the obstacles facing the realisation of all economic and social rights, Mr. Kothari listed such meta-issues as the global economic crisis, the urbanisation crisis, the food and agricultural crisis, displacement and land-grabbing, global climate change and persistent non-recognition of human rights institutions and obligations.  He expanded upon the following three obstacles: 

Notably, the “dominance of neoliberal policies” has persisted throughout the global economic downturn, and this “continued obsession” with the privatisation of economic, social and cultural rights has three aspects which run counter to a human rights framework.  First, private businesses focus on profits rather than human outcomes; second, under privatisation, those services that States are obliged to provide to vulnerable groups under international human rights are frequently inadequate; and third, privatisation reduces or eliminates accountability and local control by shifting the control from citizens to profit-centred shareholders.

The urbanisation crisis similarly reinforces and perpetuates structural inequality as the world’s population moves from, or is forced off, rural land and into rapidly growing urban sprawl, slums and ghettos.  Rather than accommodating this rapid influx, national agendas are increasingly criminalising and penalising the poor through policies based on the “unsubstantiated feeling of us against them”.  These policies reveal discriminatory and racist actions on the part of governments who are often at least peripherally to blame for the circumstances under which the poor and marginalised rush to the cities to seek a higher standard of living.

Thirdly, the non-recognition of human rights institutions and obligations endures, despite a substantial and growing body of research and evidence base at the national and international levels.  This mass of work is not taken seriously, Mr. Kothari argued, because there is a reluctance to domesticate human rights provisions, an over-specialisation within economic and social rights issues and outright complicity of States in their violation. 

Even when there is a recognition of human rights obligations, there remains a ‘real disconnect’ between the ‘plan’ and the responsibilities of budgets.  “The mainstreaming of human rights,” he argued, “has essentially been a failure”, with not even all UN agencies consistently using international human rights standards in their work.  Furthermore, despite the significant work done on budgets, indicators and justiciability of economic and social rights, the vast majority of people who are most impacted by the failure to meet ESR obligations are too far removed from legal discourse.  “The law has always been the enemy” for much of the world’s poor, and Mr. Kothari reminded us that there remains a “big distance between specialisation/technical work and what’s on the ground”.  Finally, he cautioned us not to ignore the fact that many governments and politicians are complicit in economic and social rights violations.  For instance, by playing a role in dispossession and displacement processes.  The assumption that governments should be trusted when they make policies disregards the complicity that many have in the ‘assault on the poor’ that remains one of the most significant barriers to the realisation of these essential rights.

Lest we begin this two-day conference in a state of total despair and immobility, Mr. Kothari finished his lecture with three suggestions of hope about how to move forward. 

Firstly, there is room for optimism in relation to the potential of the mechanisms already in place at the UN level, although these have been underused to date. 

Secondly, civil society, despite overwhelming odds, continues to push forward the agenda from below, and policies must incorporate these voices at the community level.  “People must recognise themselves in the statistics”, he counselled. 

Finally, Mr. Kothari emphasised the need to never underestimate the power of the basic human rights principles.  Equality and non-discrimination are more easily identified with by people around the world than technical provisions.  For those pursuing their struggle for the realisation of economic and social rights through specific budgetary analysis and allocation, he cautioned against this as a sole venture.  Budget work is a ‘band aid’ unless we push for larger redistribution within and between our societies.  Many things need to fall into place in order to gain from budget work.

With this in mind, the conference opened as a forum for sharing experiences of how to use budget work in the struggle for the realisation of economic and social rights for all.

See here for more on the conference.

See here for more information on the role of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, including annual reports.

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