Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Habitat III agenda must address human rights and the needs of rural people

by Shivani Chaudhry | Housing and Land Rights Network, India
Tuesday, 6 September 2016 13:33 GMT

Children play in a mustard field at Mohini village, about 190 km (118 miles) south of the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri, December 6, 2007. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhur

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In order to ensure that ‘no one is left behind,’ the Habitat III outcome document must be grounded in a human rights approach.

The Third Session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 3) for Habitat III took place in Surabaya, Indonesia from 25–27 July 2016. Held with much fanfare and the gracious hospitality of the city government, this was a meeting of United Nations (UN) member states to finalize the outcome document of the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which will be held in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador.

The third in a series of bidecennial conferences on human settlements, Habitat III has been criticized for the marked dilution of its scope, with a predominant focus on urban areas. This is reflected in the change of its title from the ‘UN Conference on Human Settlements’ (which took place in Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996) to the ‘UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development’ and the dilution of the Habitat Agenda (1996) to the proposed ‘New Urban Agenda.’ The Habitat III process has thereby chosen to ignore half of humanity that still lives in rural areas, while backtracking on non-negotiable commitments made at Habitat I and II. Further, it relies on the erroneous belief that urbanization is inevitable and beyond the purview of human or policy intervention.

Despite three days of intense negotiations lasting until the early hours of the morning, PrepCom 3 concluded without consensus on the draft ‘new agenda,’ with a plan to convene again in New York City in early September. 

The political process in Surabaya was largely focused on negotiations between the European Union, African Union, the Arab League, USA, Canada, Turkey, and the G-77 and China. India’s absence at the negotiating table was conspicuous; it was justified by its inclusion in the G-77 group. India chose to intervene only through a statement in the plenary, which mainly showcased its multiple urban schemes: Smart Cities Mission, Housing for All, AMRUT, HRIDAY, and Swachh Bharat Mission. Though India has the world’s largest rural population (over 830 million), it did not raise the neglect of rural issues in the draft agenda. Instead, it echoed the urban bias of Habitat III and UN-Habitat. It also remained noncommittal toward its international obligations, while challenging the human right to adequate housing.

The zero draft of the ‘New Urban Agenda’ was released in May 2016, followed by a revised version on 18 July; the latest draft was made public at the conclusion of PrepCom 3 on 28 July 2016.

Though the current draft reflects marginal improvements, it is still flawed on several fronts. The greatest shortcomings of the ‘new agenda’ are its failure to: adopt a human rights approach; incorporate legal commitments already made by nation states; challenge the macroeconomic paradigm that pushes for high levels of growth and urbanization through rampant exploitation of resources at the expense of rural habitats and inhabitants; and, recognize the centrality of land and housing to creating an equitable, human rights habitat for all. The draft is also silent on important global issues such as forced migration, land grabbing, and chronic displacement. The refusal to address market-driven housing and financial crises, and to effectively regulate the real estate sector, reflect a wilful denial to learn from the past. Instead of calling for balanced rural-urban development and investment, the draft uses the abstruse term ‘territorial’ for rural. The 2016 agenda needs to uphold the commitment of the 1996 Habitat Agenda to ‘treat villages and cities as points on a human settlements continuum within a common ecosystem,’ and to implement commitments within a ‘just macroeconomic order.’ 

While the current draft reiterates the right to adequate housing, interventions by USA succeeded in deleting the commitment to allocate ‘maximum available resources’ for its progressive realization. While USA, the Holy See, and others argued to remove ‘right to the city,’ they were faced with strong resistance by Mexico and Ecuador; the latest draft retains the term. Several countries, including the Arab League, fought against inclusion of sexual minorities/LGBTI in the text; unfortunately they succeeded. 

The game of political negotiation is obscure, with no evident rationality for the acceptance of some suggestions over others. How deliberative and integrative these negotiations are, and whether they are directed toward the goal of social justice, is questionable. But the results unequivocally reveal the absence of consensus, with strong polarization on certain issues. 

As states gear up for the next (and final) round of negotiations in New York from 7–9 September, they need to emerge from the cloud of amnesia that seems to have descended on the Habitat III process, and remind themselves of historic commitments made at Habitat I and II. The final outcome document must recognize the inequity and politics of land ownership, access and control, as a root cause of injustice and inadequate living conditions. It should also call for land reform and redistribution, regulation of financial and property markets, and prevention of all forms of forced eviction. Countries including Colombia, Sudan, Tanzania, Ukraine, and Thailand, which stressed the need to focus on balanced rural-urban development, should work collectively to strengthen these demands. India should ally with these states while upholding its legal obligation to implement the human right to adequate housing — included in Article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which India ratified in 1979.

It is important that the outcome document of Habitat III helps to operationalize commitments made in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change, but it also needs to go further in order to fill gaps. Though the current draft mentions ‘occupation’ at the insistence of some groups, it does not talk about restitution for those affected by occupation, conflict, war, forced evictions, displacement, and protracted crises. 

In order to ensure that ‘no one is left behind,’ the Habitat III outcome document must be grounded in the indivisibility of human rights approach. It should be called the ‘New Habitat Agenda,’ not the narrow, discriminatory ‘New Urban Agenda.’ The final document must incorporate the non-negotiable principles of gender equality, non-discrimination, accountability, reparations for harm done, environmental sustainability, inter-generational equity with a strong focus on the rights of children and older persons, and the progressive realization of all human rights for all.

It should also protect rights of indigenous peoples, farmers, forest-dwellers, fishers, pastoralists, persons with disabilities, historically discriminated communities including Scheduled Castes, and sexual minorities. The entire process has been marked by the repeated failure to adequately incorporate peoples’ voices, especially the most marginalized. 

This is not the time for states to dilute existing international legal and human rights obligations, but for them to demonstrate a strong and reaffirmed commitment to upholding them, and to work collectively to redress the global housing, land, and habitat crisis. The world cannot wait another twenty years (for Habitat IV) to get this right.

Shivani Chaudhry is the Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network, India (www.hlrn.org.in) and can be reached at: shivani@hlrn.org.in