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FOCUS September 1996 Volume 5

The City Summit

Akio Kawamura

"Please stop your watch at 12.00". Kakahel, the Chair of the Working Group for Habitat Agenda, pleaded the delegates. The Conference was officially ending at midnight of June 14.

Among the series of the United Nations' conferences on humanitarian issues held during the last several years, the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) held on June 3-14 in Istanbul turned out to be one of the most controversial and confrontational meetings.

The two main themes, "adequate shelter for all" and "sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world" sound apparently harmless. Nevertheless, there were heated debates over various issues such as "right to adequate housing", "good governance", and "international cooperation". In other words, the very key issues of the conference were challenged. At the last moment, however, "the spirit of international cooperation" somehow worked, and the Habitat Agenda, together with the Istanbul Declaration, was adopted by consensus.

Why a conference on cities?

The first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements was organized in Vancouver in 1976. That conference agreed on the Vancouver Declaration and Action Plan. Two years later, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) was established in Nairobi to coordinate efforts for the betterment of shelter and human settlements.

Two decades passed and the present situation is not encouraging at all. The Global Report on Human Settlements published by the Centre in March this year says "about 500 million urban dwellers are homeless or live in inadequate housing." The situation is getting worse, especially in cities because housing cannot keep up with an exploding urban population. In the year 2025, 5 billion or two thirds of the world's population will live in cities. At present, forty per cent of residents in the expanded urban area do not have access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation.

Habitat II was organized in order to address these mounting challenges.

Right to adequate housing

To many who are familiar with the International Bill of Human Rights, it would be very difficult to understand the United States' initial position on "the right to adequate housing" in the preparatory meetings for the Habitat II. The US delegation categorically denied the existence of such a right, and even indicated that it would vote against the inclusion of any such reference in the Habitat Agenda, the final outcome of the conference.

This position embarrassed many human rights activists and experts. Philip Alston, the Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ? a monitoring body for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ? was one of them. Learning the position of the US in the Preparatory Committee, he, as the Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, wrote a letter expressing his concern to the Executive Director of the UN Centre for Human Settlements. Besides presenting legal arguments against the US position, he pointed out that the reference on right to a standard of living including housing found in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights actually derives "to a very significant extent from a draft ... by ...the American Law Institute", which in turn took the idea from US President Roosevelt's State of the Union Address in 1944 when he defended "the right of every family to a decent home". [1]

52 years later, President Roosevelt's successor changed his position but only temporarily. The mounting pressure from NGOs and other governments finally forced the most powerful government in the world to withdraw. In the Habitat Agenda, the governments reaffirmed the "full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments."

Forced but legal eviction?

One of the concrete expressions of the right to adequate housing is right to protection from eviction. The experts in the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were very clear about this. In its General Comment no. 4, it "considers that instances of forced evictions are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law". [2] Politicians look at it in a different manner. In the draft Habitat Agenda presented in Istanbul, the governments are supposed to commit themselves to "avoiding forced evictions, when possible" meaning nothing for most of the "impossible" cases. Many people expressed their unhappiness, and the final outcome was slightly better - "protecting all people from, and providing legal protection and redress for, forced evictions that are contrary to the law, taking human rights into consideration; when evictions". In this formulation, human rights at least should be considered.

"Equal" partnership: governance or government?

Partnership has become a fashionable term everywhere. Istanbul was no exception. Besides the Committee I which engaged in writing the text of Habitat Agenda and Istanbul Declaration, Committee II ? the Partnership Committee ? was invented to listen to the interventions of partners, meaning local governments, private sector, NGOs, CBOs and others. In Committee I, NGOs were allowed to distribute a NGO composite document compiling all the suggestions made by NGOs as an official UN document, and to occasionally make intervention in the informal meetings of the Working Groups where the real drafting exercise took place.

Not everyone was happy to have partnership with NGOs. Earlier at the Preparatory Committee meeting in New York, one government delegate complained about the "privatization of diplomacy".

At any rate, it was a consensus that partnership is needed. Nobody believe that the State alone can solve this complicated problem of human settlements. The question was how. For NGOs, transparent, accountable, participatory, and democratic governance is a key. For others, it may be just a question of assigning roles thus only effective governments matter. In the end, Habitat Agenda included the term "governance" only for the local level, and used the term "governments" in the preamble.

Plight of the Pacific Islands neglected

Another surprisingly controversial issue was a reference to the area affected by nuclear testing. In the draft, "a need for the safe resettlement of displaced populations and the restoration of economic activity to the affected areas, especially for small island developing States and coastal regions" was recognized and all Governments and international organizations are invited to "consider giving appropriate assistance as may be required for remedial purposes in areas affected by radioactive contamination from nuclear weapons programmes". It is a very mild request indeed compared to the scale of the tragedy.

But for some governments, this was still too much. Faced with the opposition raised by powerful nations, it was transformed into a text that is even milder ? "consideration by all governments and international organizations that have expertise in the field of clean-up and disposal of radioactive contaminants to give appropriate assistance as may be requested for remedial purposes in adversely affected areas."

Gender: equality or equity

Women were the strongest lobbyists in the conference rooms in the Istanbul. They must be strong, otherwise the past achievements could have been destroyed.

There were many gender-related issues under attack from governments, but in most cases the governments failed. The Holy See, supported by Iran, wanted to use the term family instead of families, but it was footnoted by a reference to "existence of various forms of families". The women's organizations were also able to add a new topic "Gender Equality" in the chapter on commitment. Equal access to "economic resources, including inheritance" was referred to in the final document.

International Cooperation

Actually, the most difficult part was that on international cooperation. Industrialized nations are now feeling "aid fatigue" and not in a mood to commit more. They even tried to withdraw from the past commitment by not referring to the target of 0.7 % of GNP for development aid agreed upon at the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro l in 1992.

Industrialized countries were neither in a mood to support the UN agencies. They feel that the present UN system is not efficient with duplication of work, and were determined not to refer to the expansion of role and mandates of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements.

The developing countries had very different opinions on the two issues. This is understandable as one of the important difficulties the UN system is facing is on funding, which is largely the result of rejection by US government to pay its dues of up to 1.5 billion US dollars.

The compromise text agreed upon at the last minute is, as always with such compromise, something vague that allows different interpretations. The 0.7 of GNP goal was referred to without specific time frame. The UN Centre for Human Settlements was expected to play certain role but within the existing resources and mandates.

Conclusion: Habitat Agenda, another commitment

HABITAT II was the last conference on humanitarian issues in this century. After two weeks of meetings, a new set of commitments was added to the existing ones. But how and who are to implement these commitments and plans? HABITAT II tried to broaden the scope of implementation by inviting NGOs and local governments to take part in fulfilling the responsibility.

Civil society, of course, should have a role to play. But the important thing is that they must be allowed to play the role on their own. At least, the Habitat Agenda shows some understanding on this point by confirming the need for respect for human rights and freedoms, accountable and transparent government, and democracy. Recognition of need for action is there. The question is: how can we utilize and expand that space for the future?

End notes

1. E/C.12/1995/11, 21 July 1995

2. Paragraph 18, General Comment No. 4 (1991), The Right To Adequate Housing (Article 11(1), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 12 December 1991.


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