World's slum dwellers, homeless must be protected with right to housing: UN expert

QUITO, Oct 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The right to adequate housing must be adopted formally as a human right - internationally and at country level - as the world grapples with the burgeoning phenomenon of urbanization, the U.N. special rapporteur on housing said Wednesday.

Leilani Farha, a Canadian lawyer and special rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Council, said the absence of the right to housing in two sets of global development goals adopted by U.N. member states in 2000 and 2015 sent the wrong signal.

“But that is not the only disturbing trend ... globally, the homeless, those who live in informal settlements have this status used against them,” Farha said, speaking at a U.N. conference to devise a 20-year plan for urban development.

“I have heard the homeless described as vermin, as cockroaches, those living in informal settlements referred to as illegal, as encroachers and occupiers,” she said.

The inclusion of a ‘right to adequate housing’ clause into the U.N.’s draft New Urban Agenda - the plan that is expected to come out of the Quito conference - was a source of tension between member nations during negotiations earlier this year.

Farha said it is now clearly inserted in the Agenda, but that implementation of the goal must now be the imperative.

“The first step is that all levels of government walk away from here and begin to think about establishing their own, local housing strategy - not just any strategy but one based in human rights,” she said.

“It would begin with including some kind of legislation or recognition of the right to housing and ensure that the strategy has measurable goals, timelines and protects the most vulnerable populations.”


The United Nations says slums - which are home to more than 900 million people worldwide, or nearly one in every seven people - are emerging spontaneously as a “dominant and distinct type of settlement” in the 21st century.

Held every 20 years, the U.N. Habitat conference comes at a point when for the first time in history more people are living in cities than in rural areas.

In 2014, 54 percent of the global population lived in cities but by 2050, this is expected to rise to 66 percent.

Farha also announced the launch of a global alliance of public and private sector specialists as well as academics and human rights activists to advocate for housing to be recognized as a human right.

She said homelessness was symptomatic of the failure of governments to effectively respond to the housing challenge.

“We want to question the notion that forced eviction is a symptom of development and the idea that the only function of land is that it is there for profit,” she said.

“We want also to challenge the dominant understanding of who counts and who doesn’t and dominant perceptions of who cities are for.”

More than 45,000 people, including academics, planning specialists, government officials and U.N. leaders, have converged on the Andean city of Quito to discuss the future of the world’s cities.

A dominant refrain of the U.N. conference has been the recognition that urban planning has failed to keep up with mass urbanization around the world.

The New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document aims to provide a global roadmap to steer the growth of cities, towns and informal settlements so that they are sustainable, do not destroy the environment and protect the rights of the vulnerable.

Around 140 countries are expected the adopt the new, non-binding agreement on behalf of the United Nations’ 193 member states on Thursday. (Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit