International Housing Activist Miloon Kothari

Miloon Kothari, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, in attendance at a January press conference on housing in Paris, France. (Photo: Bertrand Guay / AFP-Getty Images)

Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Housing, recently visited Canada on a fact-finding mission to look at the issues of homelessness, Aboriginal housing, women's housing and the impact of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Am Johal recently sat down for breakfast with Mr. Kothari at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver.

Miloon, what do you do with a fancy title like U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing?

As the Special Rapporteur for Housing, I work with the U.N. Human Rights Council that is an intergovernmental body of which Canada is a member. The Human Rights Council, which was previously the Human Rights Commission, has a system of special rapporteurs, in an independent honorary capacity, to look at specific issues of global concern. One area is investigative; we do communications with governments on specific cases, monitoring specific cases, policy, and have a reporting mandate — pointing out obstacles and areas of concern and violations. And then there's a collaborative function: we build relations with civil society, and with other U.N. agencies, but it has a global mandate that includes all regions of the world. The work of the special rapporteur is to deal with issues at the ministerial or ambassadorial level. It is a high-level appointment with an independent role, which is very useful. I have been doing this since 2000, so this is my seventh year as rapporteur. Of course, my area is housing, which is a fundamental human rights issue.

On your recent visit to Australia, what were your main findings there?

The last three country visits I did were in South Africa, Spain and Australia.

There are many similarities to what I have seen in Canada. We have seen a national housing crisis. Income support is not high enough. The speculation on land and property is so prevalent that even the middle class can no longer afford to buy. We also found that there's a primacy given to home ownership in government policies. There isn't enough focus on housing for low-income groups. There's also a growing phenomenon of homelessness, and very adverse, very disturbing housing conditions among the aboriginal people. We also found that a national perspective on housing was missing, with no national housing ministry or minister. In the legal system, the right to housing was not recognized.

There was some provincial human rights legislation that recognized elements of housing and some discriminatory areas. In Australia, there were many similarities to Canada. There was a need for an emergency response to the housing problems of the indigenous peoples — to look at the causes and to see what can be done. A series of recommendations exists on how to tackle the housing situation, specifically for women, indigenous people, children, and people recently released from detention. There is a need to look at what kind of housing facilities they had, if any.

We suggested that the housing solutions should be based on a system of a housing continuum where you have enough shelters, boarding houses, hostels, transitional, ownership, and affordable rental units, but we also suggested that there needs to be a restructuring of the taxation system. Australia is among the highest in the world in terms of tax benefits for home ownership and for developers. It is a strange system where subsidies are just raising the prices of the homes and, in turn, subsidizing the developers.

What have you noticed in Canada so far? Let's start with Montreal and Quebec?

In Montreal we visited many of the shelters, talked to people, and had a large civil society forum. Many people gave testimonies. We met with government at the city and provincial level. Relatively speaking, it's certainly not a perfect situation, but they do have entrenched social policies and are very conscious of the need for social housing. With Quebec, we have a province that continued to fund social housing after the federal cuts in 1994 - 1995, so there is a social leaning commitment within the government in regard to housing policies.

That being said, the problems that are elsewhere in other cities are also present in Montreal. There is evidence of gentrification in the city, with the corresponding displacement of low-income people. There is evidence from civil society that homelessness is increasing and that the responses are not keeping up with the demands.

These were only some of the problems. We went to the Kahnewake Reserve and spoke to aboriginal leaders. There were Chiefs from four different territories, including the northern parts, who gave testimonies and information on the housing and living conditions in the territories which are, of course, very disturbing. We met with provincial officials and discussed their plans as well.

How was Ottawa?

We visited a number of sites in Ottawa, including men's and women's shelters. It was an excellent example of the emergency housing situation for youth and transitional housing. We also spoke with city officials. Homelessness in Ottawa is not as visible as you would see in other places like Edmonton or Toronto. In Canada, there is a hidden homelessness. There is a large crisis in housing, high density situations, and not enough facilities for women escaping domestic violence. The problems in Ottawa involve the same issues of affordability and gentrification, and again, a disproportionate representation of women and aboriginal people are affected by homelessness.

How was your visit to Edmonton?

In Edmonton, we again visited and spoke with many people in a shelter for seniors who are homeless, and others who were outside. We also visited a house and apartment where immigrant families are staying. It was very disturbing. The officials said it was because of the boom, but homelessness is very visible.

There is also a large drug-related problem. And, of course, again, there is overrepresentation amongst specific groups. There is a need for shelters for women, single mothers and children. There were many people being turned away. When we were in Alberta, we also visited the Lubicon Territory because the U.N. has been following that case for some time. It was the first on-site visit there. We met with the Chief and elders and saw their homes, where there is no potable drinking water directly available and the sanitation is very poor.

We toured the area where the oil exploration is going on. We were very concerned about the Lubicon people. since there is no dialogue right now with federal or provincial authorities. They are being actively pushed out, lands are being taken away and the area is being polluted. We will certainly take their situation up as a violation of their rights. We spent part of the day speaking to provincial and city officials in Edmonton where the homelessness situation is particularly dire. It is partially due to the boom, as they did not anticipate so many people would come to the city.

What about Vancouver?

I have, of course, been receiving information since I came to the World Urban Forum in 2006. There is a deep homelessness problem here. I must say I was taken aback by the scale of the crisis in the Lower East Side. We heard very moving testimony at the public hearings. The problem is very severe and I was struck by their depth — very drug-related and involving mental health issues, some violence, general safety and privacy. Particular groups were directly affected disproportionately.

I was very interested in the work done by civil society organizations, including N.G.O.s working on policy issues and service providers working on innovative programs. It's glaringly apparent in Vancouver that for quite some time, I understand from government too, that the emphasis which should be present for such an important issue like housing hasn't been there, and successive governments have failed to create the housing that is necessary.

You have in government a legacy of misguided policy decisions which have led to this massive crisis in housing and homelessness. We didn't hear this in other places — the decrepit nature of S.R.O.s, the conditions of the buildings that people are living in, the very poor health. As has been the case throughout our visit, I was repeatedly struck by the contrasts in such a beautiful city. Because there has been so much investment, it is striking that a few blocks from million dollar condominiums there is such immense poverty. Of course, the fact that so much money is generated from that economy also struck me at both provincial and national levels, with surpluses, or things like oil extraction in Alberta, real estate and tourism in Vancouver, and now with the coming of the Olympic Games. The money and investment that is generated here has not led to putting a system in place at the level of governance to deal with revenue sharing, which would put some of the money back into social areas. There seems to be a disconnect between the economic policies in Vancouver, BC, and the social policies that need to be in place to not have the social dysfunction that you see.

I feel like I shouldn't have to ask you this, but since the supporters of the Olympic Games still seem to dispute this point, are Olympics and hallmark events linked to evictions?

The history of hallmark events or mega-events, whether they are Olympic Games or large conferences, has been very negative in terms of the legacy related to housing. That has also been the case in Beijing. In the developed world, if you look at what happened in Atlanta, Barcelona and Salt Lake City, there have been evictions and neighborhoods being gentrified — not just the poor, but the middle class. There is a legacy of facilities that are built at great expense, then left unused; of athlete's villages being turned into high-end housing. The Olympics and hallmark events are aberrations, physical impositions upon the fabric of a city; the master plans that are created overturn whatever logic there was that preexisted. Instead the logic of infrastructure and high-end investment is what takes over. It essentially leaves a permanent legacy, so you see a lot more investment in infrastructure, tourism, and sport facilities, but what does it leave behind? If these events were not to take place, perhaps the priorities would be elsewhere. The history of hallmark events on the question of housing has not been very good.

In terms of your broader role, what are some of the more egregious housing situations in the world today?

I would say that the most disturbing part (and the scale is astounding), is the issue of forced evictions. In the last ten years it has grown, this phenomenon of evictions. My particular interest has been, apart from conflict environments, in the astronomical rise in development and market-driven evictions; even rural evictions to urban areas.

Today, more people are being displaced from large development projects because of the market, than in places of conflicts. There are shocking statistics; millions of people around the world being displaced. In some situations, it is not that displacement should not happen. What is a gross violation of human rights is that there is no compensation or consultation, so you see this legacy of greater homelessness, which is often permanent. There has been, of course, data generated on evictions that shows that it is disproportionately represented by minorities, aboriginal people and women.

There is the whole area of increased speculation on land and property, and the firm belief now held across the world on the primacy of the market. This reliance on market solutions to meet housing demands is increasingly not treating housing issues as a human right. This is not a commodity that you buy and sell. This expansion of neo-liberal thinking has many nation-states moving away from addressing these complex phenomena as legitimate social issues.

I think the increased migration around the world and the kind of conditions that people are required to live in is abysmal. Two areas where rights are being violated are forced evictions and globalization, affected, of course, by economic policies that only look at broad numbers.

One result is more "ghettoization" and segregation in urban and rural areas; more building of apartheid cities, playgrounds for the rich. I think that you also see now, perhaps, a new phenomenon of the last decade — the segregation of people not so much on class and race, but based purely on income level. If you are poor, you are out. You are put into marginal areas of the city and essentially denied what everyone else has. This is very often the result of government policies. They are either acts of omission or neglect.

I wanted to ask you about some specific countries now. What is the housing situation like in South Africa today?

I did a mission to South Africa this year. I think the situation there is, of course, affected by a long history of apartheid. But you also have had at least six years after 1994 where there were very progressive policies — perhaps the world's most progressive constitution, excellent legislation, and some groundbreaking judgments from the constitutional courts on how the right to housing should be implemented by policy makers. But legislators in South Africa have lost their way since 2000-2001.

There is a drift that is very evident. The promises of the early years are now in reversal. More and more people are living in marginal areas. Many people not getting civil services. The physical separation of the apartheid years has not been addressed sufficiently. You have a bureaucracy deeply entrenched in power. I was struck by the lack of settlement support, and the lack of access to water, electricity and sanitation. So you have a situation where the housing conditions are still far below basic standards.

As well, the physical separation from the apartheid era between races still exist. You have a bureaucracy that is not very open to what you consider a basic function of democracy. I was struck by the very little work that has been done and lack of depth to the post-settlement approach. There is a lack of sanitation, a lack of employment opportunities, and a situation where the housing conditions are very adverse.

All the progressive judgments have not been implemented, nor has the constitutional regulation and the right to housing in policy been put into practice. There are excellent national policies, but the implementation is very weak. The tension we see in other countries of decentralization is present — cities, provinces and federal governments not following through.

Following the actions from the federal government that there are not enough resources, we have a very long way to go to still overcome the legacy of apartheid. All the remarkable work, in the buildup and overturning of apartheid, has been partially desecrated, but there are a lot of national networks, and a need for a national N.G.O. focus. We also found that it is difficult to advocate for housing rights. There are global economic figures and a migrant economy. The policies are not necessarily benefiting the poor and there is a tendency to privatize services. The policy for the prepayment for services has been disastrous. It is difficult for people who are fighting for housing rights to get funded.

How is the housing situation in Israel?

Yes, I did a mission and went to the Occupied Territories in 2001. I also went to northern Israel and southern Lebanon since the recent conflict and have followed the situation inside the Green line, including the rights of the Bedouin and the Arab citizens inside Israel. In the Occupied Territories there is a worsening situation due to the nature of the occupying power of the military machine, and I would say, the legacy of inaction of the international community. It is a struggle that is longstanding, difficult to understand and hard to explain, including the European Union's reluctance to be more directly involved. The reticence of the international community to confront the United States is a direct cause of the kind of brazenness with which Israel still conducts its policies towards the Palestinian territories.

At the U.N., and other human rights bodies, the work of the special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, and the other special rapporteurs have been in speaking with one voice. I've spoken out against the so-called accords, including what the Quartet has done, and the U.N.'s role. Yet the terms of reference and guiding principles don't include human rights instruments. We have a process where successive agreements have led to a situation where Israel has been able to consolidate its occupation, demolishing more homes, creating enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, and leading to a situation where the Palestinian Authority has no real power. In the Quartet, we don't recognize international charters and it has led to a situation where the Palestinian people have suffered asphyxiation. The infighting between Palestinian factions is a direct result of that, because of the sense of frustration that exists.

In terms of housing policies, the impact of successive decades has created one of the worst situations in the world. Inside the Green line, in many ways, is not much better amongst the Arab citizens. There is heavy repression and segregation of the Bedouin, and the unrecognized villages in Galilee. It has a devastating impact on people. There are thousands and thousands living without electricity or water; it is a reckless policy in the Negev. The Bedouin are concentrated in seven new communities. In stark contrast are the tremendous resources for Jewish agricultural settlements, sometimes just across the street from unrecognized villages. It is a grave situation. Without change, and spine put into the international effort beyond the U.N. human rights work, it is difficult to see any kind of quick resolution or a change in the policy of occupation, of unhindered settlement. It is difficult to imagine a Palestinian state that would be viable beyond this type of banstustan-type situation. The longer we wait, the longer it will be for such a goal to actually take place.

You have an independent role as special rapporteur. There are reports that some people and countries are attempting to undermine the independent role of the special rapporteurs?

There are reports that within the international system, attempts have been made to undermine some of that independence. It depends on what those changes are and how you feel about it.

I think the independence that we have is very, very important. Perhaps the most important and precious thing we have is to say what we have seen, and to identify with the situation and the people that we meet. It is vitally important that we see and speak from the heart for those who are fighting for human rights and to not be concerned with diplomatic niceties or in criticizing the U.N. itself.

It is a difficult role. We, of course, have a role with civil societies. It is sometimes not a very popular role, but we point out egregious situations in the world. We are an early warning system. There has been a rethinking as part of the reform process when the Human Rights Commission was created and when a new Human Rights Council was founded.

With the Human Rights Council, some governments wanted to use the opportunity to dilute the system and take away some of this independence — to draft a code of conduct for rapporteurs. With the work of many countries that do support our work, the code of conduct was considerably improved from previous versions. The missions, media and so forth — so far the system has helped. Some country mandates have been ended in Belarus, Cuba, and possibly some others in the future, but the thematic mandates are very strong.

I'm quite optimistic overall. However, one area of concern could be the appointment of new rapporteurs. We will wait and see if that results in rapporteurs who are not independent. The rapporteur system and its appointment process had been better than treaty bodies because you had the possibilities of appointments from academia and civil society. There are parts of that closed system that should be protected.

There is much work to be done in developing the Human Rights Council. There have been joint rapporteurs to southern Lebanon and other initiatives underway. There is also a peer review process that is quite promising. We will have to wait for one or two years to make an assessment, but I think that we will see many new appointments in the next six months. There are clear indications, right now, that the human rights system is holding very firm and we will remain strident in maintaining our independence.

Anything else?

What I find perhaps the most difficult in my work is the lack of accountability in all levels of authority. I don't think the U.N. is immune from that in terms of its various bodies. Mostly I'm speaking about people in power and the responsibility of governments. The major obstacle right now is the assault on human rights defenders, housing and land rights activists, people who are struggling for housing, and land and water rights. It has become to difficult for people to respond.

We are seeing many examples of this and it is creating a situation where we are having more violations, and with governments, we are having a more and more difficult time. I would call for much more transparency on the work of governments, from civil society, bilateral agencies, U.N. agencies, multilateral agencies, and much more of a general sense of outrage.

What we are seeing in the streets is totally unacceptable, such as the whole issue of market-based evictions. What we see out there is very, very disturbing and adequate responses are not happening. We need much more collaborative work when we call for governments to reexamine their economic policies. There are very valiant civil society efforts, more networks and the alternatives they are putting forward — a great deal of work that needs to done. There should be a much more strident reflection in policy of the human rights approach.

What we see on the ground, when you look at the violations and a series of other problems, is a violation of human rights. The human rights approach should not be run away from, but adopted comprehensively.