Gains and Losses of Habitat III
Whenever a global policy comes under periodic review and reconsideration, that process holds the prospect of both shedding former principles and enshrining new ones. The new formulation does not promise to be more progressive or more appropriate than its predecessor, despite popular expectations. Rather, it often involves a struggle to salvage former achievements, while seeking new commitments that reflect lessons learnt, greater clarity of concepts and evolutionary practice to face new challenges.
Looking back on the Habitat III process culminating in the “New Urban Agenda” (NUA), an inventory of the normative gains and losses is essential to assess the global progress—or retrogression—of collective standard setting that is supposed to address persistent and emerging challenges. As with other UN conferences and policy-making processes, the minimum standard calls for the renewed commitments to realize the UN System’s integrated purposes of peace and security, forward development and human rights, as provided in the UN Charter.
Most such UN conferences have issued declaratory instruments to guide states’ individual and collective efforts toward greater achievement of those global purposes and goals. However, the Habitat III Secretary General and UN Habitat’s Executive Director Joan Clos proposed a “radical shift” that envisioned a clean break from the past, in particular from the foregoing agreements at Habitat I (1976) and Habitat II (1996).
The first and second rounds of the UN Conference on Human Settlements crystalized the “habitat” concept as a needed “regional and cross-sectoral approach to human settlements planning, which places emphasis on rural/urban linkages and treats villages and cities as two ends of [i.e., points on] a human settlements continuum in a common ecosystem.” The Habitat III Secretariat abandoned that holistic approach to sustainable development with the suggestion that “inevitable urbanization” occasioned a top-down shift to replace the more-universal vision of previous Habitat Conferences.
In 2016, those foundational Agendas were replaced instead by an “urban agenda” that reflects ways to capitalize on unchallenged and unchallengeable urbanization. The preceding Agendas’ central commitment to “balanced rural and urban development” gave way to favoring and celebrating exclusively the urban context, seeking to exclude rural people and issues except in the interest of serving cities, despite the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda pledge to “leave no one behind” and the global alarm at urbanization’s contribution to destructive climate change.
Another fundamental difference at Habitat III was the effective shift from the commitment to a human rights approach and the lack of a focus on good governance and social justice that were central to Habitat II. Although the NUA dutifully mentions the human rights principles of equality, nondiscrimination, accountability, and solidarity, it does not stress existing legal commitments of states or operationalize the “indivisibility of human rights” framework, leaving little guidance on how to operationalize those standing treaty-bound duties.
The NUA dropped the Habitat II commitment—repeated 61 times in 1996—to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate housing, replacing that with three less-committal references to “a view to progressively achieving the full realization of the right to adequate housing (para. 13(a)) and promoting policies that support that right (para. 31) and that “we will foster” its realization (para. 105).
The Habitat Agenda (1996) enshrined a commitment to “prevent and redress forced evictions” and “end homelessness.” Habitat III reflects no such promise and reflects little understanding to address those violations of the human right to adequate housing and their structural causes. The NUA’s more-ambiguous language refers to promoting “adequate and enforceable regulations to combat and prevent speculation, displacement, homelessness and arbitrary forced evictions” (para. 111), as well as to “prevent arbitrary forced evictions” and to “focus on homelessness” (para. 31).
Thus, the NUA text is notably more aspirational and less operational that its Habitat Agenda predecessors. The negotiations, in particular during the 3rd Preparatory Committee meeting in July 2016, accommodated United States and Canadian efforts to insert the redundant qualification of unwanted forced evictions as “arbitrary,” as if forced evictions could be anything but arbitrary by their legal definition.
The Vancouver Action Plan of Habitat I (1976) recognized how “The ideologies of States are reflected in their human settlement policies” and warned that “These being powerful instruments for change, …must not be used to dispossess people from their homes and their land, or to entrench privilege and exploitation.” Such recognition of root causes of violations and the normative guidance toward rectifying them fell off the Habitat III negotiation table, deferring rather to the welcome role of business and the private sector (48, 53, 82, 126, 132, 139–43) and development banks (82, 132, 139–40, 142) toward realizing habitat rights.
In related omissions, Habitat III and the resulting NUA avoided such burning issues as the global migration crisis, the ongoing violent destruction of human habitat, the dilemmas of urbanization in the context of climate change, the unprecedented income and wealth disparity embodied in urban development, and the need for state support for people’s social production of habitat. The refusal of Habitat II and the NUA’s failures to incorporate those lessons form an indelible part of its legacy going forward.
At the same time, the NUA enshrines some positive, new concepts, although not in the language of commitments or operational specificity. For example, it “envisages” cities and human settlements that “fulfil their social function, including the social and ecological function of land” (13(a), 59). That vision remains without operational legs in the NUA.
Certain positive contributions of the Habitat III outcome align with other long-advocated terminology, not least the Agenda’s introductory “Shared Vision” recognizing the “right to the city” concept and vision that “some national and local governments…enshrine…in their legislation, political declarations and charters.” As gratifying as that recognition is to urban social movements promoting the “right to the city” claim and corresponding governance principles, the NUA subordinates these under a “vision of cities for all.” That term is not habitual, yet undefined and seemingly coined only for the special occasion of Habitat III, were it not for an important book of similar title published by HabitatInternational Coalition (2012) and specifically dedicated to the right to the city.
Other positive achievements of the Habitat III process include its NUA’s consistent recognition that urban development must seek gender equality and that gender-sensitive policies and approaches constitute the standard of the current period. Also, thanks to vigorous lobby efforts, not least by our friends and colleagues in the Huairou Commission, the NUA gives special recognition also to the needs and participation rights of persons with disabilities and the commitment to combat discrimination against them. However, Russia and Egypt will remain forever on record as the states that militated against recognition of discrimination on the basis of sexual identity and orientation, as well as states’ obligations to eliminate that form of discrimination.
The NUA is replete with gains and losses in comparison to its forebears. At Habitat III, Habitat International Coalition issued its position statement on the remaining gaps and unaddressed priorities of the next 20 years of the new global policy’s implementation. Since the NUA’s adoption, HIC has been engaged in a consultative process of assessing with Members those gains and losses. The outcome of that review will serve as a guiding basis for the Coalition’s monitoring and evaluation of the new normative instrument and its implementation. HLRN is positioned to lead HIC’s Human Rights Habitat Observatory in the coming years to monitor the Habitat III commitments, as it has done in the post-Habitat II period.