Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 22 - March 2021 عربى
International Developments

Talking with UN Special Rapporteurs

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Council appointed several new Special Rapporteurs (SRs) on mandates that span a range of human rights related to habitat. Last year also celebrated 20 years of the Special Rapporteur mandate on adequate housing, which was marked in an online panel in October 2020 comprised of all four of the SRs to date.

Since the New Year, HIC, the Global Platform on the Right to the City (GPR2C) and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) have co-organized two roundtables with current SRs on a range of human rights topics that are often inter-related in practice. The intersectionality, the priorities of the current Rapporteurs, those of civil society and mechanisms for cooperation formed the agenda of each roundtable.

This first roundtable, in December 2020, involved a rich discussion with Mr. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation (appointed in November 2020); Mr. Felipe González Morales, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants (2018); Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (since 2017), and  Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the 2020-appointed UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and non-discrimination in that context. Attending were representatives from civil society organizations (HIC and GPR2C) and local and regional governments (UCLG).

In that first roundtable, Mr. Rajagopal noted the city and urban context as a particular locus of struggle, but also the intersection between phenomena of discrimination and spatial segregation according to ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, perpetuated by dispossession and constituting new manifestations of apartheid. A priority for his mandate is the interrelation between displacement and impacts of climate change by ensuring populations’ right to remain or to leave. In either case, vital are the consent and humane treatment of affected populations.

Rajagopal cited the ability of all spheres of government to stop evictions as a lesson of COVID-19. With the right political will, government actions can make a tangible difference, with local and regional governments at the fore of innovative action.

Rajagopal cited the need to rethink land governance beyond ensuring tenure security. Since property is central to economic systems, it is necessary to promote economic alternatives such as solidarity-economy approaches along a rural-urban continuum, adopting an approach to housing that valorizes rural, indigenous and other forms of housing, and takes “land sovereignty” into consideration.

Joseph Schechla, HIC-HLRN coordinator, echoed the SR’s call for the more-inclusive concept of the human habitat and, correspondingly, a broader territorial approach to planning and development. Such an approach would valorize rural areas and residents, accompanying the consciousness about climate change, the importance of recognizing the continuum of legitimate tenure, the need for de-commodification of housing, and treating land, with its social function, as a universal human need and human right among the already-codified and emerging human rights. Schechla noted that it is important also to pursue a human rights habitat and recognize such intersectional and transversal approaches in foregoing commitments such as the Habitat II Agenda, with its firm human rights orientation.

The second HIC/GPR2C/UCLG co-organized roundtable, on 3 February, featured SRs Mr. David Boyd, human rights and the environment (2018), Mr. Michael Fakhri, right to food (2020), Mr. Olivier de Schutter, extreme poverty and human rights (2020) and Ms. Dubravka Šimonović, violence against women its causes and consequences (2015, 2nd term).

Violence formed a common subject of each of the SRs mandates and the civil society and local government participants.

Making the connecting with multiple SR mandates also, HIC representatives reflected on their role in the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty as a key contribution and alliance for global civil society programming. HLRN’s Heather Elaydi raised the subject of ongoing work with SR Michael Fakhri’s initial report to the Human Rights Council, both of which focused on the right to food on conflict and protracted crises. She pointed to the just-released Report on Monitoring the Use and Application of the Framework for Action for Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Crises (FFA), reflecting the complementarity of civil society efforts in the UN policy forums with the SRs’ work at the Council.

With a view to the convergence of the networks co-organizing the current session, HIC-HLRN and UCLG have been analyzing and promoting the human rights obligations of local and regional governments and authorities since before the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee study on the subject. This includes cities’ and local governments’ extraterritorial human rights obligations, which also empower local administration to uphold their obligations to protect against external parties. One example of local government asserting their extraterritorial human rights obligations is the case of 28 Canadian municipalities formally refusing to cooperate with the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement on account of its harm to local food sovereignty and the livelihood rights of local small-scale food producers.

Another organic linkage is with the rights of indigenous peoples. One participant recalled that US history of the “Indian Wars” records how army troops were ordered to eliminate the indigenous peoples by eliminating their food stores and food sources by way of environmental destruction. Not to suggest that that practice is a vestige of the past, discussion turned to its contemporary counterpart in the deliberate destruction of the environment in the Gaza Strip and the systematic settler attacks on small-scale farmers in Palestine (as previously covered in these Land Times).

Meanwhile, civil society organizations can engage directly with the SRs. One way is to respond to the call of the SR on adequate housing for Inputs: Housing discrimination and spatial segregation:

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, would like to invite civil society organizations, States, local Governments, UN entities, National Human Rights Institutions, equality bodies, regional human rights mechanisms, and other actors to contribute to his forthcoming thematic reports to the General Assembly in 2021 and Human Rights Council in 2021 on discrimination and spatial segregation and the right to adequate housing.


More information and a questionnaire in English | Français | Español is available here.  Deadline for submissions is 30 April 2021.
Download a full account of the 22 December 2020 roundtable (in English) and watch the video.
Download a full account of the 3 February 2021 roundtable (in English) and watch the video.

Photo on front page: View of the Broken Chair Monument (symbolizing land mine victims) and flags of member states at the entrance to the UN’s Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Source: UN. Photo on this page: UCLG Secretary General Emelia Saiz delivering opening remarks at the online roundtable with the Special Rapporteurs, 22 December 2020. Source: HIC.


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