Speaking at a World Urban Forum event organised by the human rights group Witness, Raquel Rolnik — the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing — laid out in plain terms why we have seen a rise in forced evictions in the past two decades. With the globalisation of financial markets and accelerated growth in scores of developing countries, ever greater sums of capital are free to be invested in urban areas worldwide. And in rushing to accommodate them, governments have 'completely abandoned the idea of human rights,' according to Rolnik. Instead, 'what we are seeing is a general assumption that housing are commodities, financial assets, nothing more than that.'
She contrasts this with the concept of housing as a human right. Adequate housing is not only a right in itself, but it is also the means through which inhabitants can satisfy many other rights. Being able to access the economic opportunities, water and sanitation, electricity, education and health services that a city provides and to which one is entitled to as a citizen is usually easier when one has a stable home or a recognised address in an urban area. And in some cases it is a prerequisite, such as where a utility company refuses to connect certain types of houses or addresses to the network.
This means that governments cannot simply allow the market to dictate land use. 'If you force land to pay for itself, people who don't have money won't survive,' continues Rolnik.
In this line of thinking, 'housing is not a question of the structures themselves, but of where in a territory sites can be found for people to access the rights' that they should enjoy. This means that governments cannot simply allow the market to dictate land use. 'If you force land to pay for itself, people who don't have money won't survive,' continues Rolnik. Instead, governments must explicitly 'decommodify parts of the city,' protecting them from speculative development and preserving them as places where the poor simply cannot be displaced and retain their access to the city.
Educating the abusers
Yet given that governments are set to continue the trend of 'development' through displacement, how else should we proceed? At a related Forum event, Amnesty International released a booklet entitled Know your obligations: a guide to preventing forced evictions, intended to take government officials step-by-step through the international law on evictions and how they can comply to ensure any displacement is effected legally and according to due process.
It is an elegant summary and a constructive initiative, though with its legal tone and neutral language I wonder if it is merely preaching to the converted. I try to imagine a mayor known to conduct forced evictions sitting down to read this, and I can see all sorts of exceptions and excuses arising in his mind, which this booklet does little to dispel. 'What about the people in my city who are squatting illegally, why should I be obliged to help them?' he will ask himself. 'But they're all criminals and drug dealers in those areas, do they deserve due process? Or all the foreigners and people who belong in the rural areas, why should we spend city money on them? They should go back to where they came from.'
I can imagine another booklet — perhaps Know your obligations, or why there are no exceptions to the right to housing — taking such mayors gently by the hand, patiently refuting each of these misinformed attitudes one by one, and showing how due process can and must be implemented even in all of these prejudicial scenarios.
Or alternatively, a booklet that takes a speak-softly-big-stick approach — Know your obligations, and know what happens if you don't — that not only explains what to do, but explains what legal consequences may and on their heads if they continue to abuse the rights of others. Of course, this could only be effective if there was any kind of enforcement mechanism dangling over them, which as we saw later in the day may soon be the case.
Et tu, World Bank?
I also wonder what a World Bank project officer might think reading such a booklet, whether it might cause them to recognise their own culpability in the design of their projects. For one of the most damaging claims raised at the Witness event was how World Bank development projects alone have been responsible for millions of forced evictions over the years. According to David Pred of Inclusive Development International, while the Bank does not aggregate its own eviction data, its independent assessors determined that 'one million people are in a state of displacement at any one time due to World Bank projects.' If even the world's leading development agency dismisses its own due process and compensation policies and tramples the human right to housing with such impunity, how can we expect any better from anyone else?
According to David Pred of Inclusive Development International, while the Bank does not aggregate its own eviction data, its independent assessors determined that 'one million people are in a state of displacement at any one time due to World Bank projects.'
Pred argues that given the regularity of forced evictions caused by the Bank's activities and its insistence on lending to governments that evict illegally, the Bank should establish a permanent trust fund for the payment of compensation and reparations to evictees, and calls for this to be a key recommendation of its safeguard policy review. He noted that there are still dozens of families from Boeung Kok Lake in Phnom Penh displaced as a result of the Bank's Cambodian land titling reforms who are still denied title, despite the Bank's President Robert Zoellick's mea culpa last year. This is a constructive recommendation, but how sad that it comes to this? Wouldn't the existence of such a fund be proof that the World Bank could not be trusted to respect the right to adequate housing? And might it also allow the Bank to further systematise its abuse by helping to further legitimise the process of involuntary displacement?
Quantifying the abuses
Joseph Schechla, coordinator of the Habitat International Coalition's Housing and Land Rights Network, explained that by analysing over 300 recent evictions worldwide, it is now possible to measure all the costs families suffer through forced eviction, from the loss of construction materials and physical assets to the future loss of income caused by disruption to children's education. The mechanics of these calculations are mature enough that 'we can now issue a bill to the evictor' quantifying the reparations and other measures required for complete restitution.
These kinds of calculations will be useful to domestic courts who are increasingly willing to enforce the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights which enshrines the right to adequate housing, along with their guidelines written by rapporteurs like Rolnik. For example, twice in the past two years has the Kenyan High Court ruled that forced evictions are illegal and required government bodies to provide compensation or reconstruct demolished houses.
Successful legal challenges such as these seem to be more like the kind of thing that city leaders need to learn about, and grow to fear, to break the sense of impunity with which they carry out forced evictions.