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HABITAT: Delegates agree to oppose forced evictions

ISTANBUL, Jun 11 1996 (IPS) - A Habitat II global Plan of Action moved a crucial step toward completion Tuesday, after international negotiators on housing rights agreed to oppose “forced evictions” which violate human rights.

Governments agreed that the right to adequate housing covers protection and redress from “forced evictions that are contrary to the law,” thus clearing the last hurdle to the resolution of the long running housing rights debate here.

The forced evictions issue, which comprises problems ranging from mass evictions to make way for development projects, ethnic cleansing and raids on squatters, had proved one of the most intractable problems at the conference.

But with world leaders scheduled to arrive Wednesday to approve the action plan, diplomats cleared a major hurdle by agreeing firmly to protect people from ‘forced’, and not merely ‘illegal’, evictions.

Governments negotiating the Habitat Plan of Action had agreed over the weekend on the “full and progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing”, but yesterday’s accord puts the final touches on the contentious issue of housing rights.

Housing rights activists would have wanted stronger language in the action plan, but Minar Pimple of the Bombay-based Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action said: “It’s not total happiness. But with this compromise, the draft Plan of Action is very much on course.”

“I see the opening of a space that can be used by different communities,” Pimple said. “This means the right to adequate housing also means not being forcibly evicted from your home.”

As agreed by the working group on housing rights, the compromise language now says governments must “protect all people and provide legal protection and redress from forced evictions that are contrary to the law, taking human rights into consideration”.

And “when evictions are unavoidable”, governments must “ensure that as appropriate, alternative suitable solutions are provided”, meaning communities must be consulted and agree to relocation and rehabilitation.

While the language does not go beyond international law on forced evictions, Pimple said it does emphasize three things: “It clearly accepts that there are forced evictions, that forced evictions are violations of human rights and that suitable alternatives and rehabilitation is to be provided.”

Similar language is found in a listing of what adequate shelter entails, apart from “providing legal security of tenure” and includes new wording that says homeless people should not be “penalised for status”.

The agreement settles a debate on how to protect people against “illegal” or “forced” evictions, with activists saying that reference only to illegal evictions would have given governments room to invoke national law when violating housing rights.

“Saying ‘forced’ is clearer language because one can say these evictions ‘can’t be illegal because it’s legal in my country’,” said Joanna Weschler, U.N. representative for the U.S. based NGO Human Rights Watch.

“Always, governments can claim that eviction is going under national laws… because sometimes the local laws are illegal (in an international context)”, argues Mohammed al-Zeidan of the Israel-based Arab Association for Human Rights.

He says that in Israel, some 60,000 Arabs live in ‘unrecognised villages’, mostly in the Negev, all vulnerable to forced relocation under Israel’s 1965 Planning and Development Law.

The concern about repressive laws is addressed by part of the section on forced evictions that says human rights must also be taken into consideration, activists say.

Just days earlier, governments had been unwilling to oppose ‘forced’ evictions entirely, leaving open the option that they would only seek to block evictions that were “illegal…in the context of national and international law”.

Though the European Union backed strong language seeking protection against forced evictions as a human rights concern, sources tell IPS that the United States opposed such language.

U.S. concerns about property rights, and doubts by some developing nations about how far they want to go to protect squatter communities or oppose projects to relocate them, sparked demand for a compromise.

The agreed version is “a watered down version” of language proposed earlier, acceptable to the EU, Group of 77 and India, Pimple said.

Still, some delegates say it has to be clear that while forced evictions are to be abhorred, some relocation is needed for communities in danger zones like garbage dumps, or near railways or riverbanks after following due process of law.

In an interview, Vicente de la Serna, head of the Philippines delegation, said moves to remove these communities made following the law, “should be respected”. Pimple agreed that people living in dangerous areas “must be relocated with their consent; people will not want to stay in these dangerous areas anyway”.

Housing rights campaigners have expressed doubts about national laws. The Philippines, among others, still has on its books an old law that makes squatting a crime.

De la Serna says the Philippines wants that law repealed, adding: “We should decriminalise squatting. It is a social problem. The remedy is not to send them to jail, but for them to be assisted so they can get access to better housing.”

Still, he stressed, protection must be given to property owners. “Otherwise let’s just throw all laws on property down the river,” he added.

But Fides Bagasao of the Manila-based NGO Urban Poor Associates said the test of U.N. agreed language would come in the governments’ compliance with those words.

“They didn’t give up anything,” one human rights activist said of the U.S. and other opponents to housing rights. “At the end of the day they didn’t commit themselves to anything new.”

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