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HUMAN RIGHTS: More Than 100 Million Homeless Worldwide

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Mar 30 2005 (IPS) - Homelessness is a growing problem around the globe, affecting both the industrialised and developing worlds, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari told the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, currently underway.

Over one billion people on the planet lack adequate housing, he said, while around 100 million have no housing whatsoever.

In an interview with IPS, Kothari noted that in the developed countries, “governments are withdrawing the subsidies and affirmative action policies that contributed to poor families being able to afford housing. And this is resulting in more homelessness, and there is also more racial discrimination.”

In the United States, for example, “you have policies which obviously affect the lower income groups, such as African-Americans, and they are forced to live in areas which are poor, so it increases the ‘ghettoisation’,” he explained.

As for the developing world, one of the most “acute problems” in terms of adequate housing is unplanned urban sprawl, which leads to an increase in slums and forced evictions, he said.

In India, between November 2004 and January 2005, roughly 80,000 homes were demolished, affecting some 300,000 people. Most of them have not been resettled, and are actually living on the street, Kothari reported.

What is most disturbing is that these mass evictions continue taking place in cities alongside the development of “playgrounds for the rich,” according to the U.N. expert.

“There is money coming in, there is a growing middle class, and so you have a lot of investment in shopping centres and expensive housing, and not much investment in housing for the poor,” he said.

Kothari estimated that the number of homeless people in the world’s urban centres is between 20 and 40 million. At the same time, U.N. statistics indicate that in the least developed countries (LDCs), 78 percent of the pop ulation lives in slums.

But inadequate housing is far from being an exclusively urban problem in the developing countries. Around 75 percent of the poorest people in the world – some 900 million in all – live in isolated rural areas and depend on agriculture to make a living, he noted.

“In the developing countries, the lack of rapid land and agrarian reform and of protection and subsidies for small farmers or for fisherpeople is leading to a situation of growing homelessness and landlessness in rural areas as well,” he added.

In his presentation to the Commission on Human Rights on Tuesday, Kothari also reported on his official mission to Brazil last year.

He commented to IPS that while the Brazilian government “is taking very positive steps, they need to reconcile macroeconomic objectives, which traditionally only look at growth, with human rights objectives.”

One means of achieving this goal would be to lower the budget surplus target from 4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 3.25 percent, he suggested.

This would free up the funds needed to gradually meet the population’s economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to housing, while still respecting the budget-surplus conditions imposed by the international lending institutions.

In his presentation to the Commission, Kothari acknowledged the cooperation he received from the governments of Brazil and Kenya during his missions to these countries last year.

For his part, the Brazilian representative, Ambassador Carlos Paranhos, noted that the report presented by the U.N. rapporteur to the Commission reflected the Brazilian government’s commitment to implementing egalitarian housing policies that incorporate women, indigenous communities and the Afro-Brazilian population.

In his interview with IPS, Kothari commented on the phenomenon known as the “real estate bubble”, stressing that it is not limited to the United States and certain European nations.

In India, for example, there is a desire to create so-called “world-class cities,” he said. “So Mumbai has to become a world-class city, and New Delhi has to become a world-class city, and they are inviting foreign investment.”

The problem is that much of the investment made by multinationals in real estate is essentially for speculative purposes. In the meantime, he added, national laws that used to protect the local land market are now being modified to allow greater foreign ownership and real estate investment. What’s more, the real estate market is being opened up with no legislative and policy protection for the poor, he said.

Kothari, who will conclude his mandate as special rapporteur next year, argued that the private sector is not interested in human rights, including the right to adequate housing, “so I think private sector involvement can only work if there is strong legislation and a strong political will from the government to protect the poor.

“The ultimate obligation to guarantee the right to housing falls on the state,” he said.

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