US, Israel come under fire over housing rights violations

Millions of people the world over - including in the richest country on the globe - lack a proper roof over their heads, according to an international housing rights NGO.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: The United States and Israel, along with eight other countries, came under fire from a human rights NGO on 10 December for being guilty of “most consistently abusing and defying international housing rights law.”

In conjunction with Human Rights Day on 10 December, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) identified the US, Israel, Myanmar, Colombia, Croatia, Guatemala, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe for its Worst Housing Rights Violators’ Award.

COHRE, an international NGO that campaigns on adequate housing and prevention of forced evictions, pointed out that in the US - the world’s richest country - 2.3 million adults and children each year experience homelessness.

Housing is a right under international law. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate ... housing ... and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

The Covenant has been supported by General Comment No. 4 that expands the right to housing to include the right to security of tenure, right to basic services and the right to a habitable and accessible residence. Moreover, General Comment No. 7 obliges all states to refrain from forced eviction and to ensure that all non-state actors who commit such crimes are punished.

The US, however, is not a party to the Covenant and thus does not recognize these rights.

“The inclusion of the US in this year’s winners draws attention to the fact that upholding housing rights is not just a question of wealth, but a question of political will,” said Scott Leckie, COHRE Executive Director.

COHRE accuses the US of breaking the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Twelve percent of the US population live in poverty, with millions of people homeless. Moreover, homelessness has been made criminal in at least 50 US cities. Homeless people are routinely targeted with discriminatory laws aimed at removing them from public areas and visible spaces, COHRE complained.

Some 2.3 million adults and children in the US experience a spell of homelessness. When the data on housing poverty and homelessness is disaggregated by race and sex, these figures reflect patterns of “entrenched discrimination in the US, particularly against African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos, and also against women,” COHRE noted.

“Brutal policies”

Israel, says COHRE, has over the past two years continued with impunity to violate international human rights and humanitarian law. This has been echoed by other international human rights organizations that have “denounced the brutal policies of the Israeli government, including the practice of house demolition, a war crime under the Geneva Conventions of 1949,” adds the human rights NGO.

According to COHRE, in April 2002, Israeli forces destroyed hundreds of homes in the Jenin Refugee Camp, leaving 4,000 people homeless. From April 2001 to April 2002, over 400 houses were completely destroyed and another 200 seriously damaged in the Gaza Strip, leaving 5,000 homeless.

Between September 2000 and 2001, 5,000 residential buildings were destroyed in the West Bank. Homes are demolished for “administrative” and “punitive” reasons, says COHRE.

Palestinian Arabs in 1948 owned most of Israel but now only own 3% of the land. They are even severely restricted from building on the 3% of land because of discriminatory laws and practices, COHRE maintains. In July 2002, the Israeli cabinet voted for the adoption of a bill to restrict access to “state land” - predominantly expropriated land from Palestinians - to Jews only.

COHRE points out that Israel through its actions has violated at least seven international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The remaining eight countries in COHRE’s list have been taken to task for violations of housing rights but for various reasons. In Colombia, for example, armed conflict has been responsible for more than 2 million Colombians being forced to leave their homes over the past decade. Colombia has the world’s third largest internally displaced population.

In Guatemala, however, the profound poverty of the country has compounded the endemic housing crisis there. Approximately 50% of Guatemala’s population live in inadequate housing concentrated in 200 squatter settlements, and there is a deficit of 1.5 million homes.

In conjunction with Human Rights Day, COHRE released figures of its latest global survey on evictions that concludes that over the past two years more than 5 million people worldwide have been forcibly evicted from their homes, with another 6 million people facing the threat of forced evictions.

Meanwhile, also in conjunction with Human Rights Day, a global network of over 85 churches and related organizations has launched a three-year campaign that will press for international human rights, social and environmental agreements to take precedence over trade agreements and policies.

The “Trade for people, not people for trade” campaign launched here by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance includes a global petition and a Plan of Action that among others advocates for:  trade rules that recognize the right to food, ensure sustainable agriculture and food security for all, and promote greater self-reliance in developing countries; global and national policies and rules that guarantee access for all to essential services, based on human rights principles; and the regulation of transnational corporations (TNCs) to ensure that they contribute to poverty eradication, promotion of human rights, and the protection of the environment.

Among others, the Plan of Action demands the end of dumping subsidized production for rich countries on the markets of the poor; challenges the pressure for trade liberalization and privatization from the international financial institutions; supports improved market access in rich countries to agricultural exports from developing countries; promotes the exclusion of essential services, such as health, water and education, from trade negotiations; and works towards wider access to essential medicines and protection of public health that take precedence over the protection of intellectual property rights and patents. (SUNS5252)    

From Third World Economics No. 296 (1-15 January 2002)