Inter Press Service News Agency

"If You Are Poor, You Are Out"

Interview with Miloon Kothari, international housing advocate

VANCOUVER, Canada, Oct 25 (IPS) - Miloon Kothari, the U.N. special rapporteur for housing, recently visited Canada on a fact-finding mission to look at homelessness, aboriginal and women's housing issues, and the impact of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

IPS Correspondent Am Johal sat down for breakfast with Kothari at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Miloon, what do you do with a fancy title like U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing?

MK: I work with the [intergovernmental] U.N. Human Rights Council. We build relations with civil society, with other U.N. agencies, but it has a global mandate that includes all regions of the world. The work of the special rapporteur is to deal with issues at the ministerial or ambassadorial level. I have been doing this since 2000. Of course, my area is housing, which is a fundamental human rights issue.

IPS: What have you noticed in Canada so far?

MK: In Canada, there is a hidden homelessness, there is a large crisis in housing, high-density situations, there are not enough facilities for women escaping domestic violence.

When we were in Alberta, we also visited the Lubicon Territory [where oil and gas exploration has recently intensified] because the U.N. has been following that case for some time. It was the first on-site visit there. We met with the Chief and elders and saw their homes -- in all the homes, there is no portable drinking water that is directly available and the sanitation is very poor.

We were very concerned about the Lubicon people since there is no dialogue right now with federal authorities or provincial ones, they are being actively pushed out, lands are being taken away, the area is being polluted -- we will certainly take their situation up as a violation of their rights.

[In Vancouver], you have in government a legacy of misguided policy decisions which has led to this massive crisis in housing and homelessness. I was repeatedly struck by the contrast that I see because it is such a beautiful city, because there has been so much investment, it is striking, that a few blocks from million-dollar condominiums, that there is such immense poverty mere blocks away.

IPS: I feel like I shouldn't have to ask you this, but since the supporters of the Olympic Games still seem to dispute this point, are Olympics and hallmark events linked to evictions?

MK: The history has been very negative in terms of the legacy related to housing. That has been the case also in Beijing. In the developed world, if you look at what happened in Atlanta, Barcelona and Salt Lake City, there have been evictions and neighbourhoods being gentrified -- not just the poor but the middle class.

There is a legacy of facilities that are built at great expense, then left unused, athletes' villages being turned into high-end housing, and of course the imposition of the Olympics and hallmark events, they are an aberration, a physical imposition upon the fabric of a city. The master plans that are created -- it overturns whatever logic pre-existed. It essentially leaves a permanent legacy, so you see a lot more investment in infrastructure, tourism, sport facilities, but what does it leave behind?

IPS: In terms of your broader role, what are some of the more egregious housing situations in the world today?

MK: I would say that the part that is the most disturbing, and the scale is astounding, is the issue of forced evictions. Today, more people are being displaced from large development projects because of the market than places of conflicts. There are shocking statistics, millions of people around the world being displaced.

In some situations, it is not that displacement should not happen. What is a gross violation of human rights is that there is no compensation or consultation, so you see this legacy of greater homelessness, which is often permanent. There's been of course, data on evictions, which shows that it is disproportionately represented by minorities, aboriginal people and other effects on women.

There is the whole area of increased speculation on land and property and the firm belief now across the world of the primacy of the market -- this reliance on market solutions to meet housing demands, and increasingly not treating housing issues as a human right.

One result is more ghettoisation and segregation in urban and rural areas, more building of apartheid cities, playgrounds for the rich. I think that you also see now, perhaps, a new phenomenon of the last decade -- the segregation of people not so much on class and race, but based purely on rich and poor. If you are poor, you are out.

IPS: I wanted to ask you about some specific countries now. What is the housing situation like in South Africa today?

MK: I did a mission to South Africa this year. I think the situation there is, of course, affected by a long history of apartheid, but you also have had at least six years after 1994, where there were very progressive policies, perhaps the world's most progressive constitution, excellent legislation, some groundbreaking judgments from the constitutional courts on how the right to housing should be implemented by policy makers. But legislators in South Africa have lost their way since 2000-2001.

There is a drift that is very evident. The promises of the early years are now in reversal. More and more people are living in marginal areas. Many people not getting civil services. The physical separation of the apartheid years has not been addressed sufficiently. You have a bureaucracy deeply entrenched in power. I was struck by the lack of settlement support, the lack of access to water, electricity, sanitation. The policies are not necessarily benefiting the poor and there is a tendency to privatise services. The policy for the pre-payment for services has been disastrous.

IPS: How is the housing situation in Israel?

MK: The situation of the occupied territories is a worsening situation of the nature of the occupying power of the military machine and, I would say, the legacy of inaction of the international community. A struggle that is longstanding, difficult to understand, hard to explain, including the European Union's reluctance to be more directly involved, of the international community to confront the United States, is a direct cause of the kind of brazenness that Israel still conducts its policies towards the Palestinian territories.

We have a process where the successive agreements have led to a situation where Israel has been able to consolidate its occupation, demolishing more homes, creating enclaves in the West Bank, Gaza, creating a situation where the Palestinian Authority has no real power. Essentially we have a situation where the Palestinian people have suffered asphyxiation. The infighting between Palestinian factions is a direct result of that because of the sense of frustration that exists.

Inside the Green line, in many ways, is not much better amongst the Arab citizens, there is heavy repression and segregation of the Bedouin, the unrecognised villages and in the Galilee. It has a devastating impact on people. There are thousands and thousands living without electricity or water -- it is a reckless policy in the Negev. The Bedouin are concentrated in seven new communities. It is in stark contrast to the tremendous resources for Jewish agricultural settlements, sometimes just across the street from unrecognised villages.

IPS: Anything else?

MK: What I find perhaps in my work the most difficult is the lack of accountability of all levels of authority. I don't think the U.N. is immune from that in terms of its various bodies. Mostly I'm speaking about people in power and the responsibility of governments. The major obstacle right now is the assault on human rights defenders, people who are struggling for housing, land rights and water and it has become to difficult for people to respond.

We are seeing many examples of this and it is becoming more and more difficult. It is creating a situation where we are having more violations, and with governments, we are having a more and more difficult time. I would call for much more transparency on the work of governments, from civil society, bilateral agencies, U.N. agencies, multilateral agencies -- much more a sense of outrage.