The right to adequate housing: From law to practice -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The right to adequate housing: From law to practice

By Claude Cahn

As a result of the efforts of many over the past two decades, the right to adequate housing is probably the most elaborated human right under the U.N. international law system. However, securing the right to adequate housing for all is difficult in a world of dramatic disparities between rich and poor, and in which governments flaunt their international human rights obligations.

The right to adequate housing is most frequently seen as derived from Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which lists “housing” among components of a guarantee of an adequate standard of living. In 1991, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted its General Comment 4 on the right to adequate housing, setting out a framework for the right to adequate housing. General Comment 4 names seven criteria, which it elaborated in detail, according to which housing is to be understood as adequate: legal security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy.[1]

The Committee supplemented General Comment 4 with General Comment 7, particularly on the relationship between the right to adequate housing and the issue of forced evictions. In General Comment 7 the Committee held that "forced evictions are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant,"[2] meaning that any eviction is highly questionable in light of a state’s Covenant obligations, and its legality should be subject to strict scrutiny.

General Comments 4 and 7 have become the global standard on the content of the right to adequate housing. Regional bodies have, however, developed certain aspects of the human rights law regime as they have worked toward particular aspects of implementation. For example, the European Court of Human Rights, which applies the European Convention on Human Rights—a document lacking explicit guarantee of the right to adequate housing—has read aspects of housing rights into rights to privacy, family life and the peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions, among other rights. By contrast, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights has expanded the right to adequate housing from an individual to a collective right.

In practice, while international law has expanded in this area, victories have been primarily in the breach. On the positive side, international law tribunals have weighed in to punish governments flagrantly abusing housing rights. Thus, for example, the European Committee of Social Rights has found three states—Bulgaria, Greece and Italy—guilty of systematically violating the rights of Roma to adequate housing. The European Court of Human Rights found Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey in violation of the European Convention for allowing persons to be exposed to degrading environmental conditions near their housing. The African Commission found Nigeria in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights for systemic environmental degradation in Ogoniland.

However, general global housing conditions have if anything worsened considerably in the past two decades as a result of forces beyond the reach of international tribunals. One issue has been the massive growth of slums on the margins of cities, among other things due to pressures for persons to leave rural areas to go to cities, where authorities fail to provide adequate conditions. Recent decades have seen the birth of mega-slums around cities such as Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Abuja and elsewhere. The collapse of Communism has similarly triggered a massive retrogression in the field of housing throughout the post-Communist space.

Closer scrutiny of conditions leading to housing rights abuse reveals, that it is in many, if not most cases, due to policy failure—although governments are able to ensure that housing rights are enjoyed by all, in many cases, their priorities are elsewhere. However, there are positive developments in some countries. For example, Scotland has enshrined into law a positive obligation binding on the public authority to avoid homelessness. In Hungary, when local authorities began allocating scarce social housing according to arbitrary criteria, the Constitutional Court stepped in and ordered that “social housing must be allocated according to social criteria.” Unfortunately, Hungarian courts have not been able to prevent the sell-off of social housing—one major root cause of the problem of homelessness in Hungary.

One particular hindrance to progress is the widespread view that social and economic rights are “not real rights.” Until recently, major human rights organizations would not work on housing rights issues, and some still only do so only partially or reluctantly. For decades, states have affirmed commitments to upholding human rights, but those holding them accountable have focused on other priorities. It is time to change that state of affairs.

Claude Cahn is Head of the Advocacy Unit for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a global housing rights initiative based in Geneva (www.cohre.org). Between 1996 and 2007, he was Programs Director of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an international public interest law organization working to end the systemic human rights abuse of Roma (“Gypsies”) in Europe.

Cahn’s areas of expertise include cause and mission management, international institutions, human rights law and policy, monitoring methodologies, policy and law analysis, public outreach and matters relating to the Romani communities. Major achievements with the ERRC include authoring European Union policy on Roma issues, shaping European human rights law in the field of housing rights, securing just remedy for victims of coercive sterilisation, and moving a number of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to implement school desegregation policy. He may be contacted at: claudecahn@cohre.org


[1] United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 4, para. 7. Sixth Session, 1991.
[2] "General Comment No. 7 (1997), The Right to Adequate Housing (Art 11(1) of the Covenant): Forced Evictions", adopted by the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 20 May 1997, contained in U.N. document E/1998/22, annex IV.