The United Nations and housing as a human right -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The United Nations and housing as a human right

By Susan Corts Hill

In 1945, after the end of World War II, the United Nations (UN) was formed to help the nations of the world cooperate, and ensure peace and security. The UN was officially formed when the UN Charter, created and signed by 50 countries, was ratified by the majority of these countries. This charter provided for the creation of a Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), a committee created to protect and promote human rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, was appointed chair of the Commission which included leaders from China, France, Lebanon and several other countries. UNCHR’s first task was to create an international declaration on human rights. The committee decided to create a declaration—a statement of importance and political significance but not binding law—rather than a treaty, which is binding international law. This allowed the declaration to avoid many of the difficult political questions that were later addressed by treaties.

As a result, the Commission was able to produce a declaration that was relatively short and easy to read. Since its creation in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been considered a standard for human rights in countries around the world. The UN first recognized the right to adequate housing as a basic human right in this Declaration. (See sidebar to see what the declaration says.)

Has the UN created any other documents declaring housing as a human right? After adopting the Declaration by the U.N., UNCHR began the process of developing international treaties that incorporated the principles of the Declaration, and could be adopted and ratified by individual nations. After nearly two decades of discussion, UNCHR created a treaty, the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966, which recognized the right to adequate housing for all. (This treaty was called a “covenant.” Sometimes treaties are also called “conventions” or “protocols.”) This treaty became law in 1976, once it had been ratified by thirty-five countries. In addition, the UN has included a right to housing in at least 10 additional treaties. (See further information below.)

What does the UN mean by “adequate housing”?

The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expounded on the right to housing in a document released in 1991. This document includes minimum standards for legal security of tenure, availability of services, facilities and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy. In addition, the comment reiterates that the right to housing should apply to everyone regardless of age, economic status, or other factors, and explicitly forbids forced eviction. The full document is available on the United Nations website at the following web address:
http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(symbol)/CESCR+General+comment+4.En?OpenDocument


Does the UN actively work toward housing for all?

The U.N. continues to promote housing as a right through the work of the United Nations Human Settlement Program (commonly referred to as UN-Habitat), whose mission includes the achievement of adequate shelter for all.

Additional information

International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.1 says: The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.

You can read the full document at: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_cescr.htm. To date, over 150 countries have ratified this treaty. A few countries, including the United States, have signed the treaty but have not ratified it.

Other UN documents that have declared housing as a human right include:

  • Declaration on Social Progress and Development (1969)
  • Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (1976)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969)
  • Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990)

Susan Corts Hill has been with HFHI for three years. She is currently the director of Public Policy and works out of HFH’s Washington, D.C. office. She has a Masters degree in Public Administration and is working on her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She can be contacted at:SHill@habitat.org