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The UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) recently adopted the New Urban Agenda stemming from the Habitat III Conference.

Despite concerns that the Agenda would focus more on sustainable urban development than human rights, it contained several provisions establishing the right to adequate housing and humane treatment for people of all backgrounds. Despite the Agenda’s successful inclusion of human rights, it falls short of embracing its intended framework due to a lack of remedial provisions.

On October 20, 2016, UN-Habitat wrapped up the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador and adopted the New Urban Agenda. The Agenda provides a 20-year “roadmap” to guide sustainable urban development globally, and the conference announced new sources of international development assistance to better provide access to housing and shelter for millions of people worldwide. The New Urban Agenda will also implement the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the UN incorporated in last year’s series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most notably, the eleventh SDG aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Additionally, the New Urban Agenda requires full respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties. Paragraph Forty-Two of the Agenda includes humane treatment of displaced persons, “without discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity or socioeconomic status,” and paragraph Ninety-Nine provides a variety of equitable and adequate housing options.

About a year before Habitat III, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Fahra, stated that “human rights have been largely absent from discussions of urban development,” and that a human rights framework could provide the “coherence and consistency needed in the New Urban Agenda.” After Habitat III ended, Fahra asserted that it left many unanswered questions regarding housing policy direction, but also urged global leaders to implement the New Urban Agenda within a vibrant human rights framework.

In 2003, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination heard an appeal known as L.R. et al v. Slovakia (L.R.) regarding the right to housing, particularly as it affected the marginalized Roma community. The Committee examined whether a local council’s cancelation of funding to low-cost housing, after a nationalist party petitioned against the housing, violated international law. The Court ruled that since the city did not provide adequate alternative housing, and did not ensure conformity with the obligation to prevent racial discrimination, the local council had to provide an adequate remedy to the Roma people affected by the cancellation. This decision relied on the Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The New Urban Agenda provides a framework that would allow an international court to come to the same ruling in favor of disenfranchised communities, but it lacks remedial provisions. In applying the Agenda’s provisions to L.R.’s facts, the local council violates the Roma families’ right to humane treatment because it prevented their “access to affordable housing,” as referenced in the Agenda’s Ninety-Fifth paragraph. Additionally, the council’s decision to cancel the affordable housing plan relied on a petition describing the plan as leading “to an influx of inadaptable citizens of Gypsy origin from the surrounding villages.” This petition, violating the Agenda’s provision against discrimination, also attempted to prevent the Roma’s access to housing opportunities due to their ethnicity.

The New Urban Agenda does not discuss how to remedy a housing-related human rights violation. Thus, devising a remedy is left to the nations who adopt the Agenda.  In the L.R. case, the council’s failure to provide affordable housing for the Roma families resulted in a general lack of access to housing for the Roma community, and therefore violated paragraph Ninety-Nine of the New Urban Agenda. With the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, an international court would still likely rule against the council, finding that the proposed cancellation violated several of the New Urban Agenda’s provisions.

The main problem the New Urban Agenda faces in supporting adequate housing is its lack of remedial provisions for displaced individuals. Fahra’s concerns regarding governments embracing the Agenda are thus correct, as remedies are the primary way to ensure nations will abide by a coherent and consistent framework on this issue, instead of a framework determined by a nation’s court. As highlighted by the SDGs, the original purpose was focused on sustainability, with not much attention given to human rights, which explains why it did not contain as many human rights provisions. Although the New Urban Agenda’s newfound human rights focus is a welcome addition, it unfortunately lacks the necessary remedial provisions ensuring recourse for victims of housing right violations.