“The New Urban Agenda” — Opening remarks at a press conference by UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore at Habitat III, Ecuador
Quito, 20 October 2016
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the lead UN agency advocating for, and working on, human rights in all contexts – including in urban settings – and it is that responsibility which brings us here to the beautiful city of Quito and Habitat III.
Globally, urbanization is expanding at unprecedented rates, bringing with it the potential to contribute positively to the lives of billions worldwide. Yet, today – more often – rapid urbanization goes hand in hand with the creation of more slums; of more people in inadequate living conditions and lacking secure tenure of their housing and land; and greater disparities, inequalities and discrimination.
There is no city without people and there are no people without rights. In and for the city, human rights are at home – and there they must be protected, respected and upheld.
Rights in the city are core assets. Not invented standards for temporary convenience. No. Upheld in law, tested in courts the world over, rights are the implementable details of that simple enduring truth – that we all are born equal in dignity and rights. Rights are for tough times and prosperous times. They empower both the duty bearer and rights holder so that risks of absolute sovereign power are diminished, and instead the State is supported to be an instrument of human dignity, answerable ultimately not to its elites but rather to those who have the least. This must be the foundation for implementation of the New Urban Agenda, which in turn must be framed by the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, whose core promise is to leave no one behind. To leave no one behind means leaving no one out. And upholding this dignity of its inhabitants is the city’s very raison d’etre.
Yet today, through forced evictions, lack of tenure, absence of access to essential services, tolerance for intolerance, disregard for the informal sector, failure to uphold indigenous rights and the promulgation of regulations that curtail the fundamental freedoms of assembly, expression and association, the city is – in so many instances – dehumanizing.
By contrast, the bricks and mortar of humanising cities are non-discrimination, participation, and accountability.
The slum dwellers with whom we met – from Indonesia to the Philippines, to Uganda and Kenya, to Honduras and Peru – told us that State authorities just need to engage them directly, constructively and enable them – without intimidation or discrimination – to deploy their talents, innovation, and enterprise to invest in their own futures.
The indigenous leaders we met said of the State: “Invite us into public policy-making and to its implementation as dialogue, listen to our wisdom and understand that to protect and respect our connection to land, to culture and to heritage is not only honourable but right for the planet and a requirement under international law.”
Women working with victims of sexual and domestic violence emphasised thatcity dwellers must be approached by national and sub-national authorities as partners not problems, as agents of change not impediments to progress. Regard the dignity of women and girls as the core of the city’s raison d’etre.
The young people with whom we met demanded simply to be included, to be consulted, and urged city authorities to uphold the rule of law and be accountable when promises are not kept. Only through transparent and participatory accountable systems – backed up by the rule of law – will we construct urban settings that truly humanise.
People living with disabilities pointed out that the city with its intimate proximity to daily life can enable and empower them – or just rigidly entrench the discrimination to which they are subjected. Universal standards for the built environment, so that the urban landscape becomes accessible, can be enjoyed and can underpin materially our common humanity – these are the reasonable and achievable demands of people with diverse abilities.
Those representing refugees and migrants in the city reminded us that you might be homeless, you might be stateless but never are you rights-less. You may be living in informal settlements, but you always have formal rights.
But the reality today in many cities is that people are left behind – left behind when the cities in which they live impede their access to quality health care, schools and decent work opportunities, leaves them in poor quality housing or without access to adequate sanitation. Poor urban and spatial planning, gentrification, speculation in housing and land, these preventable factors are driving the growth of urban inequality, poverty, informal settlements and homelessness
Participation, inclusion, and the protection and expansion of civil society space is what the city must provide.
For cities to flourish public space is essential – space to peacefully assemble, to associate, to express, space to organise. For this, a free, pluralistic and vibrant civil society is critical. The exercise of freedoms of the press, assembly, association, expression and information are stimuli of responsible governance and strengthen the feedback loops on which good policy-making depends.
The city must bring rights home – from the courtroom, to the boardroom, to the bathroom, to the bedroom – particularly so for the sake of women’s rights.
Cities are not mere bricks and mortar. Cities are people. And people are rights holders. With more people on the move than ever before in human history, moving into urban settings, cities are the most transformative spaces of our time – for better or for worse.
While the leadership of the Secretary-General, and his fine report, should be acknowledged by all – as well as the admirable efforts by Ireland and Jordan to achieve political consensus – this summit cannot be reduced to speeches and feel-good interviews, a dash of self-congratulation and we move on.
When millions of people see freedom’s invitation only through the flapping canvas of a tent. When they carry their children and possessions on their backs, walking hundreds, perhaps even thousands of miles. When they and their families risk drowning, and are kept cramped in appalling detention centers – and, once released, risk abuse by racists and xenophobes. There is no cause for comfort here.
The bitter truth is, this summit was called because we have been largely failing. Failing the long-suffering people of Syria, in not ending the war in its infancy. Failing others in now-chronic conflict zones, for the same reason. Failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation.
It is shameful the victims of abominable crimes should be made to suffer further by our failures to give them protection. It is abhorrent that desperate women, men and children can be branded as criminals, and detained for months, even years, incurring further damage to their physical and mental health.
We can change this. Here at the summit, together: respect, safety and dignity for all. But not when the defenders of what is good and right are being outflanked, in too many countries, by race-baiting bigots, who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit, at the expense of those most vulnerable – and, ultimately, even those who support them initially.
An epidemic, an epidemic of amnesia is at the heart of this moral collapse in some quarters. Many seem to have forgotten the two world wars – what happens when fear and anger are stoked by half-truths and outright lies. A density of hatred builds up. The pin is pulled. The timer, released. And humanity’s rendez-vous with the ‘demon of world history’ beckons again.
The bigots and deceivers, in opposing greater responsibility-sharing, promote rupture. Some of them may well be in this hall this morning. If you are here, we say to you: We will continue to name you publicly. You may soon walk away from this hall. But not from the broader judgement of “we the people”, all the world’s people – not from us.