A house being destroyed in Zimbabwe. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
There’s a worldwide housing crisis — and we’re not just talking about foreclosures and the crash of the housing market. Billions live without adequate housing across the globe, even though housing is a human right.
One of the most widespread and egregious violations is forced eviction — the removal of people against their will from their homes or land without legal protections or safeguards, typically because they live on land desirable to governments or private developers.
It’s cause to celebrate: The indigenous peoples of Peru scored a long-overdue human rights victory earlier this month.
On September 6th, 2011, Peruvian President Humala traveled to Bagua, in the Peruvian Amazon region, to sign the Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law, that requires government to consult with indigenous peoples before companies can begin projects like digging mines, drilling for oil or building dams. Indigenous peoples must also be consulted before Congress can approve any proposed law that could affect their rights.
Besra, a single mother with a small child, returned from visiting her mother in the hospital to find her door broken in. Officials forced her to vacate her home immediately, throwing her belongings out onto the street.
Another resident, an unemployed 60-year-old man with a lung condition, told Amnesty International that he had been forced to sign eviction notices that he was not allowed to read.
According to Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey,
“Most of those facing eviction have not been given adequate notice. They have not been consulted, provided with legal remedies, or offered adequate alternative housing or compensation. This is a violation of their human rights. There must also be an investigation into the allegations of harassment by public officials.”
With the recent 9 billion dollar class action verdict in Ecuador (and last year’s arrests in Houston), security was high and there were real questions as to whether or not the international delegation of NGOs would be allowed in. Fortunately, after an extensive security check, which makes TSA like a walk in the park, we were all allowed in to speak.
During the Q & A portion of the meeting, I addressed Chairman John Watson on the use of gas flaring in the Niger Delta; a technology that has led to serious health related issues and environmental contamination:
The Indian state of Orissa is where the Vedanta Aluminum Company (Indian-based subsidiary of a UK multi-national) runs a refinery in Lanjigarh. This refinery is home to a nearly overflowing 92 billion liter (24 million gallon) pond of rather innocent sounding red mud. Already this year, video shot by local residents show the walls of the pond being breached and streets being flooded. Compared to what is to come, the leaks have been relatively small.
When the monsoons come however, over 4,000 families in 12 villages will be threatened.
And red mud is not as innocent as it sounds. It is the leftovers of the aluminum refining process that includes highly toxic alkaline chemicals and radioactive materials. When the pond overflows its walls, red mud will contaminate drinking water, farmland, and homes, leaving environmental devastation in its wake and threatening the health and lives of thousands of people. This may sound familiar. Just last year a red mud spill in Hungary did the exact same thing.
Earlier this week, Amnesty issued an urgent action calling on the Salvadoran government to protect journalists at Radio Victoria, a community station in rural Cabañas, and to fully investigate threats against them from a self-proclaimed death squad (grupo de extermino).
Unfortunately, this was not Amnesty’s first urgent action concerning Radio Victoria. In the summer of 2009, journalists were threatened after calling for justice in the abduction, torture, and murder of anti-mining activist Gustavo Marcelo Rivera.
While the police were quick to blame Rivera’s death on youth gangs (mareros), Radio Victoria and others believed that he was killed in retaliation for his leadership in the movement against Pacific Rim’s plan to mine gold in the area. Rivera and other activists argued that these operations would divert water from poor farmers, poison the water supply with cyanide, and fail to produce economic development. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights echoed Amnesty’s call for a thorough investigation and protective measures.
This week, leaders from around the globe met at the United Nations to review the world’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While there’s been some improvement, it’s been uneven. The world won’t win the fight against poverty until it puts human rights at the heart of the struggle. In the last several weeks, tens of thousands of Amnesty International activists have raised their voices in support of that message.
Last Thursday, in advance of the MDGs summit, Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty delivered more than 20,000 signatures and postcards from around the world to Joseph Deiss, the incoming president of the U.N. General Assembly and co-chair of the meeting.
Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty (R) delivers petitions and postcards to incoming U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss (L)
Today, as the General Assembly begins the work of its annual session, including implementing the outcomes of the summit, Amnesty International activists sent a second batch of more than 20,000 signatures and postcards to Mr. Deiss — bringing the total to more than 46,000 names.
Amnesty activists mail petitions and postcards to U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss
There are only five years left until 2015, the deadline for meeting the Goals. And the debate about what anti-poverty framework should replace the MDGs after 2015 — that is, what “MDGs 2.0” should look like — is already well underway. As supporters of human rights, this is a critical moment for us to insist that principles like anti-discrimination, participation and accountability be at the core of the global fight against poverty.
Yesterday, at the United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals, President Obama unveiled a new U.S. approach to global development. It was encouraging to see the president frame poverty as an issue of rights and justice: “In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, [the international community] recognized the inherent dignity and rights of every individual, including the right to a decent standard of living. And a decade ago, at the dawn of a new millennium, we set concrete goals to free our fellow men, women and children from the injustice of extreme poverty.”
Fight discrimination. The president said the U.S. will “invest in the health, education and rights of women,” and gender equality is of course crucial. But other disadvantaged groups – including racial and ethnic minorities and Indigenous Peoples – must also be prioritized.
Ensure participation. People living in poverty must be the chief agents of change. It’s encouraging to hear the president say that, at the nation-to-nation level, the U.S. will stress “partnering with [developing] countries” in the development process rather than “dictat[ing]” from Washington. It should also create space for each country to ensure the participation of impoverished communities.
Improve accountability. President Obama has called mutual accountability a “pillar of [America’s] new approach” towards development. That should include accountability to human rights standards in development.
Respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. must ensure that all efforts to achieve the MDGs are consistent with human rights standards and respect the broad spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Yesterday morning, as world leaders began a summit at the United Nations to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals, Amnesty International activists converged on Times Square to launch a “maternal death clock”, keeping track of the number of women who are dying in childbirth worldwide. Decisions made at the summit will have life-or-death consequences.
The annual rate of decline is less than half of where it needs to be to meet the MDG target of cutting maternal deaths by 75% by 2015. The fight against maternal mortality — and the fight against poverty — won’t be won until the international community puts human rights at the heart of the struggle.
You can join the Amnesty members who took that message to the streets of Times Square this morning — sign Amnesty’s petition and tell world leaders that poverty is a human rights crisis!
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.