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Housing as a Human Rights issue

Housing as a Human Rights issue

David Rutherford, New Zealand’s Human Rights Commissioner was a keynote speaker at the recent Community Housing Aotearoa conference and his topic was the relationship between our United Nation’s human right’s commitment and the housing crisis. David’s mihi included, in Māori, the words of section 25.1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that relate to the right to adequate housing. He followed up by an extract from the Elvis Presley song “In the Ghetto”.

And his mama cries
'Cause if there's one thing that she don't need
It's another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

People, don't you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day?
Take a look at you and me
Are we too blind to see
Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way?

He went on to describe that the idea of a NZ ghetto would have been foreign to New Zealanders for many years but now the reality of lives blighted by inadequate housing had become familiar. He described to attendees the role of the Human Rights treaties to New Zealand. David explained that the United Nations treaties are not to promote New Zealand’s overseas image but rather to protect and respect New Zealand citizens. He outlined the numerous times since 1948 when New Zealand’s governments have pledged to citizens to provide the right to adequate housing by signing up to further treaties, some general and some which aim to protect sections of the population. The most recent is the 2015 United Nations Global Agenda where the obligation for adequate housing is in Sustainable Development Goal no 11. A commitment to adequate housing is also included in the following agreements which New Zealand has signed and all of which have been ratified and which are therefore binding in international law.

• The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966);
• The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).
• The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
• The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1979),
• The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990).
• The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,
• United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples (2010) non-binding
• The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966)

David said that housing has been a political football despite these many explicit commitments which needed to be supported by a detailed plan that governments had committed again and again to provide adequate housing that diverse approaches had been overturned, that there were no housing goals which survived change of government. He recommended a bipartisan approach and the development of a New Zealand Homes Accord, and that egos and party politics needed to be left at the door.

He finished by explaining that the modest Hawera state house which had been displayed on the giant screen at the Te Papa venue was one of his childhood homes and he explained that the phrasing provided for in UN treaties provided only for the right to adequate housing. “Adequate” he re-emphasised and went on to describe the roles which he and his three siblings had gone on to hold as adults from this modest start. He outlined the elements of adequate housing, as defined by the UN –that it should have security of tenure, habitability, accessible, affordable, services (like power, sewerage and water), location and cultural adequacy. It t should not be too much he implied – a warm, dry and safe house to grow up in and yet one which is a distant dream for too many New Zealand families.

He finished his presentation finished to a standing ovation and not only because he was on his way to his father’s funeral and was visibly moved by the relationship between the immediate connection with his family and human rights and housing adequacy although the link was pertinent, poignant and a stimulus to action.

If you are interested in the issue of housing affordability you might like to take part in our current HiveMInd debate Making Housing Affordable: How can we crack it? which is running until Friday 9 July


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