Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Speech delivered by Atty Leila de Lima, CHR Chairperson, on the Forum on Right to Adequate Housing (March 10, 2009)


Speech on the occasion of the Shadow Report on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Quezon City, Philippines
10 March 2009

delivered by
Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines

Good morning.

The opportunity for the Commission on Human Rights to appear before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights November of last year is what we hope to look back upon as the seminal moment in our common quest to promote and protect housing rights in the context of the State's international obligations under the UNCESR. There had never been another National Human Rights Commission invited to speak before the Committee. To be the first, I had been told, places the efforts of the Philippine human rights community on the struggle to uphold housing-related rights within the consciousness of the members of the Committee.

To be invited bears two contrasting distinctions. First, our country as one among many with severely impaired housing rights. To be invited lends to the idea that we share in the ignominious reputation of being a country that struggles to deliver to our people the right to adequate housing and security of tenure. Yet, the second distinction reveals that the Committee has recognized and taken up a fascination with the efforts of the CHR and the local human rights community in the field of housing-related rights. Their interest in the progress of the promotion and protection of these rights is a prelude that no other country investigated by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing ever had – an initial audience with the Committee. It seems that we have gained not only a notoriety for our government’s inadequacies in promoting these rights on one hand, but a reputation as well of having strong civic consciousness in overcoming these inadequacies on the other hand.

During our audience with the Committee, we had had the opportunity to report on the major advances made over the recent months since the start of the Fourth Commission. The CHR November 6, 2008 Omnibus Resolution calling for a moratorium on forced evictions and demolitions was presented to the Committee remains our hopeful first step in the field of adequate housing. The report on the Resolution elicited much praise from some members of the Committee and stood as an assurance that the human rights community of the Philippines has not wilted by the wayside despite the weaknesses of our institutions.

Perhaps to our international partners, the Omnibus Resolution in itself would have been monumental in itself, considering that in the context of developed nations, such an issuance would have the coercive force necessary to secure the right to adequate housing. The strength of government institutions, however, is the normal pre-requisite to the effectiveness of such an issuance. Before all of us present here today, there is no illusion however. The call for a moratorium is only a spectre, until the local governments draft guidelines governing the conduct of forced evictions and demolitions. Such guidelines must be within the parameters set by statute, particularly the Urban Housing and Development Act (UDHA). Without the appropriate, corresponding action from the local governments, we will continue to object to future forced evictions or illegal demolitions, just as we always have.

Yet, continually objecting to forced evictions and demolitions is not the progress we seek. We have been moored to this for several years now. A careful reading of the Omnibus Resolution reveals that the goal is not to secure a blanket moratorium. Preventing demolitions is not the end-goal of protecting and promoting the right to housing. To stop at a moratorium is to settle for the less-than-dignified conditions that many of the poor live in. The moratorium itself is only an intermediate step. What remains significantly more important is to secure the commitment of both local governments and the national government to abide by the pre-requisites to valid evictions – namely, the duty to conduct a census of all beneficiaries of a low-cost housing program, to allocate land for the purpose of relocation, to devise affordable means for the poor to obtain security over the land allotted to them, and to provide the necessary infrastructure to relocation sites making them habitable, among other duties.

The recent efforts of certain local governments to abide by the Omnibus Resolution by way of local ordinances reveals the shortfall of our institutions. To enforce the moratorium without defining a concrete timetable for the local governments to fulfill their subsequent duties on housing defeats the purpose of the law and the Omnibus Resolution. We must now center our efforts on this shortfall. We cannot accept a moratorium that only perpetuates the decrepit conditions of urban poor settlements. It must be a moratorium with the end goal of decent and habitable housing in mind.

One of the next logical steps to be taken in relation to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the invitation of National Government to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. We had seen the effect of the issuance of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary and Summary Killings and Executions. The stinging report of Professor Philip Alston had led to the mobilization of all concerned components of the Government bureaucracy and has made a heavy impact on the threat of Extralegal Killings and Enforced Disappearances. The success, however, of this mobilization is the subject of another lengthy reflection, which I will not discuss here today.

Needless to say, to continue to engage the international community on the issue of adequate housing is one of the surest methods by which we can force government compliance. The monstrous task of relocating millions of urban poor in Metro Manila alone requires more than just a hopeful prayer that the State will come around and make housing and the security of tenure a priority. We must continue to generate enormous pressure on government that is equal to the enormity of the housing challenges we face. One of our strongest allies in human rights protection is the international community.

At the moment, the visit by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing cannot materialize without the action of the President and the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is where we must now place another set of cross-hairs. All our efforts to generate support from the local governments and Congress will be served by the force-multiplier that the international community can bring to the table. We have the attention of the Committee. Now is the time for the Committee to have the attention of our National Government.

The creation of the MMIAC by executive order is a shocking development. Not that our goals for adequate housing will be undone by the MMIAC, but that it is extraordinarily belated in its creation, as if to imply that since the passage of the UDHA, or even the creation of the PCUP, the idea that a massive, complex coordination of various agencies and stakeholders had only occurred to us only now. We had always known this. The previous inter-agency collaboration had always been at the heels of evictions and demolitions. However, the critical issue of relocation had always been an afterthought to actual demolitions.

There are, as many of you are well-aware of, grave errors in the formulation of the MMIAC, especially with the primary agency responsible for demolitions sitting as the chair. This is to insinuate that the primary function of the MMIAC is eviction and demolition and not housing. That is why in a letter to the Office of the President, dated 22 December 2008, the CHR expressed objection to the choice of MMDA as the Council’s Chair.

It cannot be underscored enough - adequate allocation of housing is the mandatory pre-requisite of eviction. Adequate housing must supersede eviction. Adequate housing must be the end goal of a temporary moratorium on evictions. While moratorium on demolitions without efforts to provide housing is an empty exercise, demolition without provisions for housing is a blatant violation of law.

This echoes the concern of the Committee that more families are evicted than families who are granted relocation. It has become apparent that our capacity to evict has surpassed our capacity to provide housing. What then should be the primary task of the MMIAC? It is to equitably balance the duty to evict with the duty to provide housing.

The restlessness within the MMIAC should not dissuade us from our participation. We need the cooperation of everyone in this complex task of providing adequte housing for everyone.

The concern of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the vague status of enforceability of housing-related rights will be met by the pending draft bill on the CHR Charter. I invite all of you to share in the excitement we, at the CHR, feel with the looming passage of the charter.

Among the crucial provisions embodied by the proposed charter is the expanded power of the CHR to investigate possible violations of economic, social and cultural rights. Now, by itself, this does not add anything to the scope of investigations covered by the CHR, as we already investigate evictions and forced demolitions. But certainly it adds statutory basis for our investigations.

More importantly, however, is the repercussions that it may have on the justiciability of rights embodied in the UNCESCR. In addition to the expanded power of the CHR to investigate violations of these kinds of rights, Congress is currently ironing out provisions that will give more teeth to the CHR through the grant of certain quasi-judicial powers in aid of the Commission’s investigative mandate. Express and well-defined powers, such as issuance of cease and desist orders and mandatory powers will come a long way in affording concrete remedies to ESCR violations as forced evictions or illegal demolitions. If all goes well, and the possible conflicts with existing laws and jurisdictions resolved, then the justiciability of the Covenant will be without question.

The slow progress or development of jurisprudence on these rights has placed a long shadow over efforts on protection and enforceability of housing-related rights. With an express grant to CHR of expanded powers to investigative not only violations of civil and political rights but ESCR violations, with concomitant auxiliary powers to effectively discharge such mandate, the tipping point is nearing, and a drastic change is coming. The significance of this development, I can barely convey in words.

No one will disagree that the situation of the urban poor has barely moved forward over the years since the implementation of the UDHA. However, while compliance with statute and the Covenant has been intermittent at best, there is good reason to believe that all our efforts, especially the efforts of civil society involved in the upliftment of informal settlers, are paying off. We have set the stage for our success. While it remains a daunting task to compel the government to consistently implement housing policy, the tools available are known to us.

Against the backdrop of the coming 2010 elections, we can further create an impetus for prospective elective officials to seriously undertake the promise of the UDHA and the UNCESCR. By far, the largest voting bloc in urban areas are the very people who have the largest stake in adequate housing. It is up to all of us to ensure that part of the campaign to push housing reforms includes informing the stakeholders, the communities of informal settlers, that moratorium on evictions is not enough. We must educate communities – to teach them about their right not just to the shanty-dwellings they occupy, but their right to decent, hygienic, habitable, structurally-sound homes. We must teach our clientele that there is no long-term protection in voting for officials who promise not to evict, but impliedly never promise to provide decent shelter either. There is no security in having no title. There is no opportunity to access to substantial wealth without collateral. There is no place to raise a family without a home.

Indeed there is so much to be done – by those present here today, the organizations we represent, by the government and the agencies concerned, and most importantly, much can still be done by the informal settlers themselves to further our cause. Let us not waver now because as many of you have suspected, we are making our mark and we are making progress. Foreign partners have noticed. Media has noticed. The public at large is aware. All it takes is our patient resolve.

Thank you.

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