Human rights and the New Urban Agenda

As the world quickly urbanizes, specific human rights tools and approaches will need to be developed — and used.


Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on cities, will set urbanization strategy for the coming two decades. Yet it will also be the last in a series of major global summits that will, hopefully, pave the way for a broader paradigm shift in implementing sustainable development, especially in urban settings.

The roots of the urban agenda can be traced back to 1972 and a landmark conference on the “human environment” held in Stockholm. There, the international community for the first time recognized the importance of the natural and man-made environment for the enjoyment of basic human rights — and the right to life itself. A few years later, the Habitat I conference finally put human settlements — in other words, the man-made environment — at the core of the international agenda.

Despite the intervening four decades, today we seem to remain far from sustainable human settlements and sustainable urban development. With the growing challenges of urbanization, including rising inequalities, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation and climate change, the global community today faces a very tough task: To provide a framework for individual and collective action for sustainable urban development that leaves no one behind and that respects and protects the environment.

Yet even as we take in the enormity of this task, we are leaving aside some potent and critical tools. The use of human rights instruments has not been prominent, either as guiding principles for sustainable urban development, as tools for integrating the three “dimensions” of sustainable development — the social, economic and environmental aspects — or for resolving the conflicting rights and interests that inevitably arise. Indeed, at many stages these instruments appear to have been overlooked entirely.

By 2030, some 6 out of every 10 people will likely live in a city. By 2050, this proportion is estimated to rise even higher, to around 70 percent. Such an increase will also mean that most cities will be made up primarily of youths, a section of the population that often requires a special consideration of rights issues.

On the one hand, then, Habitat III and its outcome strategy, the New Urban Agenda, will need to provide a clear basis for action for addressing human rights violations in urban areas. On the other, it will also be important for this agenda to ensure that all citizens, especially marginalized young people, are able to enjoy their rights, to influence governance and decision-making, and to improve their lives and cities.

This is a key concern throughout what’s being referred to as the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It is important to acknowledge that the final draft of the core of this new agenda, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), does have a reference on human rights. For the first time within the development deliberations, that draft explicitly states that “this is an Agenda which encompasses all human rights.”

“Human rights instruments have not been prominent as guiding principles for sustainable urban development. Indeed, at many stages these have been overlooked entirely.”

This is not to say that references to human rights were unheard of in previous development negotiations. For example, the outcome document from the 1992 Earth Summit even called for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Until now, however, there has been ambiguity on the relationship between human rights and sustainable development, especially in regard to the means of implementation.

The current negotiations are thus making an important acknowledgement, as there have been well-documented patterns of human rights violations in urban development. These include forced evictions, urban informalities, weak governance, and increased violence and criminality in cities. Therefore, when addressing compliance with international rights treaties, it is increasingly important that the urban context is taken into specific account, and to ensure the application of a rights-based approach to urban development.

Ensuring that the full spectrum of human rights can be enjoyed during processes of urbanization, as well as providing a response to violations, will require specific action from the legal and human rights community. In particular, advocates will need to develop principles on the application of human rights law in sustainable development and urbanization that can help in interpreting human rights in the context of sustainable development and urbanization.

This would mean, for instance, promulgating human rights as a core component within urban governance. It would also require deepening the understanding of the relationship and interdependence between human rights and urbanization, especially in the context of inequality, poverty and climate change. Finally, advocates will need to work to develop a comprehensive framework of instruments, tools and mechanisms for the legal empowerment of urban citizens and their access to justice.

Inclusion and equity

Another key feature of the new SDGs, which are to be finalized in September, is a standalone goal specifically on cities. This is proposed Goal 11, the urban SDG, which seeks to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Within this goal we have full or partial affirmation of the right to an adequate standard of living as well as the rights to housing, water, participation, development, freedom of movement, a healthy environment and others.

As currently proposed, however, Goal 11 does not include a very strong reference to equality. This is despite the fact that the issue is a core part of several other global discussions. For instance, one of the UN-Habitat Urban Dialogues, stakeholder forums taking place throughout July and eventually feeding directly into the New Urban Agenda, focuses specifically on issues of social cohesion, inclusion and equity.

Inclusion, equality and equity are related concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are significant distinctions between them that must not be overlooked. This will be especially important when developing interventions for achieving the SDGs and their indicators — the metrics, still under development, by which progress on each goal will be measured.

Therefore, the success of the implementation of Goal 11 — and, eventually, that of the New Urban Agenda — will depend on ensuring a series of new requirements around equality, protection of urban rights and empowerment of citizens.

First, we must ensure that equality remains at the centre of all development planning. This includes the equality of opportunities as well as the distribution and allocation of resources and services for achieving equal results and outcomes. It also includes the equality of participation in the political, social, cultural, environmental and economic lives of each individual city and human settlement.

Second, it is important to recognize that, today, the protection of rights for urban populations remains weak or unclear. Despite the fact that the proposed SDGs have an explicit urban goal, nearly all of the rest of the goals have important urban components, as well. After all, much of the development, economy and life of most nations today takes place in cities. Indeed, cities have always been a centre of development and the context of where much of the fastest changes take place.

However, the rapidity of today’s urbanization, both planned and spontaneous, has underscored the fact that the city is not only a matter of spatial, economic and social organization and structure. It’s also a matter of quality of life and well-being of an urban area’s citizens — the so-called liveable city. In most parts of the world, the city is a need rather than a want.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the universal articulation of what’s known as the Right to the City is emerging, both within the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. What remains unclear, however, is the scope and the content of that right. For example, the World Charter for the Right to the City defines this as the “equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity and social justice”. (“Usufruct” is a legal term that refers to the right to use or enjoy something.)

The charter suggests that an understanding of this right would open a door for new urban policies. Currently, however, the protection of the Right to the City and other urban-specific rights remains questionable.

Nonetheless, in the long term, sustainable cities are essential for the enjoyment of human rights. Therefore, within the process leading up to the Habitat III, a human rights-based approach to the New Urban Agenda must strengthen discussions on the practical implementation and protection of urban rights, including the emerging Right to the City.

Third and finally, in order for any of this to happen and take hold, intensive work will be required around the legal empowerment of urban citizens, especially the urban poor and youths. Without empowered citizens, after all, sustainable cities and human settlements are simply not possible.

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Ivana Savić

Ivana Savić is executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Development Studies (CHRDS), in Belgrade, Serbia. Between 2009 and 2014, she was one of the organizing partners for the U. N. Major Group for Children and Youth, with a mandate to coordinate and facilitate young people’s participation in multiple international sustainability negotiations. Ivana is also a member of the UNDP Civil Society Advisory Committee and CIVICUS Youth Advisory Group.