Human Or Housing Right?

Thousands of people in developing countries are at risk of being evicted forcibly from places they describe as their homes.

Forced evictions, according to experts, would make them vulnerable to other human rights violation.

Data released by the UN-Habitat indicate that about a billion people around the world are slum dwellers.

Most poor rural dwellers are not part of the 828,000,000 people, who live in slums across the world.

Out of Ghana’s total population of over 24 million, 4.8 million are slum dwellers, representing 45 per cent of urban population according to the People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements.

The supporters of human rights around the world particularly Amnesty International, are championing the fight for the housing rights of people, who live in slum areas.

In line with this, Amnesty International has called on governments in Africa, in particular, to appreciate the internationally-recognized rights of their citizenry.

Forced evictions are endemic in Africa and every year hundreds of thousands of people are rendered homeless, making them vulnerable to a host of other human rights abuses.

A forced eviction is the removal of persons from their homes or land they occupy against their will without legal protections and other safeguards.

Under international law, evictions may be carried out only as a last resort, once all feasible alternatives have been explored, and only if procedural and legal safeguards are in place.

These include genuine consultation with the affected people, prior adequate and reasonable notice, adequate alternative housing and compensation for all losses, safeguards on the execution of evictions, and access to legal remedies and procedures, including access to legal aid where necessary.

Governments are also required to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to other human rights violation as a result of eviction.

Though it is agreed that not every eviction that is carried out constitutes a forced eviction, it is a violation of the rights of the victims if all the legal safeguards and protections required under international law are not complied with and if the use of force is used.

In Ghana and other parts of Africa, many people live in slums and informal settlements and are not able to access  essential services such as sanitation, clean water, primary education, and health care.

Amnesty International observed that in most places state-provided security is almost non-existent and women and children are all too frequently exposed to abuses.

“In many countries the authorities ignore the plight of people living in slums and informal settlements and exclude them from national plans and budgets.”

These failures constitute a violation of the right to adequate housing and access to water, sanitation, education and health and equal protection of the law, among others.

“Governments in Africa must end forced evictions, ensure equal access to public services and promote the active participation of people living in informal settlements and slums in decisions and processes that impact their lives.”

In February 2011, Amnesty International Ghana urged city authorities to put a stop to the eviction of families living along the railway lines in the nation’s capital.

Thousands of railway dwellers in Accra are expected to  make way for the revamping of the railway system but Amnesty International thinks many of those people have nowhere else to go and will be rendered homeless.

Plans have been developed without consulting the railway dwellers on how they will be affected and there are no plans for resettlement or compensation.

“Their eviction will only deepen their poverty,” said Amnesty International Ghana.

Although Amnesty International appreciates the authorities’ intention to re-develop the railway system to develop the country, the government of Ghana must ensure that development programme are carried out in a manner that protects the rights of all people who may be affected.

In Chad and Kenya, tens of thousands of people also face forceful eviction from their homes without due process, adequate notice, consultation, alternative housing or compensation.

A few victims in Chad went to court and won cases against the government but few court decisions were enforced.

The Chadian government, according to Amnesty International must stop evicting people from informal settlements in N’Djamena until safeguards are put in place to ensure that all evictions comply with international human rights standards.

Amnesty International has therefore urged all governments in Africa to promote sustainable urban development by respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to adequate housing and other human rights of people living in informal settlements and slums.

In particular, Amnesty International calls on governments to take immediate measures to ensure a minimum degree of security of tenure for all people who lack such protection in genuine consultation with the affected groups.

It would be recalled that prior to the Session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), held between April 11 and 15 April 2011 on the theme Sustainable Urban Development through Expanding Equitable Access to Land, Housing, Basic Services and Infrastructure, African governments were asked to protect the housing rights of their citizenry went up.

Organisations such as Amnesty said the governments must end forced evictions and adopt guidelines for evictions, based on the UN Basic principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, which comply with international human rights law.

Governments must also ensure that people living in slums have equal access to water, sanitation, health care, housing, education and policing that complies with human rights as well as ensure the active participation of people living in slums in any upgrading, planning and budgeting processes that affect their lives.

To improve the lot of slum dwellers, the Ghana Chapter of Amnesty international thinks there should be a change in the nation’s laws.

It believes that Ghana’s constitution must be amended to protect housing rights and ensure that tens of thousands of slum dwellers are not threatened,” Amnesty International said in a document released today.

“We don’t sleep well. Living under threat of forced describes how Ghana’s 4.8 million slum dwellers are often deprived of basic services such as clean water and basic health care as well as having no protection under domestic law to prevent them from being forcibly evicted.

“Ghana has signed seven regional and international human rights treaties that require it to fulfil the right to adequate housing but this is not reflected in its domestic laws,” said Laurence Amesu, director of Amnesty International Ghana.

“This glaring discrepancy must be urgently addressed. Ghana’s government should not make paper promises it has no intention of fulfilling.”

The right to adequate housing has been explicitly recognised as a human right in international treaties including several to which Ghana is a party.

Forced evictions contravene the treaties, which Ghana has signed.

They include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The rest are the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

Ghana became a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights in 2000.

The treaty obliges it to take “whatever the necessary steps” to acknowledge the rights of people to adequate housing.

The threat to evict people from their homes without measures to ensure that those affected do not become homeless constitutes a violation.

In Ghana most economic, social and cultural rights are spelt out in Chapter 6 as directive principles which are not enforceable in a court of law.

In a 2002 case brought against the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) by slum dwellers who were expected to be evicted, the judge ruled that “the mere eviction of plaintiffs who are trespassers…does not in any way amount to an infringement of their rights as human beings.”

“Forced evictions make Ghana’s housing shortage worse and drive more people into homelessness and poverty,” said Laurence Amesu.

“People who are forcibly evicted face homelessness and destitution and have no choice but to live in the ruins of their former homes or move to another slum area.”

Slum dwellers interviewed by Amnesty International described the fear and insecurity of living in areas marked for redevelopment.

Thousands of people living in informal settlements next to railway lines in Accra are to be evicted to make way for a new rail system. Some have lived there for more than 17 years.

“One day they will just wake up and come and demolish. Perhaps tomorrow they will come. We don’t sleep well,” Coffie Nissar, who lives in the area, told Amnesty International.

By Emelia Ennin Abbey

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