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3 Questions: Balakrishnan Rajagopal on recognizing homelessness as a human rights violation

Associate professor of law and development will address housing challenges in a new appointment as special rapporteur for UN Human Rights Council.
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Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal was appointed special rapporteur on adequate housing for the UN Human Rights Council.
Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal was appointed special rapporteur on adequate housing for the UN Human Rights Council.

Balakrishnan Rajagopal is an associate professor of law and development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. He is the founder of MIT’s Displacement Research and Action Network (DRAN), which leads engagement and research with communities, non-governmental organizations, and local and national authorities.

On May 1, Rajagopal took on a new role — special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing — through an appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Special rapporteurs are independent experts selected for their independence, impartiality, and objectivity. They often conduct fact-finding missions to assess and verify complaints by alleged victims of human rights violations. Initial appointments are for three years. He recently spoke on human rights in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and how he plans to address other challenges in his new appointment.

Q: What is the role of the UN special rapporteur? How does the UN address human rights challenges through mechanisms such as these? 

A: Special rapporteurs are independent experts who are voted in to lead work in specific thematic areas — such as housing, food, freedom of expression, and minority rights — by states at the UN Human Rights Council. Rapporteurs are a kind of global watchdog attempting to hold states and other entities to account when they violate human rights. They also promote respect for international law and help develop the law further through their leadership. Rapporteurs have a public role in monitoring and holding to account states or other entities when violations of rights occur; they provide intellectual leadership for their thematic areas by reporting to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council; and they conduct visits to specific countries to assess their record of compliance with human rights relevant to their mandate. The multiple roles played by rapporteurs have generated new policies and laws, stopped ongoing human rights abuses, and provided important political and moral support for victims and organizations that work to protect human rights. States have come to rely on special rapporteurs quite a lot over the years. Their role is perceived as a “crown jewel” of the UN human rights system, in the words of the UN high commissioner for human rights. The information, analysis, and leadership provided by the rapporteurs is an important part of how states and civil society organizations have come to promote respect for human rights. The work done by the rapporteurs can be best seen as a form of public service at the global level.

Q: The global Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequate housing realities everywhere. In your recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, you suggest the United States could “reimagine the post-coronavirus world” to address housing as a human right. What first steps would you see city, state, or national leaders take to make this a reality?

A: Some of the first steps are under way. Many cities, counties, and states have issued temporary orders to halt evictions of renters or mortgage payers, and taken steps to assists homeless populations. These steps are very welcome. However, they are a temporary response induced by the pandemic. To become human rights responses, they need to be consolidated in the form of appropriate long-term changes in laws and policies. It is crucial that attitudes and beliefs change as well. Many in the United States do not imagine housing as a human right, and they view problems such as homelessness as a societal issue rather than a human rights violation. To change this, we need both policy/legal change and value change: one often — but not always — leads to the other. In the context of housing, the closest the U.S. has come to recognizing housing as a human right was during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, which recognized the “four freedoms,” and during the civil rights movement, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to gain economic justice for the poor led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. However, those moments came well before the emergence of the modern human rights movement and the thick network of international legal norms that underpin the movement. Today city, state, and national leaders must aim to make far-reaching policy and legal changes that protect housing as a human right. This means better tenant protections in law or policy, anti-eviction measures and social support for evictees, and much better regulation of the real estate and finance industries, which treat housing purely as a commodity, not as a right. National legislation on the rights of tenants is necessary and possible. These are examples of changes that leaders can make.

Q: Your mandate is broad, given how many nations grapple with evictions, inadequate housing, and homelessness. Will you focus on specific areas of concern, develop general guidelines, or attempt a combination of these? Since displacement and evictions in one country must be quite different from those in other countries, what challenges need to be overcome to address these differences?

A: As rapporteur, I will develop many thematic reports over the coming years, which will indeed focus on specific areas of concern, such as the increasing evidence of discrimination and segregation in housing around the world. The two reports to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council provide an opportunity to develop and publish these findings. The reports often result from extensive consultations and knowledge gathering, featuring contributions from states, NGOs, national institutions, local governments, academics, and other international agencies. General guidelines are also developed often by rapporteurs as part of their reporting. For example, previous rapporteurs on housing have developed guidelines on tenure security, or on implementation challenges of housing as a human right. Naturally, given the differences among countries these guidelines are broadly drafted, capable of being adjusted and applied in a variety of local circumstances. Although the mandate is broad, the work of the rapporteur is of general interest and applicability in different countries because it seeks to create, reinforce, or apply global norms. Regarding displacement and evictions, the main differences between countries arise from the nature of the causes of evictions and the type of legal, political, and economic systems. In some countries, displacement is mainly due to armed conflict or natural disasters, while in others it is the result of evictions in the housing market or development projects. Naturally, the responses must consider these differences to overcome challenges of addressing the right to housing, which has implications for the design of government programs and policies and resource availability.  

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