Human Rights are About Human Beings

By Sarah Kenningham (United Kingdom)

Human Rights are about human beings! Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, had to insist upon this point when taking questions from journalists at a press conference on the 11th to highlight the preliminary findings of her two-week monitoring visit  to the UK. TV cameras, journalists and campaigners were left jostling for position in the small room allocated for the conference thanks to the unfortunate (for him) remarks made by Grant Shapps, the Tory Party Chairman, on the radio this morning. It would seem that Mr. Shapps didn’t think that Ms. Rolnik had been invited by the UK government to come on her monitoring visit and that she shouldn’t, by the simple fact of being Brazilian, have the audacity to comment on the state of housing in the UK. In fact, the OFFICIAL visit had been arranged months ago as one of the two visits the Special Rapporteur does every year to different countries. The purpose is to prepare a report that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next year on any progression or regression in the UK regarding the right to adequate housing as enshrined in international conventions signed and ratified by the UK government.

Maybe Mr. Shapps should have done his homework.

“We are comparing the UK with the UK … not other countries in the world” Ms. Rolnik had to point out to the reporter from the Daily Mail (of course) who dared question again why she was focusing on the inadequacies in the UK housing system as opposed to those in her home country of Brazil where “they have slums and favelas”. Another journalist questioned the anecdotal nature of her evidence on the damage that is being caused by the bedroom tax and to her credit, and despite already having had her credibility and expertise called into question, this was the only topic that caused her to raise her voice in irritation.

“I have already seen the harm that it is doing so there is already a violation of rights. Human rights are about human beings!  If there is a danger of the bedroom tax harming even one person then it has to be suspended in order to avoid further violations!”

This is the point that housing policymakers and “experts” just fail to grasp sometimes. It’s about people’s lives – not a numbers game.  If you have so many under-occupied houses here and so many overcrowded  flats there then you can’t just move the people around to suit. The right to adequate housing is not simply about providing a roof over people’s heads at any cost, it’s about homes. It’s about the right to maintain family and community ties and provide a secure basis for the enjoyment of other rights.  This means things like being near to work, local health services, schools for the children and having enough money after rent left over for food and clothes.

Ms. Rolnik visited ATD Fourth World and many other groups and communities across the UK during her visit and heard first hand from vulnerable people who are feeling the impact of a combination of misguided welfare and housing policies over the past decade. The bedroom tax is the final straw that has broken the camel’s back of a housing system that was already under serious pressure from the shortage of social housing stock, an over-emphasis on home ownership, the lack of regulation of private sector rents and security of tenure. Ms. Rolnik doesn’t believe that the most vulnerable people in the UK should have to bear the heaviest burden in the housing crisis that this country is facing. She is holding the government to account in order to protect their rights and we applaud her for it.

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