Thursday, December 10, marks the 67th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly, which recognized that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
One of those inalienable human rights is the right to rest. Article 24 of the Declaration states that: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
But what use is such a right if you don’t have a home where you can lay your weary head?
Housing, in fact, is also a human right. It’s included in Article 25 as a component on the right to an adequate standard of living. Yet, too often the rights of the world’s homeless aren’t respected.
As the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha is an independent expert, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, who monitors the right to housing and examines violations of the right to housing across the globe. Van Winkle’s spoke with Farha to get her perspective on human rights, homelessness and the right to rest.
How do you view the human rights to rest and to housing? Is it possible to respect the right to rest, but ignore the right to housing?
Human rights are indeed interrelated and indivisible. Housing is a “cornerstone” right and fundamental to an approach that begins with the dignity, equality and security of the human person. Narrow interpretations that focus on housing as a commodity, or housing that only provides a roof over one’s head, have been rejected under international human rights law. Rather, the right to housing has long been understood as the right to live somewhere in peace, security and dignity.
We all need sleep to survive and in order to rest we need adequate shelter for protection. Homelessness is an example of an extreme violation of the right to housing. People who “sleep rough” are fraught with a constant struggle to find, or create, a space where they can sleep. Many housing rights cases reference sleep and as such, draw the direct connection between these two basic needs.
That being said, to my knowledge, Article 24 of the Declaration hasn’t been the subject of a lot of discussions and advocacy.
Do any other international human rights agreements address these concerns?
There are many. The right to housing appears in the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Rights of the Child, the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination.
Fewer agreements mention the right to rest, just the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on the Rights of the Child.
It’s often cities that criminalize homelessness. At least one has banned sleeping on public transit, another blasted bagpipe music to prevent people from sleeping in public. Do efforts like these run afoul of the Declaration of Human Rights or other international agreements that guarantee the right to adequate housing?
It is important to note the difference between the UN Declaration of Human Rights and international covenants. The covenants are legally binding, whereas the UN Declaration is more a statement of intention and agreement of principles.
Once a country ratifies a covenant, that country is bound to international law as outlined by that covenant. And the responsibility does not end with the national (federal) government: International human rights obligations extend to all levels of government within their allocated sphere of responsibilities, including local (city) and subnational (state) governments.
International human rights law is clear that the criminalization, stigmatization and discrimination against people who are homeless is a violation and requires immediate action on the part of governments to refrain from engaging in such activities and to take immediate steps to address it.
In your travels, what’s the most inspiring response to homelessness you’ve seen?
This is difficult to answer. To be honest, there haven’t been enough human rights-oriented solutions to addressing homelessness. That being said, I am always moved when groups of homeless people mobilize to claim their rights. And this is something that has happened in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, India and many other places.
Your lifestyle must result in a lot of sleepless nights and jet-lagged days. How do you ensure that you get to rest?
It is definitely a challenge. In fact, I was up almost all of last night trying to finalize my report on homelessness and violations of human rights, which I will present to the UN Human Rights Council in early March.
I try to be very present in everything I do. So ,when I sleep, I sleep. When I am with my kids, I’m in their world. Doesn’t mean I get a lot of sleep, but at least my mind is focused.
If could ask everyone to take one action to commemorate International Human Rights Day and honor the spirit and intent of the right to housing, what would it be?
So often the right to housing gets lost or is invisible, especially in light of market-driven interests in housing and property. We have to push back on that. Housing is a right not a commodity. And it’s governments at all levels who are responsible for ensuring that. So, if I had one ask, it would be for people to get louder about the right to housing, and to articulate that publicly, and to make demands of their governments.
As a small thing, I’d like to see the #Right2Housing trending on twitter. It may seem small or insignificant to some people, but without people using this language or asking for their right to housing, changes at the ground level won’t happen.
And I’d love if a celebrity would step forward and lend their name to a human rights campaign to end homelessness globally. It’s a world-wide phenomenon and the most egregious violation of human rights that can be solved, collectively.