Statement by Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Launch of Exhibition on Cities

Jul 31, 2014

Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure for me join you today for this reception and to open the excellent exhibition on cities that can foster sustainable human development and enable city-dwellers to live healthy and fulfilling lives. In particular, I would like to thank the UNDP for organizing this event in collaboration with the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation and the World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty.

This event demonstrates the acknowledgment that urbanization is not only an economic and a political process but, above all, one that is about people. And because it is about people, urbanization must be grounded in human dignity and human rights. Your caption today speaks of the commitment of the UN to the human rights of people in urban centres.
Every day, new dwellers arrive in cities that are already bursting at the seams — including migrants, and asylum seekers who are often destitute, having sometimes suffered the sudden erosion of their livelihoods because of land grabs, conflicts, lack of unemployment, violence and abuse, or simply in pursuit of their dreams.

Too frequently, urbanization comes together with the creation of slums and shanty towns. Teeming with millions of women, men and children these slums are a universe unto themselves characterized by spatial segregation of inhabitants from the rest of the city. These urban sprawls are typically characterized by inadequate living and housing conditions, poverty, and an absence of basic facilities and services such as water, sanitation, electricity, health and education.

Therefore this work – the work of integrating human rights into the process of urban development, is vital. With more than half of the world's people living in cities today, and their population growing exponentially, urbanization is a pressing human rights issue of the first order.

I should emphasize that for the United Nations, adequate housing, clean water, education and healthcare, and all other needs that define an adequate standard of living, are not mere commodities provided by the market or gifts of charity. Rather they are an integral part of the inalienable and indivisible set of human rights which all people enjoy by virtue of being human, regardless of their gender, social status, caste creed, color or belief.

OHCHR will continue to work all relevant stakeholders to mainstream human rights into the urbanization agenda. Development efforts that follow a rights-based approach to urbanization must include, in addition to affordable, adequate and accessible services for the enjoyment of rights, the right to adequate housing itself. This right entails security of tenure and protection from eviction and displacement, and access to services which are adequate and affordable. The full realization of this right is also about freedom from homelessness, poverty, and discrimination.

Urban and spatial development should be done with and for city dwellers. This means wide consultation with and participation of all inhabitants, not just the powerful and wealthy. This participatory development also requires transparent decisions and processes that include mechanisms for complaints and dispute management. Equitable and sustainable urbanization is a process that must ensure full accountability on the part of duty-bearers.

And above all, urban development must address the root causes of prejudice and discrimination that violate the principles of equality and human dignity. Too often, the policies and processes of urban development fail to consider the needs and aspirations, and sometimes even the very existence of the poor, of people living in informal settlements, migrants, refugees, people living with disabilities or older persons. The voices of women and of marginalized groups in particular are routinely rendered silent by urban developers in pursuit of profit.

Surely, urban development went it violates the fundamental human rights of inhabitants cannot even be economically and politically productive in the long run. It certainly is not equitable or sustainable.

In closing, I would like to commend the organizers of today’s event for highlighting the need for all urban dwellers to be empowered to live productive lives in accordance with their dreams and aspirations. If this genuinely continues to be the goal of urbanization in the decades to come, we will ensure that the powerful framework of human rights continues to be woven into the making of our cities.

I have full confidence that despite the many daunting challenges, we will turn our cities into spaces of equal opportunity, human security and dignity for all.

Thank you.