South Asia tremor must reinforce resolve to work towards development of safe housing standards, rights expert says
The following statement was issued today by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Miloon Kothari:
In my capacity as Special Rapporteur on adequate housing appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights, I wish to join in the expression of sincere condolences and solidarity to all those individuals and families affected by the earthquake that took place on 8 October 2005. The earthquake has resulted in injury and an enormous loss of human life in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the North-West Frontier Province and Indian-administered Kashmir. I wish to express my profound dismay at the severe damage that occurred in Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Rawalakot, Uri, Tangdhar and other localities, towns and villages, now in ruins, where millions of individuals and families while struggling to rescue loved ones, find themselves homeless or surviving in inadequate and insecure housing and living conditions.
According to recent estimates, the earthquake has resulted in more than 35,000 deaths and over 50,000 injured in northern Pakistan and India. These estimates are expected to rise with the clearance of debris and rubble from collapsed buildings, often in remote areas. Moreover, an estimated three million affected people are in urgent need of shelter, pending reconstruction of homes, as well as food and water. Reports also indicate that people are fleeing villages destroyed by the earthquake to seek refuge in larger cities, making them prone to living in inadequate conditions. International aid is critically required and it is encouraging to note that assistance efforts are being made, including by the United Nations Disaster Management Team and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.
The human right of everyone to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living is enshrined in article 11(1) of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 'Habitability' is one necessary element of this human right. According to the General Comment 4 of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, "(a)dequate housing must be habitable, in terms of providing the inhabitants with adequate space and protecting them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health [...] and structural hazards. [...] The physical safety of occupants must be guaranteed as well." I would like to stress that the standards dictated by 'habitability', including durability of homes to withstand earthquakes and other disasters, should guide the reconstruction efforts in the affected areas in northern Pakistan and India.
This tragedy must reinforce the resolve of all international actors, including UN agencies and programmes, States, civil society and the private sector, to work towards the progressive development of safe housing standards worldwide, including compliance with building standards based on the fulfillment of the right to adequate housing. Such measures could help ensure that the loss of life, human suffering, and homelessness resulting from natural disasters are minimized in the future, especially given the strong link between poverty and vulnerability to natural hazards. Positive lessons from rebuilding from previous tragedies such as in Gujarat, India and Bam, Iran must be adopted in the aftermath of the current tragedy in Pakistan and India, including active participation of local people and appropriately trained masons in the rebuilding process.
The impacts of the earthquake on women have been particularly severe. Relief and rehabilitation must be carried out in a gender-sensitive manner. Similarly, the rights of children must be upheld while taking care of their special needs, in particular their psychological and emotional needs. Such efforts must urgently ensure that the children that have survived do not continue to die due to exposure to the cold.
In the process of rebuilding the lives and homes of those affected, it is vital that immediate humanitarian needs be complemented with post-disaster relief and long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes based on international human rights standards See Compilation of Human Rights Standards for Post Disaster Rehabilitation prepared by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) and Peoples Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur. Compilation available at: www.pdhre.org. Such standards must include non-discriminatory access to relief and rehabilitation, mechanisms that ensure transparency and accountability as well as provisions for active participation of survivors. This cannot be stressed enough with last year's Asian tsunami still fresh in our memories. Tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and India are still living in inadequate shelters and continue to be denied access to information and participation in planning and decision-making processes related to rehabilitation.
I strongly encourage the international community to intensify its efforts to assist the Governments of Pakistan and India to rebuild affected towns and villages, in fulfillment of its responsibilities under international human rights law with respect to international cooperation and the Millennium Development Goal 8 on developing a 'Global Partnership for Development'. I would also urge international donors to honor the pledges they are now making.
All actors involved in relief and rehabilitation work must undertake efforts to make sure that the grave mistakes made in post-disaster experiences of the past are not repeated. This must be done by ensuring that human rights standards form the basis of reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, thereby upholding the survivors' right to dignity and to adequate conditions of living.