Advocating for the Human Right to Housing: Notes from the United States


On March 4, 2005, a panel of witnesses appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to present testimony on the “situation of the right to adequate housing in the Americas.” The hearing, which was “thematic” rather than adversarial, focused on three countries: Brazil, Canada, and the United States. For the U.S. groups involved in the hearing, it was both the culmination of a long process and a key step forward in an emerging new strategy: the use of human rights law and documents to advance advocacy in the United States. As an event focused on housing rights, the hearing marked a milestone in the human rights effort. In human rights work, advocating for economic and social rights is especially challenging. In the United States, economic and social rights are also the areas in which human rights approaches may seem most compelling, and most needed. Commentators often describe the U.S. legal framework as consisting of negative rights that protect individuals from government interference, rather than positive rights that require government action for the benefit of individuals. International human rights law, however, considers all human rights to be interdependent, and delineates a framework that encompasses not only civil and political rights but also economic and social rights. Indeed, human rights law directly addresses many of the issues at the heart of U.S. advocacy on homelessness and poverty. For example, numerous human rights instruments recognize the human right to housing, define its components, and describe the obligations it imposes; these obligations include, increasingly, measures to address the problem of homelessness. Recent years have seen both important new developments in this body of law internationally, and increased attention to it by U.N. committees and other international bodies. Advocates in other countries, including countries with legal and economic structures similar to those of the United States, such as Canada, are incorporating human rights strategies into their domestic advocacy on homelessness and housing. In the United States, a small but growing group of advocates is beginning to explore the use of human rights strategies in domestic advocacy on a range of issues encompassing civil and political, as well as economic and social, rights.

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