They've made an important first step.
The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, along with the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, issued a press statement this week outlining serious concerns about U.S. government actions post-Katrina. The unusual statement followed a Geneva meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to discuss the most recent U.S. periodic report. Shadow reports from human rights NGOs and representatives of indigenous peoples documented the continuing displacement, racial discrimination, shortages of health and human services, and labor abuses still pervasive in the Gulf region. (In photo below left, the U.S. delegation meets with NGO representatives. For more on this issue, see, e.g., "Race-ing Human Rights" and posts by Diane Amann and Jaya Ramji-Nogales previously posted on IntLawGrrls.)
Housing rights activists have been protesting the closing of public housing units in predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods in New Orleans (below right). They charge that some housing stock can be renovated rather than bull-dozed and that rebuilding plans do not provide for replacement of lost public housing units one-for-one.
The UN Statement captures the Catch-22 facing many New Orleans residents or former residents. There is a shortage of adequate, affordable housing thereby making it difficult or impossible for some former residents to return. Yet, if housing is to be repaired or rebuilt, government officials focus primarily on housing that is even less accessible to African-Americans and the poor (many of whom are women with children) than had previously been the case. Some officials then argue that far fewer public or low-income housing units are necessary because so few are able to return.
UN experts McDougall and Kothari noted that decisions by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local government
would lead to the demolition of thousands of public housing units affecting approximately 5,000 families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The demolition of the St. Bernard public housing development apparently commenced the week of 18 February 2008 and others are planned for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, and C.J. Peete public housing developments.
Although some believe social and economic matters such as health care, education, and adequate housing are only relevant for humanitarian efforts outside the U.S., these fundamental human rights should be respected and protected within U.S. borders as well. For example, Principle 28 of the morally and politically binding Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement emphasizes that those most affected by disaster have a right to return and to participate in rebuilding and restoration planning:
1. Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to
establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. Such authorities shall endeavour to facilitate the reintegration of returned or resettled internally displaced persons.
2. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration.
The Guiding Principles prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, language, and disability in the recognition or protection of the human rights and humanitarian principles it promotes. Further, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination prohibits (under Article 5(e)(iii)) racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to housing.
Natural disasters devastate all in their path, without regard to race, gender, age, or class. But the unconscionable performance of some U.S. federal, state, and local officials before, during, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrate that some disasters may have unnatural consequences. Systematic racial discrimination and neglect, policies that abandon millions to grinding poverty, and cynical disregard for the needs of persons with disabilities and the elderly can limit the ability to escape and can intensify the length and severity of the disaster's impact. Such governmental failures to comply with international humanitarian and human rights standards can have a disproportionate effect on marginalized or stigmatized groups in our society--racial and linguistic minorities, the poor, the elderly, women, and children. The risks to them cannot be taken for granted by the U.S. government or any other. Governments must undertake affirmative measures to ensure that those groups likely to be disproportionately affected by emergencies can fully participate in planning, resource allocation, and rebuilding efforts. That is the only way to protect their human rights fully.