Preparatory Committee for Istanbul + 5: Achievements and Pending Issues



Ambassador of Colombia, Permanent Rep. to UNCHS (Habitat) and Chairman, Preparatory Committee for Istanbul+5


Hosted by

The Center for Urban Research and Policy

-School of International and Public Affairs-

Columbia University - New York

Organized by

The International Research Foundation for Development

 Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

It is a great honor for me to address this momentous International Conference on an “Urbanizing World and United Nations Human Habitat II”, that has been organized by the Center for Urban Research and Policy of Columbia University as a parallel event to the Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations for an overall review and appraisal of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, which was adopted in Istanbul five years ago by more than 170 nations and endorsed by an enormous number of local authorities, inter-governmental, non governmental and other international organizations and millions of concerned citizens of the whole planet. 

I had the precious opportunity to participate in the Istanbul Conference as Co-chair of the Group of 77 and consequently got deeply involved in the negotiations of both the Habitat Agenda and the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements. Several years later, it was placed on my shoulders the huge responsibility of chairing the Preparatory Committee for the review and appraisal of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda five years after Istanbul, a review that is urgently needed since the implementation of this basic international instrument has not been easy, as was clearly established by the preparatory process.

It is imperative that the implementation of the Habitat Agenda proceeds swiftly at all levels throughout the world after Istanbul + 5; otherwise the human settlements problems that were identified at the Istanbul Conference and that today continue with greater intensity, will become unbearable. Lets take an overall view of some of the most pressing of those problems.

Regarding urbanization, the world’s 6 billion plus people will continue living more in cities than in the countryside, splitting soon into two equal parts the urban and rural sectors. Presently, the world is 47% urban, a figure that will continue increasing, and according to current predictions, will surpass 60% in the next 30 years. But the urbanization process is better understood if it is examined from the perspective of development and at the regional and national levels; in the developed world, the urbanization level is today 76% and will increase by an additional 7% in 30 years time, while in the developing world the present figure is 40% and will increase by an additional 16% in the same period. This rapid urbanization process in the developing world is frightening considering the limited financial resources available to developing countries for developmental purposes and the challenges of every nature that must be met to cater for those enormously increased urban populations. Looking separately at Africa, the situation is even worse; it will pass from being 38% urban to 55% in the next 30 years and the population living in cities will increase from approximately 300 million now to more than 765 million in the same period.

Things are being complicated further by steep migration rates from the rural areas to urban centers in many countries and from smaller to bigger cities, particularly in the developing world. This concentrates the population in a few cities or in a single city per country, demanding extreme efforts and financial resources to provide social services and all kinds of infrastructure to the growing populations, which generally become marginalized, transforming the big city into nothing more than a big slum. Of the 32 countries where a single city concentrates more than 40% of the country’s population, 24 belong to the developing world, 6 are countries with economies in transition and only two belong to the developed world. This corroborates the plight of the developing world, which is faced with the need to attend to housing and administrative and basic infrastructure problems of sprawling mega cities where poverty and many other social ills adversely affect the living environment.

Concerning housing, and taking Latin America and the Caribbean as an example, without pretending to cover the whole deficit but simply maintaining the present tendencies, it is expected that the region will build in the next five years nearly 17 million units, which contrasts with the 9.4 million required by the United States and Canada together and the 14.5 million estimated for all of Europe. As is usual in the current not so equitable world, those with just scarce resources will have to do much more to attend to their housing needs than what must be done by those that have access to much greater resources.

As for housing deficits, it is difficult to estimate them because it would be necessary to begin by clearly defining what constitutes appropriate or adequate housing and to establish if people that lack a so defined house could be considered as people lacking housing. Even without precision of terms, it is clear for everybody that millions of people, mainly children and the old and disadvantaged, live in the streets of cities of the world lacking any kind of housing, be it appropriate or inadequate. Absolute poverty continues to be an extremely critical problem in the whole planet; it is then very urgent to design and implement programs to attend to the basic necessities of those that wander in the streets with no promising future, especially children that grow in an environment dominated by illegal drugs, crime, other forms of corruption and unhealthy conditions. This situation constitutes a real time bomb that may soon bring further despair to our world.

Women’s marginalization is another of the serious problems that affects human settlements throughout the world; on the one hand, society assigns women a number of responsibilities that if not carried out, homes and society itself could not function, but on the other hand women are deprived of sharing on the benefits that result from their own work, being some times even denied access to education, property, recreation and free determination. Although the situation of women in most countries does not have the extremely negative characteristics just described, it must be recognized that even in those countries women are still discriminated against and that in practice their rights are considered more limited, leading women to accept non-equitable salaries because of fewer work opportunities made available to them. Efforts guided to achieving gender equality and equity should be enhanced by all governments until final solutions are fully applied to correct the injustices that have traditionally existed in this field.

I have described some of the problems that affect human settlements throughout the world, but for the sake of brevity have left out others not less important; solutions to all of them must be searched and applied by all governments with the assistance of the international organ created by governments themselves for this purpose, the United Nations Center for Human Settlements, UNCHS (Habitat).

After overcoming very difficult circumstances that hampered its work, the Center presents today a new face thanks to the successful revitalization process undertaken by its former Acting Executive Director, Dr. Klaus Töpfer, and continued with renewed impetus by the present ED, Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka; this process was positively supplemented by the reform of the agency, carried out by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 53/242. A welcomed result of the appropriate application of the new strategic vision recommended by the revitalization process is the promising way in which two global campaigns, one on security of tenure and the other on urban governance, are being launched. These campaigns fit strictly into the objectives of the Habitat Agenda adopted in Istanbul, that were defined as “Adequate Shelter for All” and “Sustainable Human Settlements in an Urbanizing World”. All governments and Habitat Agenda partners must contribute to set in motion and implement these campaigns, which translate into nothing else than the successful implementation of the Habitat Agenda, commitment made by the international community at Istanbul.

But the most critical matter for Habitat at this time is, without doubt, the successful staging and expected happy outcome of the Special Session of the General Assembly for an overall review and appraisal of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, which takes place this week in New York. This international conference, held in the form of a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, will search for ways to enhance and accelerate the implementation of the Habitat Agenda that has so far been very limited, in order that its principles and proposed actions become central objectives of all governments in the area of human settlements.

Representing Colombia and the Latin American and Caribbean Group, I had the honor to be elected Chair of the Preparatory Committee for this conference. As such, I presided over the three preparatory meetings and will chair also the informal consultations and the Committee of the Whole during the Special Session.

The Preparatory Committee held three meetings, one organizational and two substantive. Of these last two, the first one made little progress since the needed documentation, including the country reports on the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, the report of the Executive Director and the Secretariat’s first Draft of a Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium, were only in the process of being prepared. However, the meeting had the opportunity to conduct dialogues with local authorities and other partners, approved the agenda for the following session and started discussions on a few substantive issues, like the need for the strengthening of the family and the proposed Charter for Local Self Government.

Thanks to the staging of five regional preparatory meetings organized by UNCHS (Habitat) in cooperation with the regional economic commissions, the availability of a revised version in English of the Report of the Executive Director, plus the holding of an experts meeting in Vasteras, Sweden, to examine elements for the political declaration, the Second Substantive Session of the Preparatory Committee had all the necessary ingredients to proceed with negotiations of the major issues and to set the stage for the Special Session of the General Assembly. In addition to resolving organizational matters for the Special Session and attending to countries summary presentations on the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, the Second Substantive meeting started, and concluded in more than 90%, the pre-negotiations on the political and substantive declaration.

In order to accomplish the above, the Drafting Committee that had been originally created at the first substantive session re-initiated its work and was split into two groups seeking to facilitate discussions and to increase efficiency. This move proved to be very successful, since negotiations were concluded on time and the draft of the declaration became a clean and agreed document except for seven of the sixty-two paragraphs, that still keep partial or total brackets.

The Declaration is composed of four parts, as follows:

  1. Renewing the commitments from the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II).
  2. Welcoming progress in implementing the Habitat Agenda.
  3. Recognizing gaps and obstacles, and
  4. Undertaking further actions.

As mentioned above, there are still a number of issues that await further negotiations since there has been no agreement so far around them. These include the concepts of local self government; creation of a world solidarity fund to take care of poverty eradication; good governance and urban governance; durable solutions to the external debt of all developing countries; the application by the developed countries of 0.7% of their GNP’s to overall official development assistance; and finally, women’s rights to security of tenure, ownership, inheritance and entering into contractual agreements. This issues, although not many, will be very difficult to settle, since extensive negotiations in Nairobi were unable to reach consensus around them and cultural and political circumstances in several countries constitute an obstacle to making their positions more flexible.

Realizing the above and with the purpose of reaching a possible consensus before the Special Session begins, informal consultations will be held for two days, prior to the formal meeting. These informal consultations will also serve as the proper forum to discuss new and additional elements that may be introduced. Additionally, some apparently settled issues might be reopened, although this will be strongly discouraged by the chair.

If the above problems are overcome, one of the outputs of the meeting shall be the political declaration, which will constitute the core document of the special session of the Assembly, since it will provide the necessary political support for future work. In any event, the review and appraisal of the Habitat Agenda should be able to avoid any impasse and reaffirm the value and importance of the main goals of the Agenda, namely, “sustainable human settlements” and “adequate shelter for all”.

In this connection, the innovative Thematic Committee of the Special Session of the Assembly will be of particular interest in that it will give us an opportunity to learn about successful experiences and to establish an open dialogue among the main actors concerned with human settlements.

In conclusion, I wish to highlight what is generally believed should be reflected in the final results of this five-year review of the Habitat Agenda:

There is urgent need for a more aggressive implementation of the Habitat Agenda by all countries if we wish to live in cities that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

  • To attain the above, it is essential to count on the necessary financial resources. Here, domestic efforts must be complemented by international assistance and cooperation.
  • The special session of the General Assembly should send a clear and renewed political message on the commitments and obligations entered into at Istanbul in the field of human settlements.
  • The international community should support UNCHS (Habitat) to enable it to continue its work in a coordinated manner to cope with the challenges posed by the goal of having shelter for all and sustainable human settlements in this new century.
  • Finally, it is evident that the Habitat Agenda must be implemented in a spirit of partnership with the participation not only of national governments but also of local authorities, intergovernmental and non governmental organizations and civil society in general, so that, as the Istanbul declaration establishes, we can build together a world where everyone can live in a safe home with the promise of a decent life of dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope.

I thank you.