“Sorry if I arrived late and I haven’t been able to follow your talk, but I left my headset for interpretations in another room.” Thus the person representing UN-Habitat began the dialogue with civil society organisations at the World Urban Forum.
Not bad for a start, all the more so because, for more than two hours, the participants had been criticizing the veto in the formal debate of hot topics such as the evictions from and land grabbing, or the support of UN-Habitat for the total commodification of towns, which contradicts the ‘human rights’ approach which should be its fundamental raison d’être.
“But don’t worry,” continued this woman, “because partnerships are important to UN-Habitat, as shown by the agreement we have just signed with Coca-Cola1 to give fresh water to a million people.”
At these words of praise, the room froze: this amounts, in effect, to a partnership with a multinational, the target of numerous boycott campaigns2 , accused, among other things, of having used paramilitaries to violate the rights of workers and of stealing water from the poor.
What’s worse is the fact that the Coca-Cola stand was so well received, while members of the USF were forced by armed guards to take off their t-shirts with the logo of the Zero Evictions Campaign at the entrance to the WUF.3
Even worse is the cancellation of UN-Habitat’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions, in spite of the appeal by its Governing Council. This commendable example of partnership with civil society could have acted as a real counterforce to the human drama of forced evictions throughout the world. In addition, the indicator on evictions and land security has been removed from the Millennium Development Goal indicators. Without these tools, severe violations of human rights, often caused by development policies, including those based on public-private partnerships, are not taken into account, either to prevent them or to find solutions.
Worse still is the show, the propaganda that attempts to conceal the commodification of the commons, both social and natural, whether it is the mantra that appears to animate the proposed partnership, as at Rio +20 and at the WUF in Naples; or the public sector handing over the keys to the city and its land to the private sector, the thieves of our future, when democracy will be forced to surrender to the dictatorship of finance.
In exchange for what? The resources necessary to exit the global, financial and urban crisis, or so the propaganda claims.
But can we – can we still – take seriously the recommendations proposed by the very people who are responsible for this crisis? Yet more neoliberal recipes which depend on privatisation, instead of paying for what they themselves have extracted.
A nightmare? Or excessive pessimism?
Unfortunately, in reality things have already gone much further, as shown by the proposed ‘charter cities’4 due to be implemented in the Honduras. Even more special than the ‘special zones’ in China, these towns would be real internal colonies, because the sovereignty of these territories, together with their legal status and the running of their justice and police systems, would be completely sold off, either to investors or to other countries.5 In order to do this, following the coup d’état in 2009, a modification to the Constitution has recently been voted through.
Has UN-Habitat uttered one word of criticism?
Or, instead, are these “charter cities” the desired future of cities, hidden behind the Manifesto for the City 6 , backdrop of Habitat III in 2016?
From inhabitants organisations, civil society, local authorities and the democratic governments of the whole world, in order to defeat this catastrophic approach, we need a commitment to change the tendency towards commodification as the way out of the crisis.
It’s about saving the planet through democracy and supporting the proposal for an alternative urban social pact, based on human rights and the environment, as well as on the responsibility of all these participants who are the creators and governors of the territories, rather than the clients of multinationals.
UN-Habitat must take note and change its approach immediately, relying on inhabitants, public authorities, and experts on the city, or the three foundations: our cities and territories, our mother earth.
For these reasons, without waiting for the World Urban Forum in Medellin in 2014, UN-Habitat should consider the creation of an advisory body made up of members of civil society and popular movements, such as FAO has put in place. During this time, UN-Habitat cannot object to the re-introduction of the indicator on forced evictions, nor to the creation of an ad hoc multi-actor task force, with real responsibility and authority.
In the short-term, without question, they must clearly state their official opposition to the idea of ‘charter cities’.