Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) is a Geneva-based international non-governmental human rights organisation founded in 1994 by Scott Leckie as a foundation in the Netherlands (Stichting COHRE). COHRE maintains registered offices in the Americas (Brazil and the United States), the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka), Africa (Ghana) and Europe (Switzerland). These offices coordinate global, regional and local activities in pursuit of COHRE’s mission. COHRE’s mission is to ensure the full enjoyment of the human right to adequate housing for everyone, everywhere, including preventing forced evictions of persons, families and communities from their homes or lands.

COHRE has been granted Special Consultative Status by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC, 1999), and the Organisation of American States (OAS, 2002), and has participatory status with the Council of Europe (CoE, 2003) as well as Observer Status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHRP, 2003).

Through three regional programmes covering Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas, and five thematic programmes focussing on Women and Housing Rights; Forced Evictions; the Right to Water; Housing and Property Rights Restitution; and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Litigation, COHRE has joined forces with a global network of partner non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities and committed professionals, in pursuit of the goal of housing rights for everyone, everywhere.

However, the task is by no means easy. During more than a decade of promoting housing rights throughout the world, COHRE has learnt that there is no single methodology that can address the wide range of processes undermining the right to adequate housing. This is because the problem of housing rights is simply too pervasive, the causes too diverse, for blueprint responses or methodologies to be effective. For example, a particular housing rights violation, such as a mass forced eviction, could be the result of a locally administered development project that has been initiated by the national government, in the context of an externally enforced financial restructuring programme, and funded by international donor organisations. It could be caused by a combination of rapid urbanisation, pervasive tenure insecurity, and political conflict. It might be the consequence of inadequate legal protection for the poor. Again, it might be the result of preparations to host a so-called "mega-event" such as a world cup tournament or the Olympic Games.

A range of tools

Given this complexity, COHRE has developed and tested a range of tools, to be used in different combinations and at different levels, as each particular situation demands. These include:

1. Partnerships and joint strategies: COHRE’s work is based on the assumption that the role of the affected communities is of crucial importance in addressing housing rights violations. The poor themselves should be directly involved in formulating and implementing solutions and alternatives. This is not only because it is fair and just to involve communities in processes affecting them, but also because communities have a vital contribution to make, without which most housing-related projects simply will not succeed. In housing rights or eviction cases where COHRE becomes directly involved, COHRE therefore strives to build quality alliances and partnerships and to embark on joint campaigns with groups and support organisations working at community level.

Yet, given the diverse and complex nature of housing rights violations, working at community level is often not sufficient in itself. As national, regional and international action can be very effective in cases of major housing rights violations, COHRE also forms partnerships with organisations working at these broader levels. In addition, the following tools are also vitally important.

2. Fact-finding investigations: An invaluable tool in the struggle against housing rights violations is the collection of relevant, accurate information. COHRE regularly sends multi-disciplinary fact-finding teams to key focus countries. They typically conduct in-loco investigations, conduct interviews with the main role players, study relevant laws, policies and programmes and do any additional research required for an assessment of the nature and scope of land and housing rights violations in a particular situation. This would provide the basis for drawing up practical and viable recommendations and alternatives. These missions are usually conducted at the request of, and in collaboration with, local partners.

COHRE uses the draft fact-finding reports as tools for consultation and negotiations with key role-players, including government. This strategy has proven effective in convincing government to grapple with the extent of the violations and the implications of proceeding with current policies and practice, and also to generate creative thinking on possible alternatives. Once finalised, COHRE fact-finding reports are used as information resources for local human rights organisations and the affected communities; for lobbying the relevant government to introduce new policies, laws and programmes; and also to advocate for the cessation of specific violations and development of alternatives. Fact-finding reports are also very useful tools at regional and international level to place pressure on the relevant governments; and to form the basis of shadow reports for submission before UN human rights mechanisms and other regional and international bodies.

3. Advocacy: COHRE supports local groups and support organisations to mobilise and campaign against housing rights violations by issuing formal letters of protest to governments, presenting submissions to government missions, launching joint action campaigns, and exerting public pressure through media exposure. In cases of extreme and sustained violations, without any attempt by the governments concerned to take remedial steps, COHRE would consider including the country concerned in the list of housing rights violators as part of its Housing Rights Violator, Protector and Defender Awards, announced at the end of every year. This tool has proven remarkably effective in naming and shaming perpetrators of the worst housing rights violations, while at the same time highlighting positive efforts by governments and individuals to promote and protect the housing rights of communities.

4. Litigation: COHRE undertakes strategic litigation to enforce human rights standards, remedy past human rights violations and generate beneficial jurisprudence in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. To this end, COHRE partners with locally-based organisations to provide legal assistance. Such assistance includes legal advice for test cases at the domestic level, taking cases before international and regional judicial forums in the event that domestic courts fail to provide an adequate remedy, and capacity-building training and workshops for judges, lawyers and other human rights advocates.

5. Regional and International Bodies: Action at regional and international levels is an important tool to support national struggles addressing housing rights violations. In many instances, decisions issued at the United Nations level or by regional human rights mechanisms play an important role in changing a government policy or legislation, while also providing crucial support to groups and communities fighting forced evictions and other housing rights violations. With its International Secretariat in Geneva, COHRE regularly provides direct access to the United Nations for groups in the developing world to conduct specific advocacy and lobbying, get concrete decisions and recommendations helping them in their struggle, learn about the UN human rights machinery and get crucial contacts and supports for their case. COHRE also arranges petitions and presentations to regional bodies such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

6. Training: Building capacity is also important in the promotion of housing rights. Every year, COHRE engages in extensive training programmes with grassroots groups, NGOs, government officials, lawyers and judges. Training programmes are tailored to meet the needs of a particular target group and context. Community groups and support organisations are assisted to understand their rights and to develop strategies to realise those rights, including the formulation of poor-driven alternatives, participation in housing rights movements and the formulation of alternatives. Lawyers are trained to be more sensitive to the needs and the role of communities, and to incorporate international legal protections into their arguments. Government officials are introduced to the concept of housing as a human right, the importance of allowing affected communities to participate directly in their programmes, and lessons from international best practice. Judges are introduced to the provisions and importance of international law. In addition, the different groups are brought together to exchange ideas and, where appropriate, to develop joint strategies.

7. Promoting policy and legislative reform: COHRE also promotes policy and legislative reform at national, regional and international level, to ensure that housing rights and delivery frameworks and legal instruments are improved wherever possible.

The range of COHRE’s methodology and its capacity for achieving change in its focus countries through intensive efforts across the organisation can be briefly illustrated through the example of its recent work in Kibera, Kenya. COHRE helped prevent mass evictions in Kibera in 2004 by mobilising international civil society and institutions, applying pressure on government through lobbying of policy makers and embassies and providing legal and policy advice to Kenyan civil society. A fact-finding report, discussed with policy makers and communities, documented the challenge of tenure insecurity and provided recommendations, some of which have been taken up by the government. COHRE facilitated the participation of Kenyan housing rights groups in the review of Kenya’s performance by United Nations human rights bodies. COHRE provided training on housing rights for government, civil society and communities, which has led to the drafting of evictions guidelines by the government and the emergence of a cross-Kibera community campaign for access to basic services. It has provided support to local organisations on specialised issues such as litigation, women’s housing rights and on the right to water. The involvement of COHRE’s Asia-Pacific Programme in training in Kenya led to local NGOs and communities being inspired by techniques to resist evictions pioneered in South Asia.

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