The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are elaborations of the rights prescribed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948. This Declaration has become part of international customary law and all member States of the UN are expected to treat it as such. The two Covenants were originally meant to be one. However, during the Cold War, their content became entangled in geopolitics and while they both came into force in 1976, the ICCPR was seen to be in the main interest of the West, whereas the ICESCR became the document mostly promoted by the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Since then, the UN has expended considerable effort to clarify the meaning and importance of these Covenants in order to specify more precisely the obligations of governments for the realisations of all the rights therein. For example, article 2 of ICESCR states: “... each State Party... undertakes to takes steps... with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”. In answer to a common claim by governments that they simply do not have the resources to address all the rights in the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has handed down a number of General Comments clarifying how State parties are to deal with “progressive realisation”. In particular, the commentary clarifies that even in times of few resources, the State is still obliged to embark on ensuring that human rights are realised without delay. It has done this with many of the Articles in ICESCR.
The universal right to adequate shelter is included in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). To clarify the general intent of this Article, the ICESCR Committee has written General Comment 4 and has gone further by addressing forced evictions in General Comment 7. In addition, the UN has adopted the Maastricht Guidelines and the Limburg Principles which go into greater details about violations of ESC rights and the imperative for remedy and restitution.
Article 11.1 states:
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right, recognising to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
We see that this formulation of the right to housing does not provide much content for the right. The core content of the right is clarified in the General Comments and in a briefing paper jointly produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Habitat (Fact Sheet 21).
Joe Moses speaking on a panel at the United Nations about the experience of Paga Hill