Human rights are key to the MDGs

Sha’ban Riyad Abdel Latif, a 45-year-old father of four, was made homeless after being forcibly evicted from his room on 25 December 2009, along with many other families living on a dangerous rocky slope in the Duweiqa informal settlement, east of Cairo. He was barely given time to remove his possessions before a bulldozer demolished the building where he used to share a toilet with nine neighbors.

Like many victims of forced eviction, Sha’ban Riyad Abdel Latif presented a formal grievance to the neighbourhood authority seeking to obtain alternative housing but to no avail. For a month, his family, and about 26 other homeless families, set up tents by the nearby alternative housing units of Suzanne Mubarak dwellings, in New Duweiqa. With little protection the children suffered from the cold winter. On 25 January 2010, women gathered outside the local authorities’ re-housing office asking for alternative housing, but the police dispersed them and later that night tore apart their tents. Sha’ban Riyad Abdel Latif lost many of his possessions.

In February 2010, he told Amnesty International that he used to earn about 20 Egyptian pounds a day at the food shop (about US$3.5), and brought back some left over food for his children. Since he became homeless he hasn't been able to meet his family’s needs, has been using a toilet at a local mosque and gets water for his family in jerry cans from neighbors. His search for alternative housing seems unlikely to be solved any time soon.

Like the other members of the United Nations, the Egyptian government committed to improving the lives of slum dwellers as one of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. The MDGs represent an unprecedented promise to address global poverty, adopting eight targets addressing a range of issues from extreme poverty and health to education and living standards to be met by 2015.

But, a decade on, the fate of the MDGs is in doubt. The UN has issued a clear warning that many of the MDGs will not be met in time unless efforts are radically ramped up. Even by the most conservative estimates, more than a billion people are being left behind.

Amnesty International’s work over the years has shown how discrimination and exclusion can often cause or exacerbate many of the problems the MDGs seek to address. In rich countries as well as developing ones, vulnerable people on the fringes of society are frequently subjected to violations of their right to adequate housing, health, water, sanitation, and education, among others. They are often left out of consultations about things that will affect them, or ignored when they try to make their voices heard. As Amnesty has also shown, equality and inclusion are essential for making things better.

Ten years on, it is worthwhile to reflect upon where we are and where we need to go to meet the MDGs. The architects of the MDGs established the original targets as a starting point for progress. They always intended that states should set their own individual targets, adapted to their national contexts but within the MDG framework. This was left for states to do voluntarily. Unfortunately, most countries have chosen not to act.

Some countries have adopted targets above the MDG level. For example, Latin American and Caribbean countries have expanded their commitments on education to include secondary education. In Africa and South Asia, Kenya, South Africa and Sri Lanka adopted targets stronger than the MDGs for access to water and sanitation. Peru has taken steps towards addressing health barriers for poorer women and Nepal has explored improving maternal health care.

These countries have shown that it is possible to adapt the MDGs to address some of their most pressing needs and to bolster the rights of some of their most vulnerable people. The rest of the world should be working to do the same.

We have an opportunity to ensure that the political momentum around the MDGs can be used as a catalyst to bring about the far deeper and longer-term change that is necessary for people living in poverty.

But this can only be achieved if world leaders make a commitment at this week’s MDG Summit to uphold the human rights of those who need the greatest support. Discrimination against women and exclusion of the marginalized must be addressed in all MDG efforts, if they are to be effective.

To achieve this, all governments should make an honest assessment of their progress on the MDGs. They should work to end discrimination and promote equality and participation, ensuring that progress towards the MDGs is inclusive, aimed at ending discrimination, guaranteeing gender equality and prioritizing the most disadvantaged groups.

Finally, they should remember that the Millennium Declaration–from which the MDGs are drawn–promised to strive for the protection and promotion of all human rights, civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights, for everyone.

As the members of the United Nations gather this month to reflect upon the progress made on the MDGs, approximately 12 million people continue to live in informal settlements in Egypt. Among them about 850,000 people live in 404 areas now designated by the Egyptian authorities as “unsafe areas” because they are threatened by rock falls, built with makeshift materials, or situated under high voltage power lines. Plans to deal with “unsafe areas” are developed by the local authorities without genuine consultation with the communities. UN guarantees against forced eviction continue to be ignored, driving people deeper in poverty. It is up to us to help change that.

Salil Shetty is Secretary General of Amnesty International.

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