Words and sentiments that many will recognise as belonging to the oft-quoted Eleanor Roosevelt. Many more will vaguely remember having seen them in human rights publications, printed on campaign placards or being quoted in many a conference hall speech. So often have I heard them, in fact, that I now skip over them as I read them, and permit them to almost lose the powerful meaning with which they were first spoken.
Until two days ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, I was part of the Seven Towers Residents Group (STRG) delegation meeting with the Minister for Social Development over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE)’s £7 million plans to install PvC cladding to the exterior fabric of the north Belfast flats.
In an era where the rhetoric of “economic austerity”, “recession” and “budget cuts” is bandied about with increasing frequency as a reason to deny people their rights, it seems ever more crucial that resources are spent wisely, that the best use of public monies is made and that the most vulnerable in our society are protected. In direct contrast to this, what the group’s work over the last two years has demonstrated is that;
– The current NIHE plan fails to address the chronic problems of dampness and ineffective and disproportionately expensive heating that plague the most vulnerable who live there.
– The current NIHE plan is not cost-effective and amounts to continued wastage of our public money
– The current NIHE plan ignores international best practice residents have presented which is capable of benefiting the health and wellbeing of the tenants and which will actually save society money.
Leaving aside the fact that all of the above places the government in breach of its international human rights obligations to progressively realise housing rights using the maximum available resources, (for further see Human Rights Budget Analysis of the NIHE Cladding plans) these were the arguments made by this group who simply called on the Minister to halt the plans and work with them to bring forward a scheme which actually has the potential to address the chronic conditions in the Towers.
In response they were told that the money set aside for the first phase of this work has to be carried out in the current spending period, that although the plans “may not be perfect” it is better to “have half a loaf than none at all”.
Having sat in that government office, listening to the residents from the Seven Towers articulate their message and deliver irrefutable evidence; both of which they have developed and monitored using human rights as a vehicle to achieve the change that they themselves have identified as necessary, I wondered with incredulity at the logic (or lack thereof) behind such a decision being made.
Residents have carried out extensive work to identify housing problems, quantify them through action research, spent endless amounts of time trying to analyse the existing proposals, worked with health and housing experts whose work is now mainstreamed in housing policy in England, Wales, France and the USA, and proposed reasonable and cost-effective alternatives which would a) fully address the problems in the Towers, and b) actually save money to the public purse in the long term.
Despite all of this, the residents were simply told they would have to make do with an ineffective and sub-standard scheme. That society would have to pay for the half-a-job the NIHE were offering.
The power dynamic in economic and social decision making was laid bare.
The most distressing thing of all, though, is that the NIHE’s plans aren’t an aberration but a product of a failing system of decision making. They are a direct consequence of an entrenched system of governance which has developed around the priorities and arbitrary prerogatives of the service provider and not the needs and rights of the residents.
And then I asked myself what potential does the practice of rights have in correcting this?
The issue of good governance, of the best use of public resources is one which has resonance far beyond the Seven Towers which dot the north Belfast skyline. The experience there lays down lessons for us all. Less than five months ago, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, speaking at an Amnesty International Conference cited the work of the STRG as an example of “healthy democratic participation”. She furthermore said that it is the absence of this today which would mean that “yesterday’s failures will be repeated tomorrow”. A salient lesson for Tuesday’s meeting.
Healthy democratic participation is stifled by a refusal to engage as equals and a denial of respect for the voice, skills and knowledge of victims of human rights abuses. Human rights mandate this as a pre-requisite for engagement, at its core, the practice of rights articulate a demand for dignity. They demand the discharging of obligations with responsibility and respect for the most vulnerable. They underline the requirement for careful, well reasoned and appropriate spending of public monies based on need and the progression of rights.
Until the principles of rights become the foundations, the building blocks of how societies make decisions, until we stop allowing the cracks to merely be papered over, in PvC or otherwise, we will have to content ourselves with receiving only half a loaf if we’re lucky and merely the crumbs from the Executive table if we’re not .
The residents of the Towers are no strangers to exclusion or to set-backs. They’ve lived with sewage coming up their drains on a weekly basis and were told it was their fault. They’ve lived in cramped conditions in the absence of play and basic living facilities for their children and were told it was their fault. They’ve lived with chronic dampness and have been told it was their fault.
The absence of rights in the ‘small places’ like the Towers is a call to action for us all.