Residents in Brazil being removed for mega-events are the last to know

Raquel Rolnik

The following is an interview with Raquel Rolnik – (Special Rapporteur of the United Nations (UN) on adequate housing) – by Manuela Azenha from the site Vi  O Mundo.

Raquel Rolnik
Raquel Rolnik

The urban planner and teacher Raquel Rolnik says that residents are the last to know, after the government decides their communities must be removed to make way for projects related to the World Cup and in the case of Rio de Janeiro, the Olympics.

Rolnik makes this claim as the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations (UN) to adequate housing.

Rolnik states that these mega-events produce profits, but “not necessarily for the population as a whole.”

She also confirms that committees made up of those being affected are being formed in several Brazilian cities to deal with evictions.

And says that there is a risk of creating something like a “state of exception”, a part of FIFA protocols signed by local authorities, incorporating requirements that go far beyond the stadiums: “Requiring, for example, the sale of an exclusive brand of liquor in an area surrounding that stadium for miles.”

Rolnik explains her role at the UN:

“I’m the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing by the Council of Human Rights. I am part of what they call the special procedures. They are independent experts appointed by the Council. We function as a kind of council to monitor the implementation of rights such as they are set out in international covenants and treaties that governments ratify and vote. One of these rights is adequate housing. My mission is to examine whether the law is being implemented as set out in the field of human rights. ”

 ….having the World Cup, a mega event, you basically justify not having to enforce human rights, environmental legislation. It’s like they have suspended basic rights much like a state of emergency due to a war or a catastrophe. Increasingly, mega-events have been like this.


Viomundo  How do the missions function, and what is the role of the rapporteur, and what have you observed in Brazil?

Raquel Rolnik – There are three instruments that the draftsman uses to do this monitoring. It is  voluntary, unpaid and not part of the functional structure of the UN. The rapporteur is a person with assistants provided by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is the structure that is the Rapporteur.

The first instrument is a thematic report annually for the meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and a thematic report on the UN General Assembly. The rapporteur chooses a research topic and how the situation in the world. I presented a thematic report on mega-events and housing rights in 2009 in the Council.

Otherwise, the rapporteur reports of special commissions. We can do two missions per year, from two countries. These commissions are organized in agreement with the government of the country, we have to be asked into order to go to these countries. When we go, we meet with government and with civil society and make field visits. I have worked with the theme of mega events in my report and did commissions in seven countries, but not in Brazil, because my predecessor had already done so.

The third instrument, which is the rice and beans of the Rapporteur, are the accusations and violations of housing rights that we receive daily from NGOs, human rights activists, and citizens. When we receive the complaint, we send a letter of allegations to the country and communicate the complaint, we assess whether the country has taken some action, and then see whether the complaint was true or not. Depending on the response of the government, this can become an international press release.

I decided to take on  the issue of mega-events and housing rights because I received a lot of complaints about violations in these areas in countries and cities that hosted sporting events.

It started with Beijing, due to the Olympics. We also received reports from the Vancouver Winter Olympics. I received complaints from Durban [South Africa] as a function of the Commonwealth Games and in South Africa because of the World Cup. I presented a report in 2010, and then began receiving complaints from Brazil.

Then, in December 2010, I sent a letter of allegations to the Brazilian government and I still have not received a response. Normally, we give the country a month to respond before going public. I waited 4 months, Brazil said nothing so I took the issue to the public. Obviously, we try to determine if these complaints have some consistency. In my case, this was very explicit. I was sought by public defenders, and by structures of the state. Several prosecutors also sought me out.

When we presented the report to the Council we decided to vote on a resolution. When I presented the report in March 2010, it was voted that all countries should respect the right to housing as they prepare for the World Cup and Olympics.

Viomundo – Was it the first time a government has not responded to the letter of allegations?

Raquel Rolnik – No, the truth is that it is rare for governments to respond. Some governments have always responded – like those of England, Guatemala and Chile – and there are others who do not respond.

Viomundo – Are there any consequences? Is there any obligation for the government to respond?

Raquel Rolnik – Yes, it is obligatory. The consequence is that the reports will go to the public and the country has had a chance to defend itself. If the country responds, sometimes this can make a small change to the report, because it gives me information I did not have before. The press release publicly exposes the country to the international community.

Viomundo – Why did they not respond?

Raquel Rolnik – I think it’s all a big internal mess, messages get sent from room to room and they end up losing it all together. It is a country notorious for violating human rights and always responds that it is not violating rights but then also does not respond. From the moment I went to the public, there were many repercussions, including the foreign press. Then I received a call from the Itamaraty, a letter from the Minister of Human Rights, Mary of the Rosary, saying they were forming a working group within the federal government to address this issue. After that I never heard anything more from them.

Viomundo – And what types of complaints are you receiving in relation to housing rights in Brazil?

Raquel Rolnik – I have not only received reports from Rio de Janeiro, which will host the World Cup and the Olympics, but in other Brazilian cities: Fortaleza, São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Recife, among several others. If I could sum up basically what these violations are, I would group them into two large groups. The first has to do with transparency, the right to information and participation.

Most communities are not informed of the development projects before they are removed. They have no chance to debate and present alternatives. There is no place where you can see exactly who will be removed and how much they will be compensated for, and what the alternatives are to removal.

Marked for Removal
A house marked for removal on Laboriaux – Rocinha by the city

That is, the right to information, transparency and participation of affected communities. These are the basic rights that make up the right to housing, are they are being systematically violated. For example the city enters the community, paints the houses with X and people do not know why.

The second group of violations has to do with the alternatives to removal. According to what the right to housing says, you have two options: to exhaust all possibilities and avoid or minimize removal, instead of removing 700 families, you remove 300 and this changes everything. The person being removed then has two alternatives and can choose which they prefer.

The person either recieves financial compensation in cash or they get a new home, what we call resettlement. In both cases, residents are living in very serious conditions and are the recipients of major rights violations.

First, there are virtually no options for the residents. These are unilateral decisions from those who are doing the removing, in most cases.

Second, the financial compensation being offered is ridiculous, like  5000 reais, 3800 reais, 10 thousand reais.

Now, a basic principle of the right to housing is that a removal can never leave a person homeless. If you take a person from his home and give them 5000 reais for the troubles, this is pretty much leaving them homeless, because there is nowhere that you can buy a home with 5 thousand reais. Resettlement is normally offered at forty, fifty kilometers from the place they were removed from and so they do not have the advantages of their previous location.

It is worth repeating that the right to housing is not just a house, four walls and a roof, but a house with access to education, health, income avenues, employment. The location is an absolutely essential element.

Viomundo – Who are the main victims of these removals?

Raquel Rolnik – Residents of informal settlements. Of course, why are the projected projects in these locations? Because it’s cheaper. Why? Because it is in violation of all rights. Where most of the removals are being made, they simply do not pay what the house is worth, saying: “Well, they did not own the land.” But they lived there for 50 years and the right to housing as a human right, it has nothing to do with the condition of ownership – is a human right.

Viomundo – And will government not designate that these settlements are in an area of risk any other irregularity?

Raquel Rolnik – If the settlement is a risk area, the proper State carries the responsibility in relation to the situation. If a person lives in an area of ​​risk, it is because they have nowhere else to live, which is absolutely true in the case of Brazil. No one will live in a risk area because they want to. Many times, because of their precarious condition they have no alternative formal housing options – located in the city. Compensation or resettlement is always a part of the definition of adequate housing. The relocation in accordance with the right to housing is one option, but what resettlement? Where? And the population has to participate in this decision. The City of God, made famous in movies, is a resettlement community! How about that?

Viomundo – There is discourse that hosting a mega sports events generate positive development. Do you agree? It is advantageous?

Raquel Rolnik – With the experience we have had with mega-events in the world, we can make an overall assessment. In the case of Athens, for example, the city was completely in debt, having the games was not beneficial in terms of development – look at what was happening in Greece at that time. South Africa spent a phenomenal amount of money, too. So, it’s debatable what that spending generated. Sometimes, it only generates huge profits for a few corporations and businesses, but not necessarily for the population as a whole. This is the big question. You must have situations in which having a mega event is part of a long-term planning strategy. This is not the case with Brazil. After they were awarded the games they decided what they were going to do and how to host the event. It is the opposite thinking of a long-term strategy, urban development, in which case you use a mega event in order to implement it.

Viomundo – Are there are movements of resistance to host these events?

Raquel Rolnik – There are in all the cities that hosted these types of events. In South Africa, to give you an idea, there were 32 workers strikes, more than 20 of these involving construction workers. And homeless people, street vendors, slum dwellers were being evicted. This is also being carried out in Brazil: The World Cup Popular Committees has formed. There are already committees structured in Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba is now organizing theirs. A movement of resistance has already begun.

Viomundo – Other than the violation of the right to housing, what other problems arise when hosting a mega event?

Raquel Rolnik – From the viewpoint of the reports and beyond the issue of evictions, these operations are often violating the rights of homeless people, who are often carried outside the city and dumped off.  I can’t remember a city that hasn’t witnessed this. Street vendors can also be victims. This is very serious; FIFA is increasingly taking over the entire process of producing the event and signing protocols, and these protocols have already been signed off by the country and the cities to have the World Cup. Making demands not only to areas around the stadiums, but for the encompassing communities, requiring, for example, the exclusive sale of a certain brand of liquor in an area miles around a stadium. There are many violations that end up constituting a real state of emergency. That is, having the World Cup, a mega event, you basically justify not having to enforce human rights, environmental legislation? It’s like they are suspended rights much like a state of emergency due to a war or a catastrophe. Increasingly, mega-events have been like this.