Thursday, March 6, 2008

Critics admit they didn't visit, research post-Katrina New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS | A United Nations panel will decide Friday whether the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina violated a treaty on racism, and its ruling could be influenced by a controversial statement from two U.N. advisers who last week labeled the planned demolition of four New Orleans public housing complexes as "discriminatory" even though neither visited the city to research the issue.

Last week's statement drew international media coverage and was hailed by opponents of a plan to replace the four housing complexes with mixed-income neighborhoods, although the plan also calls for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to retain several other public housing complexes in New Orleans. HUD also has provided vouchers through which former public housing residents can rent private apartments across the city.

The U.N. specialists now acknowledge that they haven't been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and were basing their opinion largely on the views of activists who have waged an unsuccessful campaign to halt the demolitions.

Miloon Kothari of New Delhi, India, the U.N. Human Rights Council's specialist on adequate housing, and Gay McDougall of Washington, D.C., the U.N. independent expert on minority issues, joined ranks with opponents of the demolitions already under way at the St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper complexes.

The statement implied that the demolition of public housing in New Orleans would end up "increasing poverty and homelessness," particularly for black hurricane victims. It called for more planning input from residents and former residents. It also dismissed the HUD plans as too slow and insufficient for the 5,000 residents of traditional public housing units displaced after the storm.

Local and federal public housing officials argue that public housing families who want to return are being served through traditional public housing or private apartments. And they say plans for a shift to mixed-income housing will better serve the families who remain.

World watching
Although the duo say they released the statement to influence the U.S. Congress, the timing of their comments could have broader influence.

The statement was released in Geneva, Switzerland, last Thursday, a day before a U.N. treaty enforcement panel -- meeting in the same European city but with no link to the two advisers -- was to discuss U.S. government responses to Hurricane Katrina. That committee is scheduled to decide Friday whether 12 nations, including the United States, are adhering to the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The committee isn't likely to go beyond a public shaming if it finds the United States in violation of the treaty, but even that step could be damaging. In the past, the panel has denounced Australia's policies toward Aborigines and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Kothari and McDougall's statement made the case that public housing plans in New Orleans amount to a violation of international human rights law. They say "the inability of former residents of public housing to return to the homes they occupied prior to Hurricane Katrina would in practice amount to an eviction for those who returned or wish to return." In telephone interviews, they later called for a one-for-one replacement of any public housing units that are demolished.

'I haven't studied it'
The treaty under review in Geneva, however, upholds only a right to adequate housing, not a right to return to the exact housing that was lost. When asked this week about the U.S. government's plans to continue providing apartment vouchers to displaced tenants while developers carry out a new model for public housing, Kothari demurred.

"Of course, if the situation is that people are arriving back to New Orleans and their housing is demolished, you have to provide alternative housing," he said. Asked whether the U.S. government is doing just that, he said: "I don't know. I haven't studied it."

Kothari and McDougall said their statement last week had nothing to do with the Geneva treaty review, but rather was part of their own attempts to engage U.S. authorities over recovery issues in New Orleans. They consulted with non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, some of which protested the demolitions in the city. But they acknowledged they had no feedback from the other side of the debate because federal officials didn't respond to questions they posed in December.

They said they were prohibited by U.N. protocol from going directly to Mayor Ray Nagin, the City Council or any other local or state officials.

"We haven't done a formal fact-finding in New Orleans. Some of our (U.N.) colleagues have, but we haven't," Kothari said in a telephone interview from his home in India. "The intention of our statement was to raise the issues, to say, look, these are the problems, and we expect a formal response from the (U.S.) State Department."

The colleagues he referred to include David Stanfield, who is crafting a U.N. report on land-rights issues after Katrina, and Walter Kaelin, the U.N. secretary-general's specialist on displaced people. Both have visited New Orleans recently.

Feedback questioned
The statement by Kothari and McDougall implied that the shuttering of public housing complexes has contributed to the growth of a homeless population in the New Orleans area now estimated at 12,000. But Kothari later said he has no evidence of that.

Also, the statement claimed affected families weren't meaningfully consulted about the demolition plans, but Kothari later acknowledged that some residents did meet with developers.

"Yes, some people were consulted," Kothari said, "but the fact that people's property was destroyed, the fact that not every unit is going to be replaced, the fact that there's an affordability crisis, and with the pressure HUD put on the City Council and the mayor -- that subsidies would be withdrawn if they didn't go on with the demolitions -- the question is: Has there been clear and informed participation in the redevelopment of the whole city?"

Kothari said letters from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson to Nagin threatening to cut off some federal subsidies if demolitions were halted amounted to institutional racial discrimination.

Federal and local officials reacted strongly last week to the pair's statement. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called it "theater of the absurd."

HUD said Kothari and McDougall "are misinformed about the state of public housing in New Orleans," adding that the plans to demolish old, hurricane-damaged complexes is part of a wider effort to move to a mixed-income model that will help "minority and low-income Americans .¤.¤. live in a socially and economically integrated environment."

The New Orleans City Council said it approved the demolitions after hearing extensive public feedback.

Ruling coming Friday
The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will rule Friday on U.S. compliance with the treaty it joined in 1994. The ruling will be based on a report the United States provided in 2007.

In its report, the U.S. government argued there was no racial discrimination in the response to Katrina. It said the disparate effects of Hurricane Katrina on housing for minorities stemmed from poverty issues, not race.

U.S. activist groups responded by filing so-called "shadow reports" to the U.N. treaty panel. They argued that international law's standard for discrimination is not whether the government intends to discriminate, but whether the end result of its policies have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities.