Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali inaugurates United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II)

31. Mai 1996

Following is the text of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s inaugural address to the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), to be delivered on 3 June in Istanbul:

I am pleased to inaugurate the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat II. It is significant that this United Nations Conference on cities should be held here, in Istanbul, a city with over 20 centuries of history.

Indeed, we have come, from every continent, representing major capitals, and provincial towns, megalopolis and small urban neighbourhoods, to Istanbul, to the city par excellence. And the city has opened its arms to this international conference, it has welcomed delegations, observers and the press to our home for the next few days: Istanbul, the city that connects two continents, where ancient streets and houses, merge with modern avenues and buildings.

I should like to pay tribute, on my own behalf, and on behalf of the United Nations, to the people of Istanbul and of Turkey who have welcomed us all so warmly in their beautiful city. I wish to express my special gratitude, and that of the United Nations, to the President of Turkey, His Excellency, Suleiman Demirel, and to the Mayor of Istanbul, Tayyip Erdogan.

From the time of the selection of Istanbul for this major conference of the United Nations, we have been fortunate indeed in the cooperation, the friendliness and the generosity of the Turkish Government and people in welcoming the world community. Allow me, Ladies and Gentlemen, to record here my profound debt of gratitude on behalf of all of us at this Conference.

The preparatory committee and the delegations of Member States have worked long months to make this Conference a success. There are still some disagreements, but this is a healthy sign of the importance of the issue of human settlements, and of the commitment of States to the implementation of the programme of action.

Finally, let me thank, on everyone’s behalf, the secretariat of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, headed by the Secretary-General of the Conference, Wally N’Dow, for its continued commitment to the issues of human settlements, and for its efforts in making this conference a success.

The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), is the last in a series of United Nations Conferences which have shaped, during the 1990s, an agenda for development. At the same time, this Conference, in its innovative design, is a new departure for the United Nations. We should all be conscious today that the decisions taken here in Istanbul will be of significance not only for the world of today, but for the world in which our children must live and prosper.

I do not wish to pre-empt our discussions over the next few days, and I shall not, therefore, treat the various issues before the Conference. However, there are three points which, in my opinion, can provide useful background as you embark upon your conference debates: 1. Habitat II as a link in a series of international conferences. 2. Habitat II as an innovation in international conferences. 3. The Habitat Agenda as a follow-up to this international conference.

Habitat II as Link in Series of International Conferences

Since taking office as Secretary-General in 1992, I have dedicated myself to the pursuit of the development agenda of the United Nations. In this cause, I have stressed that, following the end of the cold war, it is important to view development as a cooperative venture, as an endeavour where all partners can benefit from the fruits of growth. This vision of development was in sharp contrast to the understanding of development as a “zero-sum game“, where the gains of one economy necessarily meant the loss of others. A cooperative vision of development stems from the basic premise that there can be no isolation, that, in a rapidly globalizing world, we all have a stake in the management of growth and development.

Starting from this premise, therefore, and from this vision of development as a cooperative endeavour, the United Nations launched a series of world conferences and summits linked to development. It would be useful, here, to list these conferences: 

— In June 1992: the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held at Rio de Janeiro.

— In June 1993: the World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna.

— In April 1994, the United Nations Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States held at Barbados.

— In May 1994, the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, held at Yokohama.

— In September 1994, the World Conference on Population and Development held at Cairo.

— In March 1995, the World Conference on Social Development held at Copenhagen.

— In September 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women held at Beijing.

— In April 1996, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD IX) held at Johannesburg. And today, in June 1996: the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) held at Istanbul.

These conferences have been criticized, for their cost. Some have criticized their lack of achievement. I wish here, from this forum, to state, in the strongest possible terms: I consider the conferences of the United Nations central to the work of the Organization, essential to the fulfilment of its mandate, and crucial for the determination of the future of life on this planet.

You have come to Istanbul in your thousands for this Conference. Nearly 50,000 went to Beijing to set new standards for the role of women in society, and some 47,000 came to Rio de Janeiro to find a better balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability. At Copenhagen, for the World Summit for Social Development, 118 Heads of State and Government came to express their concern over the issues of unemployment, marginalization and social disintegration.

The conferences of the United Nations, and the action programmes and agendas produced by these conferences form, together, an agenda for development committed to by the world community. Through these conferences, development cooperation will be revitalized and reinvented. The United Nations, its Member States, and you, the delegates at the conferences, are deciding development patterns for future generations. You are deciding the form of development cooperation to be adopted by the United Nations; you are setting the standards by which the actions of States, Organizations and individuals will be judged. This is the importance of the international conferences of the United Nations. This is the context of the next days at Istanbul.

Habitat II as Innovation in International Conferences

But your presence here today is far more than just the continuation of a pattern set with the Earth Summit in 1992. Each conference has its specificity, its own qualities that distinguish it from all the others. In the case of Habitat II, you have gone farther than other Conferences in recognizing the universality of the issue of human settlements.

The range of participants here today provides ample evidence that this is truly a conference of partners. Representatives of all the institutions and organizations of civil society here at Istanbul will be presenting their respective platforms and commitments before the Conference.

Broad-based national committees have completed more than 120 national plans of action identifying national priorities for the sustainable development and growth of human settlements. Local authorities, on which the implementation of Habitat II will depend, have joined non-governmental organizations as full partners of this Conference of the United Nations. Even more, we shall have the private sector, as a dynamic power for growth, represented in every aspect of Habitat II.

The United Nations is primarily an Organization of States. However, the increasing contribution of non-State actors is essential if the United Nations is to succeed in its work. Indeed, the active participation of non-State actors in the work of the United Nations is an essential aspect of the democratization of the international system.

I am pleased to see that, in addition to this spirit of partnership, there is a turn towards realistic solutions rather than good intentions. Over 100 national committees have contributed more than 700 best practices to the Best Practice Initiative for Improving the Living Environment. Many of these initiatives illustrate, in concrete examples, how we can act on these issues already identified in Agenda 21, and in the agendas for action on population and development, social development, small island States, and women, adopted by preceding United Nations Conferences.

More importantly, the Best Practices demonstrate the capacity of human beings to rise to the challenge of difficult situations, to harness the resources and the inventiveness to enhance and renew our societies.

`Habitat Agenda‘ as Follow-Up to This International Conference

We have come a long way from Vancouver and the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. In the last 20 years the world has changed in dramatic ways. But the problems we faced in the 1970s have not disappeared. Poverty, hunger, disease, population imbalances, the lack of equity are still with us.

The cycle of United Nations conferences has allowed the world community to address these persistent issues in a new way, in a new spirit of global cooperation and common purpose. It is thus that I understand today’s Conference. Human settlements, and especially cities, are indeed becoming a key factor in the complex equations of growth and development, environmental issues, human rights, and the eradication of poverty.

By the year 2000, almost half the world’s population will live in urban centres. Problems of jobs, housing, infrastructure and environmental safety will increasingly acquire an urban face. By the year 2025, urban dwellers will total some 5 billion people, 80 per cent of them will be in developing countries.

The crises of urban development are crises of all States, rich and poor. These challenges, however, are most severe in developing countries. Inner city dwellers, the inhabitants of slums, or marginalized favelas, of the ghettos and barrios, share in the misery, dangers to their health, and a vision of hopeless unemployment and marginalization. But such common problems also provide the basis for common action, for mutual learning, for cooperation in finding solutions.

Such common purpose should not, however, blind us. In some regions of the world, we must balance our concern with cities and towns with a need to develop rural settlements and the rural economy. In others, rapid urbanization accompanied by rapid economic growth has resulted in great gaps in infrastructure, increasing land prices, housing out of the reach of most, and growing environmental decay. In the most urbanized parts of the world, cities are becoming the focus of national policy. What joins us all, is the awareness that human settlements will be central to growth and sustainable development. Our policies must reflect this.

Our collective response will be the “Habitat Agenda“ — a global plan of action that embodies our vision of human settlements for cities, towns and villages that are viable, safe, prosperous, healthy and equitable. This is our vision of the common future, this must be the Spirit of Istanbul.

Let our discussions and debates, in the next two weeks, be inspired by the spirit of Istanbul. The spirit of Istanbul is one of learning from the past, from previous United Nations conferences, and the priorities set in their agendas and programmes. The spirit of Istanbul is cooperation and friendship: Governmental delegations, and non-State actors. The spirit of Istanbul is a focus on people. Civic leaders are telling us that peoples‘ priorities are jobs, safe homes and neighbourhoods, more equitable access to land and finance and sounder environments for their children.

My final words relate to the world beyond the next two weeks. For I am certain that before you adjourn, there will be full agreement on what will be known as the Istanbul Plan of Action. In that sense, success is not in doubt. But, as in all other United Nations global conferences, real success will be measured over the years by the degree to which participants in Habitat II live up to what they will commit themselves to in Istanbul. Central and local governments, municipal authorities, civic organizations and all other non- governmental organizations, bear the heavy responsibility of implementing, in good faith, the decisions of Istanbul.

The United Nations family of agencies and programmes shares in this responsibility and will play a central role in this monitoring and accountability process. The people of the world will be watching and will call all of us to account.

Once again, thank you and good luck in your deliberations.