• People must be central
  • A campaign to tackle homelessness without homeless people involved is unlikely to deliver meaningful change.

    In this case study you will learn about the approach we have used to develop the meaningful participation of homeless families impacted by human rights violations as the central plank of campaigning for lasting change.

    In 2006 The Participation and Practice of Rights Organisation (PPR) began working with residents in the Seven Towers, a high rise complex of seven buildings with 380 dwellings 12 – 16 storeys tall in North Belfast. The towers were built in the 1960’s, and after decades of neglect and poor maintenance, were severely run down, yet families continued to be housed in the poor conditions.

    A group of women and children started a campaign for change using PPR’s human rights based approach.


    The families conducted research; surveying and photographing conditions and collecting evidence on dampness, mould, pigeon waste and families living in the seven towers. They launched human rights indicators and benchmarks for progress with the support of international and domestic human rights and housing experts and set specific time frames during which the Public Housing Authority and State Authority would be monitored by the newly established Seven Towers Monitoring Group.

    By establishing the STMG, they changed the rules of engagement with the state, moving out of the established official structures to genuinely hold government to account and achieve meaningful change. This change was measured by residents in the form of visible improvements in the conditions of the tower blocks and families moved to better homes. If change was not felt, residents would take public action to embarrass the authorities and politicians who had made commitments as the campaign evolved to identify new issues and priorities.

    The Seven Towers Residents Group leveraged significant improvements and investments from government and the public housing authority including; the removal of pigeon waste from communal landings; a £1million replacement of the sewerage system, which frequently overflowed through baths and sinks; balcony repair programmes; new rooves to stop leaks; increased and better maintenance responses for residents; compensation for damages to person and property; fire and toxin safety tests and the re-housing of the majority of families with children into more suitable accommodation. The public housing authority, at the time of writing, is now consulting on the demolition of all 33 social housing tower blocks in the state – homes to 1000’s of people.

    However, the issue of 380 families/individuals living in poor high rise accommodation in the New Lodge area of North Belfast, was a symptom of a much greater problem – the failure to build homes for a growing Catholic population in a deeply divided and segregated society.

    North Belfast is a densely packed geographic area surrounded by peace walls – security barriers between Protestant (British Unionist/Loyalist) and Catholic (Irish Nationalist/Republican) communities. These walls were first erected during the British/Irish conflict  1969-1998 and have been maintained and reinforced since despite demographic shifts which have seen the Catholic population grow and the Protestant population decline.

    By pulling on a string of accountability which began with damp, mould and pigeon waste families discovered how poor housing conditions and long social housing waiting lists were not only applicable to the women and children living in the Seven Towers. This was of course a systemic issue, facing many residents across Belfast and while both the Protestant and Catholic communities in North Belfast experience poverty and multiple deprivations, these are experienced unequally with housing provision acutely skewed along religious lines.

    In 2012 all of the major political parties made a deal which reduced the number of potential social homes on a piece of land returned by the British Army to public in North Belfast. British/Unionist parties opposed housing development. Irish/Nationalist parties supported housing development, to a point. The land was in between both communities and in the end the political parties decided that building housing to tackle the demand, overwhelmingly felt by a growing Catholic population, would not happen.

    Homeless Families living for years in ‘temporary’ accommodation, who had heard the repeated promises of equality during the ‘Peace Process’, were outraged. STRG launched the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign with 20 families who had lived for years in a hostel in one of the tower blocks. The campaign has since grown to involve families from across Belfast City impacted by the issue of homelessness and poor housing provision.

    They have called on government to develop a time bound, resourced strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing. The families have mapped the available land and funding, both public and private, in the city to build housing.

    Despite the robust equality legislation at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which placed legal requirements on Ministers and public bodies to address the legacy of housing inequality, a direct a result of political discrimination in housing policy to maintain British Unionist Political power, the problem remains unaddressed.

    Residents discovered that the Political manipulation of housing policy continued with impunity, ignoring the legal requirements of the peace agreement.

    In 2016, according to the public housing authority, the state needed to supply 938 homes in the Catholic areas – (North Belfast 1) and 38 in the Protestant areas – (North Belfast 2) The state built 112 homes in North Belfast in 2017.

    And so a city wide campaign for land justice gathered pace.

    More recently the campaign has focussed on one site in the city – Hillview Retail Park.

    This is an 11.5 acre site in North Belfast owned by a wealthy private developer. It is one of five ‘windfall’ vacant sites the homeless families mapped out for potential housing. The site has been vacant for more than a decade during which time the developer enjoyed large scale state support, including a bailout by the National Asset Management Agency after the economic crash of 2008, charitable rates relief worth £1.8m and recently, planning approval from Belfast City Council for a new retail only venture.

    At the same time Loyalist Paramilitaries have operated an illegal market on the site.

    The developer continues to receive state support despite the overwhelming housing needs in the community and numerous procedural and policy flaws in the planning process.

    The retail only venture is supported by the DUP deputy leader and MP for the area, Nigel Dodds and the PUP – political wing of the UVF a loyalist paramilitary group. Together they have mustered forces in opposition to homes for families on the site.

    Families worked with architects to show that the land would be perfect to build a sustainable community guaranteeing jobs and homes to help address historic inequalities and issues affecting working class Protestants and Catholics living adjacent to it. The private developer aims to sell the land to a large retailer to build a supermarket and large car park, identical to that which failed in the past but very profitable in the short term.

    The state and public authorities responsible for tackling inequality have perversely actively opposed housing on the site and erected barriers to the participation of families in decisions made about planning in the city.

    To date hundreds of homeless families from across Belfast have joined the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign. They have mapped and monitored the available land and money, debunked and dismantled the numerous administrative hurdles erected by the state and public authorities. They have secured widespread support from political parties, the commissions established under the Good Friday Agreement charged with protecting rights, the United Nations and European commission.

    They have outreached to and supported other communities campaigning for housing rights across Ireland and Scotland, including many excluded groups – migrants, refugees, travellers, and working class Protestants experiencing housing rights abuses.

    ECW have successfully mobilised hundreds of vulnerable homeless people into an effective campaign which has changed policy and redirected millions in state resources into poor communities while changing the personal circumstances of homeless families for the better in the hear and now. The campaign continues to grow and develop as families navigate the reactions by big power and money.  At the time of writing homeless families in Belfast are monitoring state adherence to human rights standards and disrupting business as usual and building new alliances.

    ECW recently secured support from five political parties for an independent enquiry into Belfast City Councils planning processes and a commitment to build homes on the land they have identified. ECW are building a city wide alliance of campaigning organisations focussed on land justice in Belfast.


    Participation and the Practice of Rights organisation (PPR) was founded in Belfast eight years after the Good Friday Agreement by the leading civil rights and equality campaigner, Inez McCormack.

    Inez and others were frustrated that the post-conflict promises of equality and human rights were being ignored and broken despite the legislative protection of the 1998 British – Irish peace agreement.

    PPR does not accept state funding and operates with policy and organising staff working in support of volunteer led groups of rights holders. PPR is primarily funded through philanthropic fundraising as well as some income from consultancy.

    PPR uses a human rights based approach empowering marginalised groups to create change in their communities – fusing human rights policy work with community organising. PPR has applied the approach successfully across a range of issues (mental health, children’s rights to play, domestic violence, right to work, right to welfare, right to culturally appropriate education and housing campaigns specific to minority and at risk groups such as Refugees, Asylum seekers, Irish Travellers, and Catholic families) across three jurisdictions – Ireland, north and south, and Scotland.

    Each campaign group is led by the people affected by the issue who develop human rights indicators and benchmarks for progress against which they monitor government while campaigning for change.

    “It’s the way human rights work
    should be, but isn’t, done”

    Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, speaking about PPR in 2013.



    Participation drives the work of PPR. Rights are denied because powerful forces make it so. If rights are to be realised then power needs to change. Those whose rights are denied need to build power of their own and negate power which denies their rights.

    PPR does not advocate or negotiate on behalf of affected groups. PPR believes that people are more than capable of doing this themselves. The problem is not their capacity to articulate problems and solutions but that they are systematically excluded from decision making about their lives. PPR is about changing the power imbalances which shape service delivery and resource allocation. The participation of affected groups, holding human rights duty-bearers to account is central to PPR’s model.


    Participation empowers affected groups to name their issues, articulate them in human rights terms and name the change they want to see. Particularly for people impacted by poverty and lack of economic, social and cultural rights. PPR’s human rights based approach enables people to see themselves as an agent of change deserving of dignity, rather than merely a subject of government policies or a victim requiring support services. To this end, it is essential for PPR to build the capacity of affected groups so that human rights standards and values are made accessible and put at the service of those who need them most.


    The PPR approach enables affected groups set the parameters on how they will hold government accountable. most affected groups have already fully exhausted the government decision processes to appeal for solutions. most have seen campaigns come and go and political party promises fade with each electoral cycle.

    PPR provide training and support to these groups effectively map out power and hold duty-bearers to account through the setting of human rights indicators and benchmarks. These group designed targets are validated by powerful allies and used to measure government performance and develop human rights based campaigns.

    This allows groups to take control of time and the narrative. The human rights indicators set the tone and the terms of engagement with the duty-bearer and make it possible to monitor progress in securing human rights over time, democratising the operational framework for realising human rights standards.


    PPR is motivated by advancing substantive equality. This goes beyond notions of ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of results’ and sees equality as transformative. This notion of substantive equality requires a restructuring of society in terms of distribution of power and resources, so that institutional structures, which perpetuate the oppression of the most marginalised groups in society, can change.


    Dignity consists of many overlapping principles, involving respect, privacy, autonomy and self-worth. Dignity is a core human rights principle and a core value of society. The struggle for human dignity underpins all PPR campaigns.

    Strategy and Tactics

    Under human rights law, the state is not a neutral actor. It is a duty-bearer, with an obligation to take positive action to realise economic and social rights, particularly for its most vulnerable groups. However, the groups working with PPR are aware that this is not the case for the marginalised in society. Indeed legislation, including local and international treaties, are irrelevant to people whose rights are denied. Without developing the power to make states, public authorities and private parties respond, rights are routinely denied.

    With groups of ‘rights holders’ PPR facilitate development sessions to identify issues impacting communities. The affected group establish an evidential baseline using a number of methods including surveys, focus groups, photographic evidence and Freedom of Information requests.  This process allows affected groups to assess the extent to which the issues impact other people like them and frame the issues as human rights issues with specific indicators demonstrating the denial of their rights. For example, pigeon waste on communal landings or dampness on accommodation walls become redefined as a state denial of UNCESCR rights.

    These indicators are launched and measured by the group over a period of time to evaluate if things are getting better on the ground in their community. This allows the affected group to set their own timeframe and parameters to monitor how government is progressively realising rights, as required by human rights law.

    Because time is not neutral when change is required by the most vulnerable, the groups also set targets for change. These ‘benchmarks’ allow the group to identify the acceptable rate of change/progressive realisation.  The value of the group’s indicators is that they give the group the power to measure and describe if they are feeling the benefits of government responses and decision making, and the policies and programmes put in place to deal with their human rights issues. Rights are real when they are seen and felt on the ground by the groups, not when government makes a statement or produces a strategic document. This approach also sets a useful rhythm for organising set by monitoring intervals.

    PPR is non violent however, PPR groups do experience state violence in the form of threatened evictions, financial sanctions, and shame tactics etc. The various groups who PPR support use a range of tactics during campaigns such as lobbying, public meetings, casework, direct actions, protests, litigation, disruption, surveying, petitions, and continuously framing the narrative by highlighting their messages through media (newspaper, tv, radio, social media) and disseminating information within communities through stickers, murals, leaflets etc.

    Most PPR campaign actions frame issues as human rights breaches, using shame rather than force to make a point. PPR also supports groups to develop local and international allies and experts who put the credibility of their respective offices at the service of the groups and campaigns.