Happy Midsummer’s Eve – and World Refugee Day

by Rhodri C. Williams

Every now and then the various preoccupations of this blog collide in unexpected ways. Today is such a day. Sitting here on Åland, its the first day of my summer vacation and time for the rites of Midsummer Eve, a pagan celebration the observance of which is an important part of the local community’s sense of itself. It is a day of rootedness in traditions carried out on a particular piece of turf since time out of mind by people connected through the ages by language and a sense of cultural continuity and the simple fact of their abiding presence.

All of which makes the contrast with this day’s other guise so jarring. It is World Refugee Day and not just any such day, but the one that has seen the greatest spike in conflict-related displacement since World War II. As this village’s 30 families raise the midsummer pole tonight, over 50 million people in other parts of the world have been violently uprooted from their communities, their traditions, their homes and their lands. It is a truly grim milestone and one that will cast a shadow over this and many future midsummer evenings to come.

International Humanitarian Law more clear and more debated than ever – updated

by Rhodri C. Williams

The immediate inspiration for this post was the fact that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently put online its vast and expanding database on which norms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are now deemed to have attained the status of customary international law (CIL), binding on all parties to armed conflicts whether or not they have ratified (or otherwise assented to be bound by) the treaties that give rise to these rules.

The database consists of both a comprehensive listing of the rules now deemed applicable and a compendium of practice, both that which supports the emerging rules and objections against its validity (anyone want to take some wild guesses on what states frequently feature in the latter category?) In the new online version, the practice of some seven further states and a number of international tribunals have been added. The new database constitutes a highly accessible and useful tool alongside ICRC’s additional databases on treaty ratification and application by States Parties.

The good news is that there has been considerable progress in this area. I have written on this blog and elsewhere about the role of soft-law documents like the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in consolidating a human rights based approach that has transformed humanitarian action in the post-Cold War period. This transformation has brought new possibilities for advocacy by pairing the cautiously phrased and state-centric provisions of IHL with the less ambiguous and more individual-oriented rules of international human rights law (IHRL).

Moreover, because advocacy for the Guiding Principles has focused on engaging willing states (at the risk of to some extent being co-opted by them), they have been far more successful than most soft-law standards, to the extent of having been incorporated in numerous national laws and policies (compiled by the Brookings Institution here) as well as a groundbreaking regional convention adopted by the African Union. This, in turn, has provided support for customary IHL to more vigorously address areas such as the prohibition against arbitrary displacement (including in internal conflicts), the right of voluntary return for internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as the state obligation to respect their property rights.

However the new force and reach that a rights-based approach has given to IHL has brought new risks as well. Most obviously, by encouraging humanitarian actors to condemn violations of human rights (such as forced displacement) and demand accountability and remedies (such as restitution), the rights-based approach may create dangerously high expectations on the part of beneficiaries of aid while simultaneously undermining the perceived impartiality of humanitarian actors. In the worst cases – and we do not have to look far to find them – this limits the access of humanitarian actors to vulnerable populations and puts their own security at risk.

As a result, this ongoing retrenchment of the rules of conflict has opened up new policy debates, most recently in the extremely difficult humanitarian arena of the Syrian conflict. The latest iteration came with the 28 April 2014 publication of an open letter signed by 35 eminent legal scholars. The letter noted that 3.5 million civilians – over a third of those in urgent humanitarian need in Syria – are living in areas accessible only from neighbouring countries. However, because Syria has denied consent to humanitarian actors operating in Syria to send cross-border aid, these civilians face a catastrophe.

Continue reading

Xenophobes elected to oversee European integration

Rhodri C. Williams

Well, the loonies have officially taken over the boobyhatch, as my late sainted Aunt Pat would have said. Marine Le Pen takes 25% of the French vote. Great Britain scores the first national election won by neither Labour nor the Conservatives but a party advocating independence for the UK (why didn’t anyone think of that before?) Austria and Denmark veer wildly right. And lets not even talk about Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. So now we all get to adjust to the fact that a party campaigning under a swastika entered the European Parliament. At least they took some trouble to disguise it. Plausible deniability and all that.

Sweden was one of the few bright spots, with a very robust Green party (that has taken on some of the tough issues related to e.g. fisheries) taking second place. The election of the xenophobic and weasely Sweden Democrats (9.9%) who refused to say whether they would join a future Le Pen-led racist bloc was bad, but symbolically somewhat offset by the arrival (5.3%) of what had previously been a somewhat marginal feminist party (both were in a dead heat at 7% as of yesterday but lets take what we can get).

So with all that said, let me sign off with quotes from the Facebook feeds of three Sweden-associated friends of mine. First, as the voting began:

People who cannot be bothered to vote do not deserve to live in democracy. There are plenty of people denied any chance to make their voice heard who would gladly trade places with you. If you do not know enough – read or listen to debates. If you do not agree with any candidate – give a blank vote. Not voting has no excuse rather than laziness or stupidity. Usually both.

And as the results began to drop in:

Proud to have voted in Sweden today, wish I could have voted a few 100,000 times in the UK as well.

And as we wake up to our just desserts:

A black day for Europe. Happy that I live in a country, and from a country, that actively rejects these types of bigots and morons.

Seven decades since the end of World War II next year. I suppose Europe was overdue for a bit of teenage rebellion. Hope they don’t wrap their car around anyone’s tree.

The Kosovo Constitutional Court on displaced persons’ property rights: Can mediation ever count as enforcement?

by Massimo Moratti

Protecting the property rights of displaced persons in post-conflict scenarios presents a number of interesting challenges, not least when internally displaced persons (IDPs) face illegal construction on their land and therefore are forced to seek remedies before the relevant institutions, including mass claims mechanisms.

One of these cases, which is probably not an isolated one, occurred recently in Kosovo, where the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) is the local mass claim mechanism which inherited the competences of the UNMIK Housing and Property Directorate (HPD).  Established in 2006, the Kosovo Property Agency became an independent agency functioning in accordance with the Constitution of Kosovo after the unilateral declaration of independence.  The mandate of the KPA focuses on claims for land and commercial property, which were not addressed by the UNMIK HPD, since the HPD’s mandate did not cover such claims and the local courts were in theory competent for the receiving them. Since its inception, the KPA has collected claims for over 42,000 properties and decided 96% of those claims.

While the process of issuing decisions is approaching its end, the implementation of such decisions in a number of cases is becoming particularly problematic, especially those cases where a new building has been constructed on claimed properties. It is worth recalling that the KPA was created in 2006 and for the period 1999-2006 there was no claims mechanism to deal with claims for land, nor were courts capable of effectively processing such claims.  In the meantime, “a lot has been built in Kosovo”, to quote one of the officers of the Ombudsman office when contacted about the issue of illegal construction.

The problem the KPA is facing now is how to deal with such cases, where an illegal occupant has built a residential or commercial building on a claimed plot of land. In theory, the KPA could resolve to seize and demolish the building, sell it at an auction, broker a lease agreement or place the building under administration. However, practice has departed significantly from the procedures foreseen in the law. The KPA has instead developed a mediation procedure in order to try to solve these cases without resorting to destruction of buildings. IDPs facing illegal construction are now routinely informed by the KPA about the impossibility of demolish such buildings and offered the possibility for mediation.

This offer of mediation raises a number of issues and leaves a number of questions unanswered.  The case KI187/13 recently brought before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo highlights how the procedure of mediation collides with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In this case, a female IDP who left Kosovo in 1999 and has lived in destitute conditions since sought repossession of a large plot of land in an attractive location outside Pristina with significant commercial value. On the same plot, an illegal occupant had built three houses with a swimming pool. The applicant claimed her property in 2006 and a KPA decision in her favor became final and binding in 2013.

The KPA however told the applicant that they could not enforce her claim, because the property had changed since the time she owned it and the KPA lacked the resources to demolish the existing buildings. They offered instead to mediate between her and the illegal occupant. The applicant refused such mediation and instead addressed the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, claiming a violation of her rights to property, to a fair trial and to an effective remedy. Continue reading

One Europe?

by Rhodri C. Williams

As I type this, the points are rolling in for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Its all a little bit surreal. Having done its best to stave off ‘politicization’ of a 2012 contest handed without strings to autocratic Azerbaijan, the organizers of Eurovision are now finding European politics bashing down the door and tracking muddy footprints down the hallway.

At the other end of Europe, it has been another bloody, divisive day in Eastern Ukraine, which is now described by the Guardian as ‘on the brink of civil war’. As mob rule descended on the Eastern city of Mariupol, one local Russian speaking resident described his view of the casus belli as follows: “This is the Donetsk people’s republic! We will destroy the Kiev junta and the Euro-gays! We will win!”

At this end of Europe, the picture could not be more different, with the Euro-gays sitting rather clearly in the ascendancy as the last minutes of the Eurovision contest roll down. A few minutes back, the astonishing transvestite performer Conchita Wurst of Austria passed the point of no return, taking high points not only from predictable Western countries but also east of the Oder locales like Georgia with rather mixed past records on moving past hetero-normativity.

More sadly, a pair of talented twins who happen to hail from Russia (but probably enjoy fairly little direct responsibility for troop movements on the Ukrainian border) initially drew loud and sustained boos from the crowd every time one of Russia’s few remaining friends in the region tipped them their 10 crony points. By the end the boos seemed to be drowned out by cheers, which indicate a far greater capacity to learn quickly from past mistakes on the part of the Eurovision crowd than the Kremlin regime.

The phenomenon of Conchita Wurst at this moment in European history highlights both the ascendancy of socially liberal values across many parts of Europe and the political division that gapes ever wider between European regimes that can handle individual expression and those that find it threatening. Not that the two never play footsie, mind. Just look at former Eurovision capital Azerbaijan, returned decisively to its draconian ways after the foreign media pulled out and yet all dolled up to assume the chairmanship of Europe’s ever less credible human rights organization, the Council of Europe, in just three days.

And yet, in the afterglow of a Eurovision contest that fell overwhelmingly to an Austrian ‘bearded woman’ who could belt out a power ballad like nobody’s business, the last word is best left to Conchita herself:

Waking in the rubble
Walking over glass
Neighbors say we’re trouble
Well that time has passed

At some point, now or in the future, Moscow will need to decide whether it always wants to be that grumpy neighbor or would rather integrate more meaningfully with a European community it has every claim to be a part of. But Europe would do well in the meantime to be a little more careful about who it welcomes into Conchita’s house.

What future for reform? Tracking changes in forest tenure since 2002

by Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque

Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque is a Tenure Analyst with the Rights and Resources Initiative, and one of the lead researchers of “What Future for Reform?” along with Fernanda Almeida and Jenny Springer. He is currently managing and updating RRI’s various tenure tracking data sets and developing new methodologies to track changes in community tenure.

Few things are as political as the rights to the world’s remaining forest land. Forests are viewed by a wide range of actors as a source of timber, fiber, food, fuel, medicine, carbon storage, biodiversity, spirituality, and as sites of cultural belonging. Vast mineral, gas, and oil resources are also found beneath the world’s forests. As populations and incomes grow, pressure will continue to rise on the shrinking, yet increasingly important forest estate and the resources it contains. To understand the current contestation for these resources, it is important to begin with the following question: Who ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ these resources?

While the answers are rarely clear, and frequently contested, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and its Partners have been developing approaches to answering it since 2002. RRI’s recent report, What Future for Reform? Progress and slowdown in forest tenure reform since 2002, is the latest in a series of reports tracking developments related to four different statutory forest tenure categories: 1) forest land under government administration; 2) forest land designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities; 3) forest land owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities; and 4) forest land owned by individuals and firms.

The report presents tenure data from 2002 and 2013 under these four categories for 52 countries, representing nearly 90 percent of the global forest area.[1]  Of these, the 40 countries that have complete data for each category and time-period exclusively inform the global aggregates. The aggregates for low and middle income countries (LMICs) are drawn from 33 countries.

Key findings

On a global scale, it is clear that while governments have increasingly recognized indigenous and local community control and ownership of forest land, governments retain the lion’s share of the global forest estate. Between 2002 and 2013, the proportion of forests owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities increased from just over 11 percent of the global forest estate (at least 383 Mha) to 15.5 percent (at least 511 Mha). The proportion owned by individuals and firms only increased by 0.6 percent over this same time period.  Continue reading

Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The Peace Deal for Mindanao and its lessons for practitioners of environmental peacebuilding

by Paula Defensor Knack

Paula Defensor Knack is a is a former assistant secretary for Lands and Legislative Affairs at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She wrote on “ Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and provides an update in this guest posting. NB: This material may not be published, broadcasted, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without due reference to the author.

This blog provides a guide to peace-builders in analyzing developments in the Mindanao peace process that occurred since the publication of my chapter on “Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” (available here in pdf) in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. The recent signing of the Bangsamoro peace deal for Mindanao or the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) has received both praise and criticism. It is a work in progress as the CAB has been submitted to Congress for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.  This posting, therefore, represents a guide to peace-builders in understanding the implications of these latest developments .

This blog post is part of a continuing analysis, shared with the 700 or so members of the Environmental Peacebuilding group and policymakers, regarding each phase of this protracted conflict and its series of failed peace agreements. The analysis raises questions relevant to conflict studies, negotiation, mediation, law, political science, natural resources and environmental management, governance and peacebuilding, which may serve as guidance to both students and practitioners. A full-blown academic  analysis of this latest peace deal is to follow, but readers are also encouraged to familiarise themselves with the volumes in the Environmental Peacekeeping series related to land, natural resources and governance for case-studies providing lessons on effective post-conflict governance.

The Demands on a Peacebuilder

The work of peacebuilder can be complex, demanding and even life-threatening. Continue reading