Monthly Archives: March 2010

Happy Easter – and good on the Serbian Parliament

Just a quick administrative note to say that I will be departing this afternoon for a long Easter weekend in my wife’s ancestral village in the Åland archipelago in Finland. Pending further arrangements with our phone carrier there, I will be safely outside the blogosphere, so please don’t expect any new posts until early next week.

In the meantime, I thought it might be worth giving the Serbian Parliament its due for issuing a resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. Although the text of the resolution does not yet seem to be available in English, lots of interesting reports are new available, including by the NY Times, Euronews (with video) and the European Voice (by an old friend, Toby Vogel).

There is, of course, plenty to find fault with. It took long enough, came at a convenient time (now that Serbia safely dodged the bullet of a finding of liability for genocide in the 2007 ICJ decision in Bosnia v Serbia), and has not yet been accompanied by the handover of Ratko Mladic, who is accused of engineering the massacre and rumored to still be in hiding in Serbia. The good legislators also failed to find the strength to refer to the “g-word” itself, despite established judicial precedent on this point. Moreover, as the odious Radical Party pointed out, the resolution would probably not have come about unless as a result of international pressure.

On the other hand, what of it? International pressure is not always a bad thing, and this comes as another example of the very real soft power the EU accrues by means of remaining committed to the enlargement process. And Ratko must certainly be counting time; the fact that the earlier arrest and handover of the more charismatic (well, to some) Radovan Karadzic did not bring the heavens crashing down on Belgrade testifies to that.

And finally, conditional and caveated as it may be, this is an on-the-record apology of the type that many countries continue after decades to waste time, energy and political capital resisting. It is a milestone and one that cannot have been easy to achieve. When I consider the hysterical reaction the US has witnessed to the passage of a relatively innocuous piece of domestic  legislation on health care reform (see Frank Rich in the NY times, here), I begin to appreciate the difficulty Serbian parliamentarians face – as the representatives of constituencies conditioned by fifteen years of denial – in stating before the world that their country had been complicit in one of the most loathsome acts of post-Cold War history.

Evo, svaka čast i neka bude mir.

‘Pinheiro Principles’ drafter in running for top UN human rights spot

According to Turtle Bay last Friday, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the Brazilian diplomat who penned the 2005 Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons, is now one of four candidates in the running to be the new Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights at UN Headquarters in New York. Although Mr. Pinheiro will be associated by most readers of this blog with his eponymous restitution principles, he is better known to the outside world for his work on Burma and children’s rights.

More on the Haiti donor conference

For those of you interested in a somewhat more straightforward presentation of the Reconstruction Plan than that set out in my ramblings of yesterday, I can recommend a very good piece by Colum Lynch in yesterday’s Turtle Bay. Lynch also links to an editorial by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in the Washington Post that even more explicitly posits ‘build back better’ as a founding ideology for Haiti’s refounding:

In partnership with the international community, Haiti’s leaders are committing to a new social contract with their people. That means fully democratic government, grounded in sound economic and social policies that address extreme poverty and deep-rooted disparities of wealth. It also means fair and free elections, conducted with U.N. help, preferably by the end of this year.

This social contract must empower women — as heads of households providing for their families, as entrepreneurs developing businesses, as advocates for the vulnerable, with full rights as decision makers in evolving democratic institutions and civic action organizations. It must offer new opportunities for economic advancement — above all, jobs. The U.N. cash-for-work program should be a model. At the end of the day, only Haitians can build Haiti back better.

Haiti’s leaders are well aware that this new partnership requires a commitment to good governance, transparency and mutual accountability — between the government and the governed, between the public and private sectors, between Haiti and the international community. It requires fresh approaches to long-standing problems. Among them: the future of Haiti’s overcrowded capital. If Haiti is to flourish, social infrastructure and economic development must be dispersed from Port-au-Prince to regions and cities throughout the country. That is why Haiti’s national plan contains ample provision for environmental recovery, land reform, and new investment in fisheries and agriculture.

Watch this space! In the meantime, if any readers will be attending the New York conference and would be interested in guest-blogging on the reception of the plan and discussions surrounding decentralization, please contact me.

Leadup to the Haiti donor conference – ‘decentralization’ as central to reconstruction

by Rhodri C. Williams

With the donor conference for Haiti’s long-term reconstruction just two days away, there has been an interesting burst of information on where joint international and national policy to deal with displacement and rebuild the country’s economic base is going. For those who have followed my previous blog posts and the broader media on Haiti, there are unlikely to be any big surprises in New York on Wednesday, and a bit more in the way of confirmations that today’s emergency response programs are translating into tomorrow’s policies.

The New York Times came out with an editorial on Saturday noting the hefty bill that will be tabled – $11.5 billion up front and $34.4 billion over the next decade – but observing that it is presented in a new spirit of modesty in which the international community, along with the Haitian government, is clearly marking its intent to do things differently and better. According to the editorial, the goal of the conference must be “to sweep out the old, bad ways of doing things, not only those of the infamously corrupt and hapless government, but also of aid and development agencies, whose nurturing of Haiti has been a manifest failure for more than half a century.”

Rightly or wrongly, the past six years, including the installation of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping force in 2004 and the elections that brought sitting President Rene Preval to power in 2006 appear to have been lumped in with previous decades of international indulgence of domestic mismanagement. To be fair to MINUSTAH and the Preval Government, the outset condition of the country shattered by last January’s earthquake could have been worse. In late 2004, for instance, the ICG was still predicting that the failure of MINUSTAH to deploy on time could render Haiti “a failed state haemorrhaging refugees to the U.S.” Three years later, by contrast, the ICG could still credibly warn of the risk of a “slide back into all too familiar chaos”, but the talk was of “consolidating stability” and building on economic reforms.

Nevertheless, a fresh and considered start is welcome, and one is almost tempted to wonder if some of the breast-beating about failed past policies attributable to many of the same actors shaping the new ones does not serve some kind of cathartic purpose. As observed here earlier, the relationship between the odd couple responsible for the forthcoming reconstruction is full of potential awkwardness. Perhaps this forced marriage between rich, confident international agencies and a weak, cash-strapped government will be more palatable if both sides draw an explicit pre-nuptial line under their past failings. And, needless to say, a note of humility may also be helpful in overcoming any residual skepticism on the part of donors and policy-makers.

On the international side, there certainly are a few grounded apologies to be made and some room for concern about the absorption of past lessons as well. As reported by Reuters here, one of the revelations during the lead-up to the conference has been former US President and current Haiti envoy Bill Clinton’s admission that pressure by the US and international financial institutions to open the Haitian economy to subsidized agricultural imports had devastated viable domestic production:

Experts now acknowledge that the influx over the past two decades of subsidized cheaper farm imports, ushered in by World Bank and International Monetary Fund free-trade policies that obliged Haiti to open its markets, delivered a virtual death blow to Haitian agriculture from which it has never recovered.

***

On a visit to quake-stricken Haiti this week, former U.S. President Bill Clinton recognized that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank, albeit well-intentioned, had been wrong to push developing states into opening their markets to cheap subsidized imports.

During his presidency from 1993 to 2001, he said he had signed legislation that had effectively increased the penetration of American rice into Haiti, which decimated that country’s own rice production.

“I think it was a mistake, I think it was part of a global trend that was wrong-headed,” Clinton told reporters, adding he was now looking to boost Haitian farm output by providing seeds and fertilizer through his own charitable foundation.

While Clinton’s support for the FAO’s proposed rural development plan, posted on here, appears to represent a meaningful break with past development policy, the New York Times recently reported on a less savory aspect of the reconstruction in the form of a reinvigorated ‘peacekeeper economy’ in Port au Prince. According to the Times, the vagaries of the quake have led to the city’s largest tent camp – with a population of over 40,000 – being set up on the grounds of a country club in Petionville, traditionally something of a playground for the capital’s elite. As the international relief effort becomes institutionalized (and just search ReliefWeb’s job postings by Haiti if you don’t think that is happening), this is bound to highlight some awkward contrasts:

Haiti has long had glaring inequality, with tiny pockets of wealth persisting amid extreme poverty, and Pétionville itself was economically mixed before the earthquake, with poor families living near the gated mansions and villas of the rich.

But the disaster has focused new attention on this gap, making for surreal contrasts along the streets above Port-au-Prince’s central districts. People in tent camps reeking of sewage are living in areas where prosperous Haitians, foreign aid workers and diplomats come to spend their money and unwind. Often, just a gate and a private guard armed with a 12-gauge shotgun separate the newly homeless from establishments like Les Galeries Rivoli, a boutique where wealthy Haitians and foreigners shop for Raymond Weil watches and Izod shirts.

***

And on the floor above [a] casino, a nightclub called Barak, with blaring music and Miami-priced cocktails, caters to a different elite here: United Nations employees and foreigners working for aid groups. They mingle with dozens of suggestively clad Haitian women and a few moneyed Haitian men taking in the scene.

As hundreds of displaced families gathered under tents a few yards away, the music of Barak continued into the night. A bartender could not keep up with orders for Presidente beers.

So, with all these background factors in mind, what of the plan that will be tabled on Wednesday? The full English translation of the ‘Action Plan for the Reconstruction and National Development of Haiti’ is now available for download here. It appears that the Paul Collier proposal I mentioned in an earlier post has been taken on board, with a joint international and national interim recovery commission meant to coordinate aid and evolve into a national development authority in the fullness of time. Broader involvement of Haitian civil society is another central plank, although some skepticism appears to remain in the run-up to the conference. Finally, and of most interest from a housing and land perspective, ‘decentralization’ – in the form of encouraging those displaced to the countryside to remain there – has become an explicit article of policy.

In fact, decentralization and broad-based participation are discussed with a fervor that verges on the messianic. The plan notes that the devastation wrought by the earthquake were due not only to its force by also the fragility of a society marked by high population density, inadequate building codes, bad land use practices, environmental degradation, and profound economic imbalances in which “over 65% of economic activity and 85% of fiscal revenue [were] concentrated in Port-au-Prince.” An expanded version of decentralization is then posited as the solution; ‘build back better’ on an essentially constitutional level:

To rebuild Haiti does not mean to return to the situation of January 11, on the eve of the earthquake. It is to address all these areas of vulnerability, so that never again the vagaries of nature or natural disasters inflict such suffering or cause so much damage and loss.

The proposed plan aims to go beyond a response to the damage and losses caused by the earthquake. It aims to initiate projects to act now while putting in place the conditions for addressing the structural causes that allowed this earthquake to hit the country so hard.

The situation that the country is facing is difficult but not desperate. In many respects it even provides an opportunity to unite Haitians of all classes and origins in the common task of “refounding” the country on a new footing. Nobody has been spared, and no one can pick themselves up again alone. We must build on this new solidarity which is expected to result in profound changes in behavior and attitudes,

That is why the plan that is being proposed is not solely that of the State, of the Government and of Parliament. It is that of all the sectors of Haitian society where everyone is called upon to play his role, in search of the collective interest that ultimately is the best guarantor of individual interests in an inclusive society.

While the terminology appears to be a somewhat ad hoc reaction to the circumstances of the quake, the idea behind ‘decentralization’ is not new. As late as April 2009, for instance, ICG advocated “investing more external aid in rural development to stem the flow of migrants to urban slums” in a report on the security implications of Haiti’s environmental degradation. Under the current circumstances, e.g. with rural-urban migration not only stemmed but partly reversed, retaining the current status quo seems a matter of simple common sense. As stated in the NY Times editorial:

There are too many people in Port-au-Prince. Haiti needs new population centers, less congested and more vibrant. The failure to build safe housing for earthquake survivors is a continuing tragedy; the time to start fixing it is now, far from the capital.

It is hard to take issue with the necessity of decentralization, particularly now while humanitarian workers are still scrambling to ensure safe transitional sites for those who remained in quake-affected towns. As described in the latest OCHA update, this effort continues to be slowed by delays in identifying safe and legally available sites, as well as ongoing discussions over criteria and procedures for safe relocation from existing spontaneous camps.

However, over the medium term a degree of care will be necessary to avoid the potential for two of the key planks of the recovery plan – decentralization and broad-based participation – to avoid coming into conflict with each other. As discussed in a recent post on Liberia, return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) can neither be forced nor prevented barring exceptional circumstances. As with all non-displaced Haitian citizens, IDPs enjoy the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence.

In this context, the arguments for decentralization may be good, but they must ultimately be compelling to the displaced persons in question themselves, not just civil society groups or international donors. The international community and the national authorities have done a good job putting together a sensible plan in a hurry. On Wednesday, the donors will vote with their pocketbooks, and after that Haiti’s disaster IDPs will vote (or abstain) with their feet.

A weather eye on Sudan

by Rhodri C. Williams

I pause a bit before blogging on Sudan as there are so many people who know so much more than I do and blogs like Understanding Sudan seem to have made Khartoumology into the new Kremlinology (rightly so for anyone seriously interested in how to disentangle the knots of conflict and displacement that link the entire region). However, my reading of the surface phenomena this week has been slightly alarming.

First, Refugees International has come with a new report, No Time for ‘Business as Usual’ on North-South relations in light of the upcoming elections and the possibilities for renewed conflict. In essence, the report raises the concern that the persistence of longstanding international crisis response networks on the ground in Southern Sudan may have created a false sense of security:

While many international observers felt that the country would “muddle through” with only limited outbreaks of fighting in border and oil-rich areas, others felt that south Sudan was heading towards total collapse with an explosion of inter-ethnic tensions. A key concern was that a gradual ratcheting up of tensions rather than all-out war would mean no “CNN moment” to attract worldwide attention and funding.

The RI report warned about large scale territorial conflicts that jeopardize entire communities such as the “southern-aligned communities in the Nuba Mountains” who, after an independence vote, might be “isolated and targeted by proxy groups armed by the north in an effort to remove them from their land.” In addition to international contingency planning and community emergency preparedness measures, RI recommended the same type of basic returnee reintegration support measures that ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group and others have been advocating for years.

Meanwhile, as RI was busy telling the international community not to lose track of the South, a new report from AlertNet was warning that too much attention to the South was diverting international attention from a new potential meltdown in Darfur. And from a land rights perspective, perhaps the most disturbing element appeared to be that for want of any better idea of how to destabilize Darfur again, the Khartoum government appears to be backing a full dress re-enactment of the original pageantry of displacement that tore through the Darfur countryside six years ago:

And there are good reasons why violence may escalate in this highly militarised and polarised region. Any chance of lasting peace depends on addressing the root causes of the war which include the region’s political and economic marginalisation and tensions over access to land.

***

Tensions are also likely to spiral if the government carries out its plans to close the displacement camps and force people to return home.

Arab pastoralist and nomadic populations have moved into many of the villages abandoned by the displaced, most of them from non-Arab tribes, or turned them into grazing land, says Sudan analyst Eric Reeves.

“Forced returns amid present insecurity is a formula for renewed violence, and on a large scale,” he said.

Would someone pinch me or are South Sudan and Darfur really to be condemned to repeat their recent history – and all of us condemned again to watch?

Côte d’Ivoire: land reform as a substitute mechanism for restitution to displaced persons

by Barbara McCallin

Côte d’Ivoire is currently experiencing a renewed political crisis that has overshadowed many of the issues faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in particular land disputes. On 12 February, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo dismissed both the Electoral Commission and the Coalition Government, thereby delaying the election process for the sixth time since 2005 when they were first scheduled to take place. Meanwhile, the mandate of the Ministry of Solidarity and War Victims to act as a national IDP focal point has been discontinued. The Ministry had set up an inter-ministerial committee on IDPs and was working on draft legislation on compensation and restitution issues. It is unclear whether its responsibilities will be taken up by another branch of the executive. A new government was announced on 23 February but, as of the beginning of March, the eleven remaining vacant ministerial posts (out of a total of 27) included the Ministry for Agriculture, which is in charge of implementing important land reform legislation.

Background

The political crisis and the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire are closely linked to the issue of migrants’ citizenship and land rights. One of the underlying causes of the original 2002 conflict was resentment against the very migrants’ whose massive immigration to the Western Forest area of the country had been encouraged during the 1960s and the 70s through facilitated access to land and voting rights. The exploitation of region’s fertile lands contributed to increased exports of agricultural products that benefited the whole country. However, resentment against migrants from other regions of Côte d’Ivoire as well as foreigners was exacerbated by the economic crisis that affected the country in the 1980s and the 90s, resulting in growing calls by ‘indigenous’ Ivoirians to revoke the land and voting rights granted to migrant workers during previous decades.

These tensions resulted in an armed conflict which broke out in 2002, causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands people. Since the 2007 Peace Agreement was signed, the number of displaced has dropped to approximately 600,000. However, as there are no comprehensive records of return movements, the total number for IDPs in 2009 cannot be precisely determined except for the Moyen-Cavally region where some 80,000 people remain displaced.

A November 2009 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) examines land disputes in the Moyen Cavally and 18 Montagnes regions which are situated in the Western Forest area of Côte d’Ivoire. This area was one of the main arrival points for migrants and has been most affected by displacement and return movements. Longstanding land disputes in these regions have been exacerbated by the armed conflict, the resulting displacement and the subsequent return of IDPs. As in many other post-conflict situations, many IDPs and returnees have found their plots sold or leased by others, depriving of the means to independent subsistence and sustainable return.

The IDMC report analyses the nature of land disputes and the existing customary and statutory mechanisms to address them, focusing on the specific difficulties faced by displaced persons and returnees in resolving their land claims by these means. As Côte d’Ivoire has not developed an IDP-specific system of restitution or compensation for properties abandoned due to the conflict, these pre-existing mechanisms represent the only hope of redress, despite not being adapted to IDPs’ specific circumstances.

Reliance on the Rural Land Law

The Government’s intention is to settle both pre-war and post-war land disputes through its 1998 Rural Land Law, which aims to recognise and formalise customary land rights by setting out procedures and conditions for them to be transformed into title deeds. However, the law reflects the tensions between native Ivoirians and migrants in that only Ivorian citizens are to be granted ownership title, while others will be entitled to a long-term lease. Although this formulation at least allows Ivorian migrants from other regions of the country the possibility of obtaining title, the resentment of ‘autochtones’, or original inhabitants of the region, against all migrants, domestic or foreign, means that careful monitoring of the process will be necessary to avoid discrimination. The implementation of the law is likely to raise all of the social, economic, institutional and political challenges inherent in ordinary titling programs exacerbated by tensions related to the conflict and resulting displacement.

In a country where only two per cent of rural land is registered, and nearly all land transfers are informal, the reform represents a radical change. Populations used to customary management of land may be wary of a system that imposes a complex procedures and a new land tax without providing clear new benefits. Migrants, whose land rights have been challenged, may appreciate the new possibility to secure their land rights, even if this is limited to a long-term lease for non-Ivorians. From an institutional point of view, the formalisation program will require considerable administrative, financial and human capacity over the short and long term. To put this in perspective, in 2009 Côte d’Ivoire had only 23 surveyors available to demarcate the over twenty million hectares of rural land covered by the Land Law.

Little impact, high tensions

Although the aim of the Land Law is to reduce tensions resulting from the uncertainty of customary transactions, implementing it in the context of ongoing displacement may raise new tensions, as its provisions now represent IDPs’ only legal recourse to repossess their property. The IDMC report identifies several rules in the Law that may discriminate against IDPs and makes corresponding recommendations. For instance, in the absence of a formal instruction clarifying that absence due to the conflict should not be taken into account, there is a risk that the Land Committees implementing the law may interpret the requirement of “a certified statement of the continuous and peaceful existence of customary rights” to the detriment of absent IDPs. Similarly, the requirement that requests for formalisation must be made in the place of origin penalises IDPs. Finally, IDPs also need to be informed that requests may be submitted on their plot of land without their knowledge, so that they can make inquiries and defend their interests.

While the various elements of the Law have hardly begun to be applied, a recent announcement by the Ministry of Agriculture on accelerated implementation has raised tensions in the Western Forest area. It is therefore imperative to inform the population about the actual content of the law while at the same time advocating with the authorities to correct the problems identified.

The Rural Land Law has had a limited impact so far. As of November 2009, not a single title deed had been issued based on the Law. This means that IDPs and others affected by land disputes have to seek other mechanisms to address their problems. Unfortunately, the crisis has also rendered existing customary, administrative and judicial mechanisms for managing land disputes less effective. The legitimacy of customary institutions has been weakened by the younger generation’s rejection of land sales concluded with migrants by the elders. Conflict also stems from confusion over the nature of land sales: migrants believed they bought the land permanently while native villagers pretend they merely sold a temporary right of use. The displacement of many customary chiefs has kept them from performing their roles and led others assert contested claims to their office. Finally, local authorities, NGOs and private individuals have initiated ad hoc dispute resolution mechanisms in some areas, adding further confusion and promoting inconsistent adjudication processes.

Adjudicating rights in forestland

The Rural Land Law does not cover disputes over land located in protected forests, where many IDPs had plantations, and there is at present no mechanism to address such disputes. Land transactions in protected forests are prohibited by the forest code and the administration of the forest is delegated to a public institution (‘Sodefor’), which may contract with private companies to undertake regulated exploitation of forest resources. In practice, many transactions between native Ivorians and migrants have taken place. Such transactions being illegal, there is currently no possibility either for IDPs to repossess their land or for migrants to formalise rights they acquired. The ad hoc solutions that have been proposed so far reflect political calculations than a rights-based approach. Further research on ways to address land disputes in protected forests would be useful, and I would welcome examples of good practice from other countries readers may be familiar with.

On the occasion of the report’s launch by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Abidjan last November, the participants agreed to create working groups on land issues in Abidjan and in the Prefectures (regional level) that would include the Ministry of Agriculture, Sodefor and UN agencies. However, in view of the current political tensions, only two local land working groups have begun work in the Western Forest area.

Back to the land for displaced persons?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I was recently struck by a CSM commentary on peace-building in Liberia by Greg Mills. Mr. Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg which is, by its own terms, dedicated to “strengthening Africa’s economic performance”. They operate in an advisory capacity in a number of African countries including Liberia, and appear to be juggling any number of initiatives, ranging from extracting applicable lessons from economic reforms in Georgia to improving corporate social responsibility in Liberia based on African principles. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise that the thrust of the CSM comment was the need to, in effect, improve attitudes and end a wartime culture of dependency:

Making an immediate impact after the conflict ends is relatively easy. Taking things to the next level involves more than providing potable water, roads, ports, and electricity, however challenging this may be. It requires aquiring the soft infrastructure of training, skills, work ethic, and mind-set right in getting Liberians working again.

What was striking was not so much this general diagnosis of what ails Liberia but rather the cure that was then put forward. In essence, Liberians are advised to seek their fortune in agriculture:

Right now, Liberia cannot feed itself and there is little appetite to work the land. But if Liberia is to be a sustained success story, it will have to get people working on the land where its biggest comparative advantage exists.

Low population density, rich soil, and plenty of water make it the perfect location for growing rice and other staples. As Patrick Mazimhaka, a veteran Rwandan and African Union politician notes, “One thing we have not got right is how difficult it seems to be for people to go back to agriculture after long wars.”

The author goes on to acknowledge the significant obstacles – insecure tenure, persistent disputes and ethnic schisms – that complicate such a proposal in Liberia. However, he concludes by noting that the inculcation of a culture of responsibility could provide the solution. While this was a well-put if slightly paternalistic argument, the device of encouraging a return of urban internally displaced persons (IDPs) to agriculture seems to play on an almost romantic idea of national renewal through a return to the yeoman virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. It also seemed to strike a chord with efforts underway in Haiti, posted on earlier here, to ensure that those displaced to the countryside are encouraged to remain there rather than drifting back to overcrowded camps in the cities directly affected by the January 12 quake.

As many readers will be aware, these proposals take their place in a protracted debate about the role of return as a “durable solution” to displacement which has been rolling along since the early 1990s. The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia posited return as a means of undoing the effects of the conflict and included property restitution as an explicit device to bring return about. Ultimately, many who worked in Bosnia, myself included, came to the view that encouraging individual choice about whether to return or resettle was both more meaningful and more challenging than focusing on return, per se.

However, a  preference for return continued to crop up in international policy, arguably culminating in the 2005 adoption of the Pinheiro Principles on property restitution for refugees and displaced persons (which clarify that property remedies cannot be held hostage to return, but place tight restrictions on when compensation can be allowed in lieu of restitution – effectively prioritizing remedies that would allow for return). Since 2005, there has been something of a backlash, perhaps most explicitly expressed by ODI in its recent policy brief on land disputes and humanitarian action:

In the aftermath of war, humanitarian efforts tend to focus on activities that aim to restore the pre-war status quo. These efforts are based on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between war and peace. In reality there is no clear-cut division…. Furthermore, violent conflict destroys not only political, economic and social structures, but is itself a process of transformation in which alternative systems of economic accumulation, social regulation and political governance emerge. These changes are part of an ‘accelerated transition’ that invariably accentuates processes of change that in most cases are already under way, and that are in any event irreversible. Returning to the status quo ante is usually impossible and may in fact not be desirable if it fails to tackle the grievances that led to the conflict in the first place, or that have emerged during the conflict.

In most cases, this ‘accelerated transition’ takes the form of urbanization through displacement, as seen in Liberia. And there is certainly evidence, all rural idylls aside, that urbanization may not only be better for the environment and checking world population growth, but that it may also, if properly managed, provide enormous benefits in terms of improved educational opportunities and living standards for rural migrants, forced or voluntary.

Indeed, coming from South Africa, Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation should be well aware of the problem of getting people to go back to agriculture after long absences. In recent months, the government there has appeared to back away from a highly ambitious goal of redistributing 30% of arable land to blacks by 2014. According to a recent article in the Mail and Guardian, this has come about not only because of the high prospective costs this would impose, but also because of the insight that more than 90% of the nearly 6 million hectares of land previously acquired for redistribution is now fallow, crimping Government revenues and raising food security concerns. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture is not only focusing on support and mentoring programs for new farmers but has also issued a controversial proposal to declare arable land a “national asset”, forcing redistribution beneficiaries to productivity through a “use it or lose it” approach.

The South African redistribution program – which includes a direct restitution component – was meant to respond to the near complete dispossession of black Africans beginning with the 1913 Natives Land Act. Confined to arid tribal ‘homelands’ and peri-urban shantytowns, many South African blacks found themselves in an effective state of protracted internal displacement at the fall of the apartheid regime. However, the current debate over land redistribution may represent a dawning realization that truly durable solutions to such dislocation are likely to result from supporting the choices of those affected themselves. As I described in an earlier publication for ICTJ, the political opposition questioned whether land distribution – and the underlying dream of a black return to agrarian livelihoods – truly resonated with shantytown residents, many of whom may have come to see their future in exclusively urban terms.

In any case, recent international policy documents such as the Framework on Durable Solutions for IDPs (see post here) reinforce the principle that informed choice lies at the heart of durable solutions to displacement. Policy preferences can come in to shape such choices, but the Framework stipulates that they must be “based on serious and objective reasons” (para. 30) and goes on to provide illustrations and criteria that underscore the exceptional nature of permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence for IDPs (see paragraphs 29 to 33).

In a sense, this makes Liberia a resolvable conundrum. The rural economic potential appears to be there and if it can be harnessed in a manner that creates tangible opportunities for those now uprooted in urban centers, returns to the land will surely follow. However, actively promoting such returns at a time when the risks involved remain very concrete and the opportunities still notional could put the cart before the horse. The goal should not be to repopulate the countryside by reshuffling displaced people but to end displacement by creating the conditions for sustainable rural return.