Tag Archives: restitution

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

Land reform in Colombia: One step forward, two steps back

by Nelson Camilo Sánchez and Ilan Grapel

Nelson Camilo Sánchez is a research coordinator of the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society Dejusticia and associate professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota. Ilan Grapel is a recent graduate of Emory University School of Law. For the last six months, he has been working with Dejusticia, where he has been researching issues relating to transitional justice in Colombia’s peace process.

Land reform in Colombia, while politically sensitive, is necessary to stabilize the country and end a violent conflict that has plagued Colombians for more than half a century. Colombia’s internal fighting has deprived millions of their land and livelihood. Adopted in June 2011, Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law, also known as Law 1448, is an important advance in providing restitution for those displaced by the conflict.

With this law, the government officially recognized the existence of an internal armed conflict. The Victims Law demonstrates that the government hopes to provide greater rights to the victims of the conflict. However, this legislation needs to overcome many obstacles; foremost among them, the Victims Law needs to find a way to provide reprieve to the large number of victims who may be entitled to compensation under the law.

To date, the government has made progress in realizing restitution claims. However, the law alone cannot cure Colombia of inequality within its population. As the government struggles to return impoverished victims to their lands, the moneyed classes continues to aggregate land and resources that allow them to maintain a lifestyle vastly different from the average Colombian, let alone the landless farmers. This inequality creates a tension that prolongs the hostilities and continues the displacement in the region.

For Colombia to transition into a successful and stable country, the government needs both to improve the Victims Law and address other land distribution problems.

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Upcoming guest posting on the Colombian restitution process

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce another happy by-product of my recent participation in the Essex Transitional Justice Network’s recent course and seminar on land issues in transitions. In addition to Clara Sandoval’s upcoming guest-post on the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s recent ruling on Chile, I can now reveal that another seminar participant, Camilo Sánchez of the Colombian NGO Dejusticia, will be writing for TN together with his colleague Ilan Grapel.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Camilo during earlier work on property issues in Colombia, such as a UNHCHR workshop for the then-newly minted restitution judges precisely a year ago (for all the presentations including my own in simultaneous Español, see here). In the context of what is often a hopelessly prickly relationship between government and civil society, Camilo and his colleagues at Dejusticia deftly combine effective advocacy with sharp, independent analysis.

Camilo’s post will focus on the implementation of the current program of restitution of land aimed primarily at victims of Colombia’s right wing paramilitaries, arguing that improvements to the functioning of the restitution law should be accompanied by a broader commitment to distributive reforms. This is of course a crucial topic at the moment for Colombia, given the negotiation process with the Farc that resulted in a landmark agreement on agrarian reform last Spring.

One of the issues that has haunted both the current restitution process and the Government’s efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Farc has been the issue of whether it will truly be capable of ending a centuries-long tradition of failed land reform and resulting political instability. Ana Maria Ibanez and Juan Carlos Munoz captured this historical dynamic in their chapter of a 2010 Forum for International Criminal and Humanitarian Law volume on “distributive justice in transitions” (highly recommended and available here in pdf).

Ibanez and Munoz describe how Colombia’s vast interior allowed successive governments to buck pressure to redistribute land by encouraging the “colonization” of smallholder plots – only to have the big landowners swallow these plots up again, turning their cultivators into impoverished and aggrieved tenants. Cited in a recent article in the Economist, Ibanez has gone on to note how mass displacement and ongoing violence from the last round of ‘agrarian counter-reform’ have fundamentally reduced tenure security for all farmers, reducing the country’s agricultural efficiency:  Continue reading

Svaka čast Croatia

by Rhodri C. Williams

And let me say how honored I am that you chose my birthday for accession to the EU! I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with you in the past, I have to admit. On the positive side, I used to flee to you when the narrow valleys of Bosnia got me feeling fenced in and I needed to pop over that last rise after the Metkovic border crossing and let that view – the burnished expanse of the Adriatic – seep physically into me. We also used to pile out to the north, going hell for leather from Slavonski Brod along the ex-Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, anything just to hit Zagreb before the only Mexican restaurant in the West Balkans announced last call.

Beyond my personal enjoyment of your charms, I was also impressed in a grim way by your ability to stick it out as a small country in a historically tough neighborhood. The sort of existential problems you faced in the 1990s were unlikely anything I could imagine, having grown up in the protected suburban vastnesses of the 1970s US midwest. The problem, in my mind, was not (only) that you didn’t have clean hands (nobody did). The problem was that you couldn’t come clean about it. Of course, nobody else could either, but you, unlike the others, just galumphed right over your historical indiscretions like so many speed bumps on the boulevard to European integration.

So what is my beef? Well, I worked on property restitution in Bosnia. So I watched as the ‘international community’ in Sarajevo turned the screws on the Bosnians until they extended restitution to cover not only all private houses but also all socially owned apartments (with a few fateful exceptions of course). And I watched as the same international community in Zagreb gradually conceded points that we had gone to the wall over in Sarajevo and started to purge terminology like ‘tenancy rights’ from documents like EU accession progress reports.

I also worked on the OSCE and ICHR friend of the court briefs in the ill-fated Blecic case before the European Court of Human Rights, and assisted the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s attempt to push for uniform restitution standards in Europe. I marveled both when the ICTY condemned the uncompensated confiscation of 30,000 socially owned apartments as part of a broader plan to remove Serbs from Croatia, and when that ruling fell on a seeming technicality. And I am left to conclude that the relatively prosperous and self-confident Croatian political elite was simply not held to the same rigorous standards still being applied to their poor and less organized cousins in Bosnia.

The bottom line is that the country that declared independence in 1991 had a 12.2% Serb minority while the country that joined the EU today has a 4.4% Serb minority, and that little statistic patches over a lot of ongoing misery and unredressed violations. Now I know its still not an easy time for you what with sliding EU support and all the commentators cracking wise about how you fought your way out of one oppressive, economically troubled confederation twenty years ago only to fling yourself into another today. So I’ll say only this. It is entirely to your credit that you have entered the hallowed precincts of the EU but it is troubling that you did so with a certain number of skeletons clanking around in your luggage.

Of course, one might as easily find fault for this state of affairs in Brussels as in Zagreb. But pressuring countries that are already in to observe such niceties as the Copenhagen criteria and the rule of law is not the EU’s traditional strong suit. In any case, that is nothing that should prevent you from finding that it lies in your own best interest to engage sooner rather than later with your past. And doing so in a clear-eyed way would, at a stroke, remove many of the excuses holding back your EU-aspirant neighbors from doing the same. And maybe leave both the EU and the western Balkans in better shape as a result. So, congratulations, and good luck as part of the European project of building a future worthy of the sacrifices and suffering of the past.

Land deal between Government and FARC in Colombia

by Rhodri C. Williams

Reports have emerged this morning that peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the left-wing Farc rebels have resulted in an accord on land issues. The chief Government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle describes the land agreement (here, in Spanish) as a measure that will “transform the rural realities of Colombia and create real changes that can close the gap between rural and urban areas.”

In both Mr. de la Calle’s official statement and the actual Joint Communication issued by the parties to the negotiations in Havana (both in Spanish), a good deal of stress is placed on the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Thus, although the land accord represents a real breakthrough, it will remain no more than “principles that orient” the peace talks until the peace talks are concluded. And numerous challenges lay ahead, beginning with the next chapter of talks on FARC’s future political status.

However, there is certainly cause to take hope. While the current set of statements are vague on details, two principles appear to be clearly endorsed. The first is that the accord would support an equitable approach to land in rural areas, bringing broad-based economic and social development and securing land for campesinos. If implemented, this would quite simply set the last three hundred years of Colombian rural land policy on its head.

Second, the starting point for the accords appears to be the principle that those wrongfully dispossessed of their land in connection with the decades long conflict between the Farc and the government must receive a remedy. While the parties continue to disagree on who is responsible for how much dispossession (as between  right wing paramilitary groups that have enjoyed the tacit support of the Government in the past and Farc fighters), the establishment of the principle that victims should receive remedies in all cases, is a crucial breakthrough.

Just how crucial will be clear to anyone who has studied the long and tormented history of restitution proposals made during the previous process of demobilising right wing paramilitaries, beginning during the tenure of the previous President Alvaro Uribe, but only meaningfully engaged under the current President Manuel Santos. And a very healthy precedent was set by the fact that when restitution legislation was finally passed early in President Santos’ presidency, it applied in principle in favor of all victims, regardless of the perpetrator.

It is encouraging that the land accord reached in the Farc peace process appears to have bypassed the protracted wrangling over responsibility for dispossessions and other abuses that plagued paramilitary demobilisation. However, the most hopeful sign of all may be that the restitution process that resulted from paramilitary demobilisation appears to have taken hold, with a dedicated corps of restitution judges issuing fairly bold decisions on the return of land taken by notorious paramilitary groups, many of whom remain active – and dangerous – in the form of ‘criminal bands’.

The slow pace of the current restitution process and the continued risks to both claimants and adjudicators indicate the challenges that will face the eventual implementation of the Farc land accords. At the same time, the apparent commitment of the Santos Government to implementation of its restitution commitments in the wake of paramilitary demobilisation may give victims of the conflict with the Farc reasonable grounds for hope.

Post-conflict property restitution in Kosovo: A continuing challenge

by Guido van Heugten

Guido van Heugten graduated from the ‘NOHA’ masters program in International Humanitarian Action at Uppsala University). He wrote his thesis on ‘Post-Conflict Property Restitution in Kosovo’.

Even over a decade after the violent conflict of 1999, Kosovo is often still referred to as a ‘hot potato’ that has been passed on from the UN to the EU, which is currently desperately searching for ways to find a resolution for the dispute between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina. The recently elected Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic has stated that Kosovo Serbs are currently living under threat of genocide and that he would not rule out a partition between ethnic Serb and Albanian regions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on a visit to Kosovo, tried to focus more on common challenges and opportunities and made another attempt to stress the importance of dialogue in order to find resolution to the regions issues.

The population of Kosovo is indeed still much divided between the lines of ethnicity and identity, fuelling a volatile security situation, especially in the Northern provinces surrounding the divided town of Mitrovica. Together with resolution of the political problems relating to Kosovo’s continuing status as a UN protectorate, it is crucial that serious efforts are being made by all stakeholders to finish the property restitution process and ensure respect for housing, land and property (HLP) rights in the context of conflict resolution efforts in the region.

Due to the 1990s trends toward increasing displacement and internal conflicts and the decreasing will of Western states to provide asylum, voluntary return (as opposed to resettlement) became the preferred policy when dealing with displaced populations in post-conflict contexts. This is also expressed by the development of international policy around that time, culminating in the adoption of the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons in 2005.

The 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo caused immense damage to property, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights determined was not solely an act of vandalism, but an attempt at wiping out signs of the presence of entire populations, including their national and cultural identity.[1] In most UN peacekeeping missions, HLP rights usually do not play a very central role, even though land and property issues are often an underlying cause of conflict. Kosovo however, has been one of the few places where the UN has decided to give property restitution an important role in the peace-building process.[2]

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The Kampala Convention on internal displacement in Africa: What does it mean for housing, land and property restitution?

by Mike Asplet and Megan Bradley

Mike Asplet is an attorney currently working with the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement. Megan Bradley is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she works with the Brookings-LSE Project.

The African Union’s Kampala Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Africa will hopefully come into force any day now. When it does, it will be the first regional treaty to comprehensively address the IDP issue, from preventing displacement to providing protection and assistance, and supporting durable solutions. The Kampala Convention represents a critical new tool for tackling some of the largest and most complex IDP situations in the world: some 10 million people are internally displaced across the continent, making up one third of the world’s IDP population.

The treaty reflects well-established normative frameworks, primarily the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which have to date provided the foundation for IDP protection and assistance efforts. However, the Kampala Convention also significantly advances the normative framework on internal displacement in several key areas. These include protection from arbitrary displacement; the responsibilities of the African Union, multinational companies and private security actors; and the right to a remedy for the wrongs associated with displacement, including the loss of housing, land and property (HLP). The question of remedies for lost HLP is particularly important, as land conflict is at the root of many internal displacement flows in Africa, and the resolution of hotly contested land claims represents a key barrier to solutions for thousands of IDPs.

On first glance, it doesn’t seem like the Kampala Convention has much to say about land issues, and in particular the restitution of displaced persons’ lost property. In light of the popularization of the (contested) UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (the so-called “Pinheiro Principles”) and trends such as the now-common practice of explicitly addressing the restoration of displaced persons’ HLP rights in peace treaties, it is striking that there is no reference to restitution in the Kampala Convention. This omission is clearly deliberate. While many provisions from the Guiding Principles have been specifically incorporated into the Kampala Convention (in some places without amendment), the documents diverge considerably in their approach to question of HLP rights, and restitution in particular.

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