Lost in transition – EU financed legal aid programme between Serbia and Kosovo falters

by Massimo Moratti

Since 2012, I have been informing the readers on some key developments in the field of property rights, as they emerged from the practice of a legal aid project in Serbia for refugees from Bosnia and Croatia as well as displaced persons from Kosovo*. The November 2011 – June 2015 phase of the project (which has been funded by the EU Delegation to Serbia since 2008) was implemented by a team of lawyers and barristers I had the privilege of leading.

Many of the blog readers might wonder what happened with the Project since the last post two years ago, and I am glad to use this opportunity to provide an update on subsequent developments. At that time, the project was due to end in June 2014, but received a one year cost extension from the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia. The project was financed under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), the main fund to support countries that are in the EU accession process.

Under the terms of the IPA, a local public institution, in this case the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (the OKiM), was designated as beneficiary of the Project. Accordingly, the OKiM provided free legal aid to displaced persons from Kosovo via outsourcing to a consortium of private companies and NGOs, which in turn implemented the project under the EU flag.

This is the standard arrangement for EU funding, but in this specific case, where the divide between Serbia and Kosovo* institutions remains wide, it was crucial to make sure that a team of EU-funded lawyers could operate between the two legal systems, engaging in de facto conduct that I defined as “shuttle legal aid”.

For those not familiar with the practicalities of the issue, it is worth recalling that there are, according to the Serbian authorities, around 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. It is unclear how many of them have not yet solved their property issues. While displaced persons are mostly in Serbia, their properties and other assets are located in Kosovo, and any attempt at ensuring the protection of their rights needs to be conducted before the institutions of Kosovo*.

However, the two legal system do not recognize each other’s documents, and there is no functioning post or telephone system between Kosovo* and Serbia. Lawyers and legal aid NGOs from Serbia are often reluctant to travel to Kosovo, both because of logistical and security issues and due to lack of familiarity with the institutional setting of the former Serbian province. Lawyers from Kosovo do not seem interested in conducting any outreach to potential clients in Serbia and more important than everything else, displaced persons themselves do not have the financial means to pay for legal expenses.

The EU-funded legal aid programme presented a solution to these problems, since it could operate in both Kosovo and in Serbia. The positive aspects were numerous: the project bridged the institutional gaps between the two systems, it was staffed with an adequate number of lawyer and barristers familiar with national and international law, and its proceedings were completely free for the IDPs (including coverage of court fees and expenses).

Indeed, besides successfully representing thousands of persons in administrative and court proceedings, the Project generated valuable information, in that it could closely observe the workings of the courts of Kosovo* in the context of property cases. Most of these cases involved disputes about the possession of property where an inter-ethnic element was present, which raised the profile and the tension in many of these disputes.

The project had a unique point of view, namely that of the claimants and their legal representatives and it could accordingly witness how legal proceedings took place “from the bottom” and very often without other international observers present. This unique point of view allowed the project to use its cases to collect information on court practice and in this manner legal aid became a “fact finding” tool, regularly reporting its findings on its website and from time to time on this blog.

The topics covered were some of the most contentious in Kosovo. Moreover, they involved the issue of property rights, where, as consistently highlighted in the EU Progress Reports about Kosovo, progress was slow or non-existent.

In the course of its work, the Project successfully represented displaced persons who were trying to challenge the illegal occupation, and in some cases demolition, of their properties. In other cases, the Project initiated criminal and civil proceedings cases against persons who acquired property via “fraudulent transactions”, highlighting patterns indicating that the forgery of property documents and records was not just an act of few corrupt individuals, but in certain areas a concerted effort to grab land to be used for business purposes.

In several landmark cases before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, it was also possible to highlight how an internationally funded mass claims mechanism, the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) had itself violated the rights to property and fair trial by refusing to solve property disputes or to award compensation to claimants.

However, like all projects, this one too came to an end on 12 June 2015. Continue reading

Sargsyan and Chiragov: The Strasbourg Court takes aim at frozen conflicts?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week I joined Philip Leach of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) in Strasbourg to present the European Court of Human Rights’ June 2015 judgments in two cases related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to government representatives at the Council of Europe, at a briefing event organised by the European Implementation Network and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The cases were Sargsyan v Azerbaijan and Chiragov v. Armenia, which were effectively joined by being relinquished from their original chambers to the same composition of the Grand Chamber in 2010. Both judgments found continuing violations of the applicants’ rights to property and their homes (as well as an effective remedy) based on their displacement in the early 1990s and subsequent inability to return to or access their properties.

While not (yet) signaling the initiation of a pilot judgment procedure, the court notes that the cases typify repetitive claims resulting from the respondent states’ failure to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reiterate the “primordial” importance of subsidiarity to the functioning of the Convention system, and recommend that both states take immediate steps to address property claims on their own steam:

…it would appear particularly important to establish a property claims mechanism, which should be easily accessible and provide procedures operating with flexible evidentiary standards, allowing the applicant and others in his situation to have their property rights restored and to obtain compensation for the loss of their enjoyment. (Sargsyan, para. 238, Chiragov, para. 199)

Taken together, the judgments represent intriguing developments at a number of levels. Continue reading

Context really is everything

Just to say that I prefer this gesture so much more in this context than all the other ones we have gotten used to it in recently.




TN takes a sabbatical at six

Dear TN Readers,

The good news is that you are still there! Despite only running 4 new postings since my last annual report (one-seventh of 2014’s total and one-twentieth of peak year 2012), overall hits amount to 86,000, or a net increase of 7,000 since last year. This is a 50% decrease against 2014, but each visit is all the more welcome in light of the dearth in new postings.

Why less posts? Last year I mentioned how my shift away from consultancy to working with ILAC has forced me to focus more on my day job. I also decided to spend more time with the family – or just getting enough sleep – during the hours I have to myself. All that said, 2015 was particularly intensive with the untimely loss of an esteemed friend and colleague Håkan Henning. And the work didn’t exactly let up with a big three-year program in the MENA region hitting its stride, and leaving blogging firmly on the back burner.

If I was to be completely honest with myself, I would probably officially mothball TN at this point. But like a lot of you may be doing, I return now and then and browse through some of the posts, both my own and many of the fine guest pieces I’ve received over the years. And, the odd turkey aside (not too surprising when I typically pushed “publish” at three a.m.), it really reads well. As I’d hoped, its something I and the other authors can be proud of, and return to for information and inspiration. And maybe pick up again.

Meanwhile, I’ve faded away from the HLP discourse somewhat, but never so far that there’s no way back. Its been particularly satisfying to have been asked to be part of the advisory board for Inclusive Development International, although 2015 was as hard on my commitments there as it was on this blog. I’ve also enjoyed playing a supporting role in the campaign marshaled by Jeremie Gilbert and MRG to achieve recognition of a human right to land. And in the meantime, I’ve been tasked by ILAC with reviewing thematic issues such as transitional justice and land rights. In times like these, this blog’s issues have never been more important.

So, TN is down and may or may not also be out (check back latest by next February…) but I’ve been enriched by the journey we’ve taken either way. Hope you have as well.




Property issues in Libya: A reminder that the road to sustainable peace still goes via root causes

by Rhodri C. Williams

What to say about Libya? Despite the slide from the country’s post-revolutionary and chaotic new normal to civil war, it is still too early to give up hope. While Libya may have yet to scrape bottom, many of the factors that argued for a sustainable recovery from Gaddafi’s long nihilistic night remain latent. And despite the increasing subordination of Libya’s politics to the influence of regional competitions and actors, the country still remains to some degree a case apart, churning in the region’s ideological divisions without the despair-inducing ethnic and sectarian fractures that threaten the Mashriq.

It seems a very long time since my work in Libya, on property issues that stalled (at best), displacement issues that exploded, and rule of law issues that have descended to a near farce, with mass trials of senior Gaddafi regime officials wrapping up amid power cuts and procedural irregularities. By all accounts, Ibrahim Sharqieh’s grim prediction that the lustration law forced through in 2013 would be the equivalent of the Iraqi de-Baathification process has been vindicated, as the heavily militarized winners of the revolution collapsed into open conflict with each other. Then comes IS in Sirte, refugee catastrophes in the Mediterranean, and the needless death of good and selflessly devoted Libyans.

The temptation is strong in such situations to cut losses and contain damage. For Europe, for instance, earlier efforts to build up a Libyan state that could be a responsible partner on migration issues have now given way to desperate proposals to unilaterally stem migration that bypass and undermine what remains of the Libyan state. Fortunately, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has shown extraordinary persistence, chivvying two sides that refuse to recognize each other into 80% of a peace deal even as economic collapse looms. Another refusal to write Libya off came last month, when the Legatum Institute revived the moribund debate over property issues in Libya.

Continue reading

Legal precedents for fighting dispossession of land – the Community Land Rights CaseBase

by Rachael Knight, Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Melissa Riess-James

Rachael Knight is the Director of Namati’s Community Land Protection ProgramNaomi Roht-Arriaza is a Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings College of Law. Melissa Riess-James is the Project Coordinator for the Community Land Rights CaseBase.

As global demand for land and resources rises, dispossession of community land is increasing. Lawyers and front line legal advocates are stepping forward to defend communities’ rights, yet often struggle to find supportive legal precedent. There have been many powerful legal victories in national, regional and international courts, but advocates need to know about these cases to be able to harness that power.

To address this need, Namati has created the Community Land Rights CaseBase: the first free, online, searchable database of case law from around the world relevant to community land and natural resource rights. In this post, we describe the inspiration and creation of CaseBase and invite you to join us in building this tool.

The Power of Effective Legal Strategies

For billions of people, land is their greatest asset: the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community. Yet more than ever, rural land is up for grabs. Local communities are being displaced, either directly or through the despoliation of the water, wildlife and other resources on which they depend. As dispossession grows, so does the resistance to it, leading to conflict, the criminalization of social protest, and the violation of a wide range of human rights.

Increasingly, communities seeking to defend and protect their land and natural resource claims are finding allies in the legal community and fighting back through local and national courts. Lawyers are basing challenges on a wide variety of legal sources, including national or international environmental laws, the rights of indigenous or tribal communities under international law, property rights, constitutional and human rights law, and common law principles.

In some cases they are finding support in the courts. For example:

  • National courts are holding governments accountable for violations of their obligations under international law:, in SATIIM v Attorney General of Belize (2014), the Supreme Court of Belize found that the Belize government had violated the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by issuing construction permits on the land of the Maya people without obtaining the Mayas’ free, prior and informed consent.
  • Lawyers are crafting creative legal strategies and waging their campaigns across a variety of legal forums: in Loserian Minis v. Thomson (2014) lawyers used US discovery procedure (28 U.S.C. § 1782) to obtain information vital to litigation in Tanzanian courts.
  • Courts are increasingly receptive to evidence necessary to support traditional land claims, but which historically has not been considered admissible: in Roy Sesana v. Attorney General of Botswana (2006), the High Court of Botswana conducted extensive testimony gathering and site-visits in order to include customary evidence in its considerations.

The Need to Share Lessons

Yet accessing relevant case law can be difficult, especially when records are not digitized or available online. Too often advocates work in isolation, unaware of successful arguments or strategies from other nations that they could leverage. The variety of legal contexts underlying land dispossession also complicate advocates’ efforts to draw cross-national comparisons. Advocates working within an area of specialized law, like environmental law or constitutional law, may not be aware of relevant precedent in other fields.

Some existing efforts already point in this direction. Continue reading

How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.