by Rhodri C. Williams
Refugees International just released a report on peacekeeping and civilian protection that makes for some interesting but sobering reading from an housing, land and property (HLP) rights perspective. This in a context where a number of advocacy documents have recently called for peacekeepers to be given a greater role in protecting the property rights of displaced civilians, ranging from ensuring that abandoned properties are not occupied or destroyed to enforcing, where necessary, orders for the eviction of occupants of claimed properties.
For instance, the UN Secretary General’s 2007 report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict recommended “strategic deployment of peacekeeping troops to prevent evictions and the illegal appropriation of land and property” as well as “the inclusion of [HLP] issues as an integral part of future peacekeeping and other missions, with provisions for dedicated, expert capacity to address these issues” (paragraph 59).
UN-HABITAT has gone further in its 2007 “Post-Conflict Land Administration and Peacebuilding Handbook“, proposing that international security forces be mandated to provide assistance in lawful evictions from occupied property (page 23) and that UN peacekeeping forces carry out eviction orders against criminal elements where necessary to execute demolition orders for illegally built structures (page 33).
Finally, the 2005 Pinheiro Principles call for international peace operations to help maintain a a secure and stable environment such that restitution programs can be implemented (Principle 22.5) and, upon request, to “support the protection of the right to housing, land and property restitution, including through the enforcement of restitution decisions and judgments” (Principle 22.6). UN Security Council members are encouraged to consider including these roles in the mandate of peace operations.
By contrast, the new Refugees International report points out the difficulties peacekeeping missions have faced in the exercise of the most fundamental protection mandate imaginable, namely the physical protection of civilians under “imminent threat of violence”. The report points out that structuring even such basic protection is often complicated by the failure of peacekeeping mandates to provide guidance on how to prioritize numerous conflicting tasks. However, it also notes the structural difficulty of getting trained soldiers to to do things they were not trained for – and do them well and consistently:
The lack of clarity is made even more challenging by the fact that peacekeepers do not have a standard doctrine on how to conduct protection activities. This forces peacekeepers to improvise tactics in the field. Traditional military doctrines and training were built mainly to defend territories, not to protect individuals. While a refugee camp is more straightforward to defend, it is much more difficult to plan an operation to protect civilians in far-flung communities.
The report does not really address protection of abandoned property, with the implication that the authors may view this as the type of peripheral task that can raise dangerous expectations on the part of affected populations while distracting peacekeepers from the type of basic protection work they may actually be able to achieve.
This conclusion would largely resonate with international experience in Bosnia, where peacekeepers’ presence and arrests of war crimes suspects was helpful in achieving an overall security environment conducive to restitution but any direct military involvement in actual evictions would have invoked rather unhelpful shades of prior ethnic cleansing and undermined the idea that addressing property disputes was an essentially civilian rule of law exercise.
Moreover, post-Bosnia situations in which international military personnel have been drawn into property disputes appear to reinforce RI’s central point that uninformed protection interventions will lead to improvised, ad hoc outcomes, potentially doing more harm than good. A good example is provided by Human Rights Watch’s description, in its 2004 Claims in Conflict report on northern Iraq:
In the absence of any legal framework or practical mechanism for resolving property disputes, U.S. forces in some places began conducting their own mediations to resolve property disputes. There appeared to be no coordinated approach to these mediations, and the approach of different U.S. commanders varied widely. Some commanders told Human Rights Watch that they refused to engage in resolving property disputes. ….
Other U.S. troops, however, decided to play a limited mediation role, to resolve the least controversial of property disputes and to prevent inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. efforts presented a host of problems. While well-intentioned, the ad hoc mediations were often conducted by U.S. military personnel with limited knowledge of the complex property issues involved, and without the guidance of a standardized framework to ensure fairness. No clear guidelines were developed to structure the ad hoc mediations, so the weight given to different claims was determined by the mediators, rather than by standardized policies. Neither was it clear that all affected parties, including the displaced Arabs, were fully represented at the negotiations. ….
This message is underscored by the fact that forthcoming UN guidance to humanitarian actors in the field – who could reasonably expected to be more sensitized to the complexities of HLP issues than peacekeepers – has adopted ‘do no harm’ as its departure point and primarily advises humanitarians to avoid getting in over their heads where possible and to defer to land tenure experts.
Given the fundamental importance of HLP issues to security and stability in post-conflict settings, it is not unreasonable to expect peacekeepers to be aware of them and to consciously take on at least indirect roles in securing HLP rights in the course of exercising their mandate. However, RI’s findings serve as a reminder that unclear and unrealistic expectations of what peacekeepers can do will serve no one’s interest.