Good fences make good neighbors?

by Rhodri C. Williams

A few reminders of how so many of the more festering conflicts we see today can be reduced (perhaps somewhat simplistically) to real estate disputes.

First, and most monotonously familiar, we have the protracted negotiations to end the Middle East conflict. The latest wrinkle, reported in the New York Times, involves an alleged US threat to state the obvious if Israel refuses to extend the OPT settlement construction ban and allow negotiations to continue:

…if Mr. Netanyahu turns down the United States, officials said, Mr. Obama could provide the Palestinians with their own assurance: his formal endorsement of a plan under which Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with land swaps, would form the baseline for negotiations over territory.

Second, in India, the NY Times reports on a case of micro-partition, with a court decision dividing a religious site contested between Hindus and Muslims between them, with the proportions allocated apparently significantly correlated to the statistical likelihood that a deity was born on exactly that spot:

…each of the three judges issued a separate opinion, diverging in interpretation of certain facts, including over whether Ram was born precisely on the contested site. Yet the court did hand a significant victory to Hindus, who had argued that Ram was born beneath the central dome of the destroyed structure. That portion of the contested property was granted to Hindus as part of their two-thirds share, presumably to erect a new temple to Ram.

Meanwhile, in the run up to the South Sudan independence referendum, commentators in the Boston Globe remind us that the fate of the peace process now hangs on similar line drawing exercises in three patches of turf most of us have never heard of – and hopefully never will:

… efforts [to prepare for the referendum] should not come at the expense of progress in the three transitional areas established by the agreement. The people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile were promised a democratic process of popular consultations, while residents of Abyei were given the right to decide, through a separate referendum, whether to stay in the north or join the south. Regrettably, preparations for the Abyei referendum remain deadlocked and the popular consultations have been postponed. These three areas have received much less attention than the southern referendum, but they are a weather vane of the north-south relationship and have the potential to derail the entire peace deal.

Land is unique, indispensable and inherently limited in supply, which is why it is the source of so many disputes even in relatively peaceful parts of the world. Add a shake of spiritual identity and a dash of conflict and you have a problem that can fester for decades.

Drawing a line usually involves an allocation of unfairness rather than an achievement of justice. It is, as the Times pointed out in the India case, Solomonic. But if everyone can ultimately live with the line, then they can stop dying for the land.

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3 responses to “Good fences make good neighbors?

  1. eleni meleagrou

    I find all the info and your comments on land disputes/distribution/agreements incredibly useful and enlightening as I spend (and have done so for decades) now an awful lot of time conte,plating the property issue in Cyprus which is indeed festering for decades and with depressingly little prospect of a happy resolution. There are now negotiations on that issue (and not for the first time) with the proposals of both sides in the public domain; I would be very interested to see any comment you might have on that. By the way, I really wish you hadn’t changed the font of the site to black as I find it a lot less reader friendly and puts me seriously off ; I don’t suppose you could consider going back to the original font as I ‘d hate to miss future posts

    • Hi and many thanks for your comment! As it happens, I should be publishing a short commentary on the recent Demopoulos v. Turkey decision by the European Court of Human Rights very shortly. The commentary itself appears in the latest issue of International Legal Materials and I’ll publish a final draft version here on TN in the next days. The decision itself is really very interesting, the politics of the Cyprus conflict meet the exigencies of the Court’s own internal reform process. More to come soon.

      And, thanks, yes, I will go back to black on white. I kind of liked the drama of the new look at first, but its not as easy to read.

  2. eleni meleagrou

    Will look out for your Demopoulos post; I was involved in a number of ways with both the background to and the actual playing out of the case and its aftermath; continue to be so via my own case now waiting at the ECtHR for a final decision from the domestic remedy. Its a long journey that doesn’t even get the Cyprus issue anywhere near an overall settlement; good to have the old fonts/format back , thanks

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