Monthly Archives: November 2010

Three articles on indigenous land rights issues

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its November 25 and I find myself in the center of what was once the Powhatan Confederation, commemorating the humanitarian impulses of the Wampanoag tribe further north by eating an improbably huge bird in the community of my large, wonderful and distinctly non-Native American family. Not a bad time to reflect on the ongoing struggles of indigenous groups worldwide to maintain the autonomy and connections to their land they long since lost on the East Coast of the USA. To that end, a few interesting recent articles:

– The New York Times ran a long piece the week before last on ‘Bushmen’ in Botswana. At the heart of the piece – and the controversy there – is whether continued adherence to an authentically indigenous lifestyle is an appropriate condition to impose for allowing indigenous groups to remain on traditional lands envisioned as nature reserves. In Botswana, the government has pushed Bushmen off such a reserve based on the allegation that they have given up traditional sustainable livelihoods and are damaging the ecosystem (and optics) of the park as a result. Are such conditions compatible with the right of indigenous groups to determine their own development path? Is this right to be interpreted more narrowly in areas deemed nature reserves? All questions for a future decision by the African Commission (or Court!) of Human and Peoples’ Rights, no doubt…

– Well outside the purview of the ACHPR, the Minority Rights Group blog describes use of land confiscation and ‘mega-plantations’ by the Indonesian authorities to allegedly alter the ethnic balance in West Papua by importing workers from elsewhere. In the words of an indigenous activist, “Indonesia doesn’t want our people, they just want our land.” More on displacement in West Papua in a recent update by IDMC.

And finally, on a far more hopeful note, OpenDemocracy carries the story of the Anishinabe (more colloquially known as the Ojibwe or Chippewa) in Wisconsin. In the 1980s, the Anishinabe began asserting their usufructuary rights to land ceded under long-forgotten treaties by resuming traditional spear-fishing on ponds. By the time I went to college in Minnesota in the early 1990s, the result was an extremely tense standoff with a hardcore group of sport fishermen (more colloquially known as rednecks), in which both sides were refusing to back down. In the above-cited piece, Tom H. Hastings describes how the persistence of the Anishinabe eventually prevailed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Week in links – Week 46/2010

– The New York Times reports on extensive destruction of booby-trapped houses and damage to agricultural land through the construction of new military roads by NATO troops in Afghanistan. Compensation programs appear to be up and running but the verdict of one district governor is a little chilling: “We had to destroy them to make them safe.”

UNHCR reports to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. The ReliefWeb headline says it all: “Voluntary Refugee Returns Worst in Two Decades; World Faces Quasi-Permanent Refugee Situations in Areas of Never-Ending Conflict, Third Committee Told.”

– In the latest twist in the protracted real estate crisis in the US, the New York Times reports on a new wave of adverse possession. By taking open possession of abandoned foreclosed homes, repairing them and even renting them out, private individuals are hoping to eventually meet the statutory requirements to receive title, with both positive and negative local impacts.

– On desertification and pastoralism in the Sahel, we have a bullish take from the EU-Africa Partnership and a more apocalyptic one on climate conflicts from Yale’s E360 publication.

– ASIL has made available an interesting introductory note to a recent property decision by the European Court of Human Rights – in this case, the Court confirmed that the definition of possessions under the European Convention includes final and enforceable arbitration decisions.

Refugees International urges African Union member-states to ratify last year’s groundbreaking Kampala Convention on the rights of IDPs. IDMC has a dedicated webpage on the Convention.

– Indonesia gets serious about climate change adaptation with the announcement of new guidelines on permanent relocations of populations from disaster areas too dangerous to allow return.

– UN Habitat issued its technical assessment of housing reconstruction needs after the Pakistan floods.

– FAO launched a new report and website on ‘climate-smart agriculture’, highlighting a mixture of traditional and high-tech approaches that raise yield and reduce carbon emissions.

– Finally, an interesting example of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) taking up ‘HLP’ issues in a case in which Georgia accuses Russia of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) by virtue of its failure to allow ethnic Georgians to return to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia is alleged to exercise effective control. A recent blog piece on this by the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research provides some background and reminds of an interesting October 2008 interim measure in which the Court ordered the parties, among other things, to:

do all in their power, whenever and wherever possible, to ensure, without distinction as to national or ethnic origin,
(i) security of persons ;
(ii) the right of persons to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State ;
(iii) the protection of the property of displaced persons and of refugees …

The Pinheiro Principles take a licking (and keep on ticking?)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Based on my early experience of both, working on international soft law standards seems a bit like parenthood – you have a limited period to create a warm, protective space around the text that will give it the resilience and flexibility to make a difference in the world and then you let it go and watch its fitful progress with your heart in your mouth. Maybe you don’t hear from it in a while and then, for better or for worse, there it is in the morning paper.

My first brush with the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ on property restitution for displaced persons came during their infancy, when I sent comments on a draft and was invited to participate in a March 2005 expert consultation to groom the text for  presentation to the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights. I was fresh from my prolonged engagement with Bosnian restitution and pleased to see so much of what we had struggled to articulate there being expressed in the draft. At the same time, a prior consultancy job with IPA had put me on notice that both the nature of post-conflict property issues and means of addressing them could take many forms.

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Reminder – 2nd USIP Course on ‘Land, Property and Conflict’

I’m informed that there are still a few spots available for the upcoming 2nd US Institute of Peace Course on Land, Property and Conflict (introduced earlier here). The Course takes place in Washington DC from December 13-16 and costs a reasonable $195 per participant. I have updated the full announcement (available here) to include the draft agenda and would urge TN readers to consider applying!

IDMC report: Colombia restitution bill represents significant progress but concerns remain

by Sebastián Albuja

IDMC has just published a report on land restitution for IDPs in Colombia, entitled ‘Building momentum for land restoration: Towards property restitution for IDPs in Colombia.’ The report examines progress towards property restitution for IDPs in Colombia, placing a restitution bill recently introduced by the Government in the context of previous initiatives, analyzing its contents and potential obstacles, and offering recommendations to guarantee victims’ rights in the process. We are glad to introduce the report here and we invite TN readers to download it at our website.

Protracted internal armed conflict and massive human rights abuses by illegal armed groups in Colombia have resulted in extensive loss of land by internally displaced people (IDPs) over the last decades. The number of IDPs is estimated to be between 3.3 and 4.9 million, most of them peasants, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. Roughly half of all internally displaced families owned or occupied land before their displacement, and virtually all of them have lost it as a result.

Displacement and land loss have also meant loss of livelihoods—around half of Colombia’s IDPs were above the poverty threshold before displacement, compared with only three per cent afterwards.  Giving IDPs back their land is therefore an urgent task as it is a hugely complex one.

There have been several attempts to start a restitution process in the last five years, but none of them have been successful, mostly because the government’s will to return land to IDPs has been shown lacking. The Constitutional Court has taken steps to encourage restitution.  In January 2009, it ordered the government to take comprehensive steps to redress the land rights of IDPs and to put in place mechanisms to prevent future violations.

The newly-installed Santos administration pledged during the election campaign to restitute land to Colombia’s IDPs and has now taken steps to fulfill its promise by bringing a bill for land restitution to Congress in September 2010. The bill offers a realistic opportunity to provide restitution, based on government support that previous attempts lacked.

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New guest postings – Sebastián Albuja on Colombia restitution & Natalie Bugalski on Cambodia resettlement

I’m happy to announce two very interesting guest postings coming this week.

First: first-time TN guest-blogger Sebastián Albuja will be launching a new report he helped to prepare on restitution issues in Colombia in his capacity as a country analyst for the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). The post will include observations on a number of specific articles of the new restitution bill (previously posted on here); for those of you with a particular interest and working knowledge of Spanish, feel free to cross-reference the text of the bill, which I have added to the new resources page of this blog.

And second, second-time TN guest-blogger Natalie Bugalski will be writing on the findings of a NGO investigation she participated in on resettlement of project-affected persons in Cambodia. The background is given in a recent article in the Age, which focuses on the tragic drowning deaths of two small children sent to collect water in a local pond because no water was available at the site where they had been resettled.

Given that the resettlement was undertaken in aid of a rail project underwritten by AusAID and the Asian Development Bank, the conditions that led to the deaths of the two children – and which continue to be endured by their community – should never have arisen. In this light, it is hard to know what is sadder – the unnecessary deaths of the children or the fact that it takes such a tragedy to draw attention to the *ordinary* suffering of thousands of others caught up in Cambodia’s development-induced displacement purgatory.

Behind the miner rescue headlines in Chile – a new settlement with the Mapuche

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’m grateful to the students in a course I’m currently teaching on minority rights in Stockholm for pointing out an interesting and potentially significant development that got lost behind the drama of last month’s rescue of 33 miners from the bowels of a collapsed shaft. In an earlier post that elaborated on a longer piece by David Dudenhoefer in OpenDemocracy, I discussed how the Chilean earthquake last February both obscured and highlighted the simmering tensions between the Mapuche indigenous group resident in the affected area since time immemorial and the incoming government of President Sebastian Pinera.

Mapuche protests over the land taken from them after their initial military defeat in the 19th century and in the course of a wave of malicious privatization undertaken under the Pinochet regime has often involved violence and property damage. The Chilean official response has been schizophrenic. On one hand, earlier governments both ratified ILO Convention 169 and committed themselves to a program of voluntary buy-back of confiscated Mapuche land. On the other hand, the government response to protests has been heavy-handed. Harsh police tactics, lethal use of force and dubious trials under a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law ultimately led to a hunger-strike by Mapuche activists that  generated a good deal of negative publicity since the time of the mine collapse last August.

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