Monthly Archives: May 2012

World Bank urged to stand firm on land-related rights violations in Cambodia

by Rhodri C. Williams

As reliably as the annual arrival of the wet season, the protracted  struggle over who controls Cambodia’s land has entered into another one of its hot phases. On one side, local communities supported by a coalition of national and international NGOs continue to defend their rights to land and homes they have built their lives around. On the other side, the Cambodian authorities continue to almost ostentatiously prioritize the interests of international investors over those of their own constituencies. The latest salvo takes the form of an open letter to the World Bank signed by over 100 civil society organizations urging incoming President Jim Yong Kim to continue his predecessor Robert Zoellick’s firm stance on forced evictions.

As before, ground zero for the forced evictions debate in Cambodia remains the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) neighborhood of the capital Phnom Penh. While the open letter points out recent killings outside of Phnom Penh (including an environment activist and a 14 year old girl in the course of an eviction), the incident triggering the current wave of activism has been the arrest of 15 mostly female BKL residents, 13 for having had the temerity to protest against being expelled from their homes and two more for having volunteered to testify on the others’ behalf.

The arrest and sentencing of the BKL 15 (most got over two years on trumped up charges) is the latest phase of a long-running controversy that first led the Cambodian government break off its long-running cooperation with the World Bank on land registration, and then saw the World Bank take a principled stand in favor of meaningful reform. The twists and turns of the BKL affair are lucidly presented in Natalie Bugalski and David Pred’s guest-post earlier this week. They have also been the topic of past postings on TN that documented:

  • The decision of the Cambodian government to walk away from the multi-million dollar Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) when the World Bank suggested (under pressure from the late, lamented COHRE) that greater priority be given to urban tenure security, beginning with BKL;
  • The subsequent deliberations of the World Bank Inspection Panel on whether the Bank had violated its own policy on involuntary resettlement by being implicated in the BKL evictions;
  • The November 2010 decision by the Panel finding a breach of the Bank’s Policy and the subsequent deliberations by the Board of the Bank on how to proceed in Cambodia;
  • The Board’s March 2011 decision to acknowledge its past shortcomings and insist on compliance with the Policy in future engagement with land issues in Cambodia;
  • Mounting questions over how this firmer line would be implemented in light of lack of improvements on the ground;
  • The August 2011 revelation that the Bank had suspended new project funding in Cambodia pending a resolution of the BKL issue;
  • The subsequent concession of the Prime Minister in granting title to the remaining holdout families in BKL that had not yet been evicted; and
  • the Government’s return to form, with forced evictions continuing at the edges of the BKL neighborhood and elsewhere.

The concerns expressed in the current open letter relate to signs that the World Bank is considering withdrawing its freeze on funding new projects in Cambodia. In earlier statements, the Bank had asserted that it would not resume funding until “an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak Lake”. However, while the Government’s earlier grant of title to BKL holdouts represents a significant breakthrough, it does not apply to as many as 85% of the residents of the neighborhood forced out under extreme duress earlier. And as noted in the open letter, the entire BKL community has demonstrated exemplary solidarity, with current title beneficiaries continuing to hold out for an “agreement” that does not exclude their less fortunate former neighbors.

At a broader level, one might wonder whether even a full resolution of the now notorious BKL issue alone should be seen as sufficient, particularly in light of the Bank’s association with an earlier joint call by Cambodian development partners for a general moratorium on urban evictions. On the other hand, full satisfaction for BKL’s battered residents would have tremendous symbolic value. As demonstrated by NGO statements in support of the open letter, BKL has taken on regional, if not global significance as a concerted stand against arbitrary government land takings. Meanwhile, the Government’s paranoid reaction to attempts by the human rights group Licadho to speak with the BKL 15 at Prey Sar prison demonstrate that it is well aware of the symbolic power of this case:

…two guards, dressed in unmarked grey clothing distinct from regular guards at Prey Sar, ordered those who ventured near the fence closest to the Boeung Kak women to move away.

Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek, who led a contingent of about 50 youths into Prey Sar for the event, spoke to prisoners up close through the fence, but when she began to move in the direction of the Boeung Kak prisoners, a guard told her to clear away.

“In my long experience of going to Cambodian prisons, it was the first time I was prevented to see prisoners,” she told the Post. “They did this because they had orders coming from the upper stratum of the regime, which regards Boeung Kak lake as a sensitive question.”

As noted previously in this blog, the World Bank does not enjoy exclusive or unlimited power to shape Cambodian policy, nor should it. However, recent events have demonstrated that the Cambodian government does consider the resources that the Bank provides worth an occasional policy shift. It would be a shame – and a mistake – for the Bank to needlessly cash in its chips before seeing the Government’s hand.

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New RRI report (and upcoming guest post) on community land rights in tropical forests

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) just released a new report indicating that forest peoples have “quietly gained unprecedented legal rights to the land and resources owned under customary law” over the last twenty years. However, the authors also express concerns about legal obstacles to the exercise of such rights and the risk of their rollback by elite groups seeking to facilitate international land and natural resource deals. According to RRI’s press release:

“Forest peoples are caught between the forces of a drive for environmental sustainability and the intense pressure of economic development”, said Jeffrey Hatcher, Director of Global Programs for RRI, and one of the authors of the new report. “Despite tremendous progress in establishing legal tenure regimes, a lack of political will and bureaucratic obstacles make it a struggle to implement any real action in most forest-rich developing nations. ….”

The report is described as providing “the most comprehensive global legal analysis to date of the status of forest tenure rights held by Indigenous Peoples and other local communities in more than two-dozen developing countries”, which together account for “approximately 75 percent of the forests of the developing world, home to some 2.2 billion people.” It was released together with a separate study on the positive development effects of recognizing customary forest tenure. Both reports taken together constitute the results of an analysis undertaken by RRI on the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in order to inform the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on June 20-22.

I am very pleased to announce that Fernanda Almeida, the lead author of the report, will be guest-writing on TN next week in order to provide further analysis of the results of RRI’s research and insights on how these findings may be of practical assistance in efforts to secure the tenure rights of forest peoples.

Fernanda’s guest-posting can now be read at the following link:

– What Rights? Comparing developing countries’ national legislation on community forest tenure rights (11 June 2012)

 

 

Cambodian mothers and grandmothers behind bars after facing off the most powerful men in the region: Will the World Bank stand by them?

by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred

David Pred and Natalie Bugalski are co-founders of Inclusive Development International. They co-authored the complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel on behalf of the Boeung Kak community.

Last week thirteen Cambodian women representatives of the Boeung Kak Lake community were sentenced up to two-and-a-half years in prison after a summary trial. The women, including a 72-year old grandmother, were arrested on May 22 whilst singing at a peaceful protest to support 18 families whose homes had been buried in sand by a private developer (view the video). The arrest, trial and sentencing took place within 48 hours, with no time for the women’s lawyers to prepare a defense. During their trial, the police arrested two more community representatives who were waiting outside the courthouse prepared to testify as witnesses for the 13 women on trial.

Photograph: Housing Rights Task Force

The women, who call themselves the League of Boeung Kak Women Struggling for Housing Rights, have waged a multi-year battle to defend their homes and land in the bustling center of Phnom Penh. Their campaign has included everything from publicly burning effigies to rid the city’s authorities of evil spirits to baring their breasts at demonstrations to display their desperation. It has also involved a sophisticated legal advocacy strategy, including the submission of a complaint to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, an internal watchdog mandated to investigate alleged violations of the Bank’s operational policies.

The women’s family homes were being threatened by one of the wealthiest and most powerful Cambodian tycoons, who is also a ruling party Senator, backed by China’s Inner Mongolia Erdos Hongjun Investment Corporation. In early 2007, Senator Lao Meng Khin was granted a 99 year lease over 133 hectares in central Phnom Penh, which covered Boeung Kak lake and its surrounding villages, home to some 20,000 people. The lease was granted for a mere $79 million US dollars, a fraction of the estimated $2 billion value of the property. Soon afterwards, the company began filling in the lake and coercing its denizens to leave the area for a measly sum in compensation.  Attempts by the community and civil society advocates at persuading the Senator’s company and the government to stop the mass forced eviction appeared futile. They remained impervious to the outcry against what threatened to be the biggest single mass displacement of Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities in 1975.

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Norwegian Refugee Council releases new Housing, Land and Property training course

by Laura Cunial

Laura Cunial is the lead author and trainer for the NRC/IDMC Housing Land and Property Training Course. She has worked on housing, land and property (HLP) rights and peacebuilding in countries such as Liberia, Kenya, Vietnam and Dijbouti and currently works as an Adviser for the Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) Program with the NRC.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) have, in collaboration with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), developed a training course on Housing, Land and Property (HLP) issues.  The material has been developed under the NRC’s Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) programme  with funds provided by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).

The development of the HLP Training Course is part of NRC’s effort to further improve its work through the mainstreaming of HLP considerations into all programming.  The humanitarian community recognizes that HLP issues are main conflict drivers and that they should be addressed from the earliest stages of humanitarian interventions. As a result, NRC has invested significant resources to increase its knowledge on HLP and improve its response, including the methodologies used for resolving housing, land and property disputes.

NRC has  been at the forefront for many years in providing assistance on HLP issues to displaced persons and other populations affected by conflict. This has been done both through NRC’s interventions related to the shelter and food security sectors, and through highly specialised ICLA programmes. The HLP Training Course aims at improving the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian response through improved capacity on HLP issues. The course material is designed for all humanitarians implementing response and recovery projects and is not just meant for HLP specialists.

The course material has been tested in several NRC Country Programs. The evaluation of the relevance and quality of each training session was used to improve the subsequent trainings and to refine the modules.  In addition, the material was developed in consultation with the HLP sub-working group of the Global Protection Cluster Working Group. As a result, the training material is versatile and can be tailored to different training needs and target audiences.

The NRC HLP Training Manual is currently available in English, French and Spanish and consists of the following modules:

  • Module No. 1: An introduction to Housing, Land and Property
  • Module No. 2: The Housing, Land and Property International Legal Framework and Principle
  • Module No. 3: Housing, Land and Property during internal displacement
  • Module No. 4: Women’s Housing, Land and Property rights
  • Module No. 5: Housing, Land and Property in urban contexts
  • Module No. 6: Addressing Housing, Land and Property disputes
  • Module No. 7: Housing, Land and Property and durable solutions

Since early 2011, NRC has delivered more than 15 HLP trainings in the following locations: South Sudan, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Switzerland, Pakistan, Colombia and Ivory Coast. Trainees included staff from NRC, international and national NGOs, ICRC, UN agencies  such as OCHA, OHCHR, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR and UN HABITAT  as well as national authorities.

The material can be requested by downloading a request form from the training manual web page and sending it to the email address hlp@nrc.no. More information on ICLA and the HLP Training Course are available on the NRC ICLA web page.

Europe, stop voting now! (The Eurovision contest returns to a democracy)

by Rhodri C. Williams

“Europe stop voting now!” shouted the well-scrubbed hosts of the Baku 2012 Eurovision finals last night after a dizzying round of 26 acts featuring babushkas, boats, bread ovens and backflips. And with that, the first truly free and fair exercise of democracy on Azerbaijani soil was completed. Too bad it was not a real election, but the results for Azerbaijan’s politics remain somewhat unpredictable.

The worst case scenario will be a return to repression as usual, but with the additional alibi of having ascended to the ranks of Eurovision-hosting countries. The rest of Europe, in other words, is free to resume voting periodically in meaningful elections, while Baku will continue to exercise its own discretion in the matter. On the other hand, the fact that the honors fell in this case to Sweden’s Loreen may help to ensure that the contest does not simply move on, allowing a free hand to the Azerbaijani authorities to crack down in its wake.

The Swedes are one of the few countries in ‘old Europe’ to still take the contest seriously; this is their fifth win, placing them second behind Ireland in overall trophies. When we opened the window at midnight yesterday, the air veritably shook with lusty Viking voices “going up-up-up-up-up”. The Swedes also have a sense of fair play and a streak of impatience with countries that fail to live up to Nordic standards of democracy and rule of law, particularly where they are forced to cohabit the same European institutional spaces with them. Local reactions to the skeletons in Baku’s human rights closet were late in coming but strong. Last Thursday, for instance, the foreign policy spokesman of one of Sweden’s ruling coalition parties called for EU sanctions against Azerbaijan of a similar nature to those applied against other post-Soviet failed democracies like Belarus.

However, the latter piece raised at least two Swedish negative points on this issue. First the author explicitly noted that cooperation between an affiliate of Swedish telecoms giant Telia-Sonera and the regime in Baku is likely to make it easier for the latter to track down dissidents. Second, and implicitly, the relatively low level authorship of the piece emphasized the near-silence on this topic from the actual Foreign Minister, the ordinarily loquacious Carl Bildt, who could only be troubled to give recent mention to Eurovision 2012 as something of a distraction from regional security issues in his prolific blog (though he had expressed hopes the contest would improve the country’s human rights record a year ago – while at the same time praising Telia-Sonera’s investments there).

Nevertheless, on Friday night, the Swedish public television’s evening news was refreshingly well-informed about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan – and even stumbled onto a demo where grim-faced plain-clothed heavies didn’t let the rolling cameras crimp their style as they hustled protesters into waiting minivans (see minute 43 and onward of the broadcast). The Swedish reporter also took the time to visit a squalid home for IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh (she swoons visibly while pronouncing “27 families to a single toilet”) just minutes away from the ‘crystal hall’ built for the contest, as she notes, by the President’s own shell company. She also reports on disappointment in Baku over the passive approach of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and risks to activists (who have been ostentatiously filmed by the police) once the contest is over.

The segment ends with the former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Aden, who gives a candid take on the caviar diplomacy recently described by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), stating that the country is sliding toward dictatorship while demonstrating a marked ability to “deceive – or bribe” Western observers such as those in the Council of Europe. In other words, awareness of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record and its successful campaign of obscuring these abuses in order to retain membership in prestigious European institutions has sunk in here in Sweden. Of perhaps the most practical use to Azerbaijan’s dangerously exposed democracy activists is the fact that the new Queen of Eurovision, Loreen, took the trouble to meet them personally and will no doubt remain interested in their fate. As reported by the BBC last week:

The Swedish singer Loreen, one of the favourites to win this year’s Eurovision, has already had a meeting with local human rights activists, much to the annoyance of the Azeri authorities.

The return of Eurovision to a country that consciously seeks to live up to European standards on human rights and democracy rather than to undermine them will make for a refreshing change. However, last night’s jamboree in Baku has both helped to legitimize an undemocratic European regime and to tarnish the reputations of both the Council of Europe and the European Broadcasting Union. Having won the battle for Eurovision last night, Sweden must now consider how it can contribute to winning the war for the assertion of core European values in countries that aspire to European membership.

Few signs of Spring in Baku (and less in Strasbourg) in the leadup to a tainted Eurovision final

by Rhodri C. Williams

As much as I am a big believer in maintaining a healthy firewall between work and life, the human rights branch can sorely test one’s ability to compartmentalize. As a result, I face a dilemma next Saturday. On one hand, my kids are now old enough to genuinely share in my (not unlimited) fascination with the annual sanitized bacchanalia that is Eurovision. So my private-me would love to break out the popcorn, pile onto the couch with the family and squirm through this year’s crop of ethno-retro-monstro-disco with an untroubled conscience.

Inconveniently, however, my public-me has long since foreclosed this option. Unlike earlier contests, this year’s final in Azerbaijan is tainted not only by the unapologetic disdain for human rights and democracy displayed by its hosts, but also by the self-defeating failure of the European institutions responsible for safeguarding these values to attach even the frailest of strings to the massive PR coup of holding the contest. Free but unwilling to lob criticism from the safety of Brussels, Strasbourg (home to the Council of Europe or CoE, to which Azerbaijan has made binding human rights commitments) and Geneva (in the case of the European Broadcasting Union or EBU, which sponsors the event), these organizations have displayed nothing like the courage of ordinary Azerbaijani activists and journalists who face blackmail, police beatings and hard time for expressing dissent.

In an age in which European leaders are all too willing to disown previously indispensable autocracies in the Middle East, how to explain this blindness to their own backyard? Will presumptive president-for-life Ilham Alijev become for the Council of Europe and the EBU what Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi ended up being for the LSE? And what legitimate claim will the rhetoric of ‘European values’ have on the loyalties of ordinary Azerbaijanis when and if the substance of those values actually prevail? These questions have been raised in a very pointed and concrete manner during recent weeks by a number of international and local organizations.

Beginning with the international advocates, my former Bosnia colleagues at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) today released a blockbuster report on the systematic campaign of ‘caviar diplomacy’ designed to win and retain “the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership”. The ESI alleges that by offering annual gifts of caviar and flash trips to Baku, the Aliyev regime secured the loyalty of key members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (composed of national parliamentarians from CoE member states), as well as the organization’s secretariat. In return, Baku received “ever more anodyne, even complimentary” reports on its blatantly rigged elections and deteriorating human rights record.

In the words of ESI, the Aliyev regime succeeded in only five years in neutering Europe’s oldest human rights organization:

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Minority self-determination in China and the demolition of Kashgar

by Rhodri C. Williams

For those seeking yet more grim reading on the destruction of homes and cultural heritage worldwide, the Uyghur Human Rights Project can oblige. The UHRP just released a lengthy report on the final stages of the destruction of the old town of Kashgar, a cradle of the indigenous Uyghur culture within China’s Xinjiang autonomous region (referred to by Uyghurs as East Turkestan). The press release announcing the report stresses the manner in which both the nature of this process (top down, without the scantest consultation) and its apparent ends efface even the most notional commitments of the Chinese government to granting any meaningful self-determination to the Uyghur community:

The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities reveals how the destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods has resulted in the loss of both physical structures, including Uyghur homes, shops and religious sites, and patterns of traditional Uyghur life that cannot be replicated in the new, heavily-monitored Chinese-style apartment blocks where many have been forcibly relocated.

This report does not discount the importance of providing modern structural amenities to Uyghurs. However, it asserts a failure on the part of Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultation with Uyghurs regarding how they wish to transform their own communities. The report details the international and domestic legal instruments to which the Chinese government is bound that are designed to protect residents from forcible eviction from their homes and ensure that indigenous populations, such as the Uyghurs, have the right to develop according to their own principles.

Commenting on the report in Open Democracy, Henryk Szadziewski notes how ominously this paternalist, assimilationist and security-fixated approach comports with China’s growing role as a development actor in other states in which urbanization and ethnic tensions are politically salient factors (see also his earlier comment here).

Meanwhile, the not-so-subtly-monikered ‘True Xinjiang’ website lays down an uncompromising view from Beijing, with the ‘truth’ about the 2009 riots in Xinjiang stood up against the ‘lies’ of the exiled opposition groups, and unimpeachable foreign sources such as random English teachers, pleased German reporters, and the UNDP trotted out to attest to the mellow good feelings that actually prevail (just don’t mind that awkward link to ‘Beat down terrorism, separatism and extremism!‘).

Whatever one might think of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, Xinjiang is clearly one of those oppressed areas that is simply beyond the pale. Like Chechnya and Tibet, it lies within the internationally recognized territory of a country able and willing to go to the mat in the UN Security Council to prevent even the threat of intervention in oppressed areas outside its borders. Sadly, however, even having the deck stacked this clearly in their favor does not yet appear to have convinced the Chinese authorities they have nothing to lose (and much to gain) by  seeking out and taking on board the views of their Uyghur citizens.