Monthly Archives: June 2012

Cambodia housing rights activists released from prison

by Rhodri C. Williams

Photo credit: International Alliance of Inhabitants

Last month, TN carried a guest-posting by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred on the arrest and imprisonment of 15 mostly female housing activists protesting evictions in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The blog also ran a piece describing persistent tensions between the World Bank and the Cambodian government over urban forced evictions and highlighting a petition meant to persuade the Bank to take a firm stand in favor of the release of the imprisoned “Boeung Kak Lake fifteen”.

It seems that what has been a remarkable campaign of international proportions has borne fruit (the picture, kindly provided by International Alliance of Inhabitants, depicts Cambodian activists who addressed an audience of 800 at the June 18 Peoples’ Summit in Rio de Janeiro). As announced in a joint statement by civil society activists yesterday, the authorities have now released the BKL 15, albeit in a face-saving manner and one which may expose them to further legal risks. See the ‘Free the 15′ webpage for more on the celebrations as well as considerations on how to work from this significant breakthrough to securing meaningful security of tenure for poor urban communities in Cambodia.

TN stays TN – and wishes a happy Summer break

Thanks to all TN readers who participated in last week’s poll on re-dubbing the blog. I was not unpleasantly surprised to find a consistent majority (currently 53%) in favor of keeping TerraNullius, ‘edgy’ as it may be. In addition, there was no clear alternative, with the rest of the votes split fairly evenly for all the other proposed names. And as a last point, overall participation was fairly low compared with readership of the blog, indicating that its name probably just is not a big issue for many of you.

So, TerraNullius it is for the time being. However, I would like to point out that this decision remains subject to revision. I would also continue to invite anyone with strong views either way on the matter to freely express them (perhaps as a comment on this posting). As an international law doctrine, terra nullius has been  abused to support flagrantly racist policies, the effect of which are still felt by tens of thousands of indigenous persons, most notably in Australia. It is a term badly in need of some form of lustration, but as a profoundly non-indigenous person, it is hardly my place to lead this process. If I can provide a forum for some of the necessary conversations to be had, however, more is the better.

So, with all that out of the way, I want to wish all TN readers a happy and relaxing summer of 2012 (oops, yet more insensitivity to the Antipodes – and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere!) While the blog will not be closed down completely over the next few months, I look forward to running it in very low gear for a while. Guest postings welcomed as always from those so inclined. And for those more interested in sleeping in, poolside and a good book, hasta luego!

Blood, soil and cinnamon buns

by Rhodri C. Williams

Manos a la obra!I am writing this post having returned unscathed from my sole annual high-risk activity – the raising of the midsummer pole in the fine village of Svartsmara, at the heart of the Åland archipelago in Finland. The process begins benignly enough, with a happy assembly of summer and year-round residents plaiting aspen leaves into twine to be bound in geometric patterns onto the great, recumbent pole. Events take a more dramatic turn around ten, as the Northern sun tacks down to horizon level and a set of crude wooden lifting forks come clattering onto the lawn like medieaval siege instruments.

What comes next will probably have to be the equivalent of bungee-jumping or paragliding in my risk-averse life. The swains of the village assemble around a pile of garden gloves, then almost wordlessly set to with the lifting forks, allocating tasks through terse little debates in the porridge-thick local dialect, and suddenly hoisting through some telepathically communicated assent. Once the current sticks are maxed out, a detachment scrambles for new ones, eventually engaging the pole terrifyingly far below its center of gravity even as the distant top creaks up to meet the last rays of the sun.

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Whats in a name? TN reconsidered…

As announced on the recent anniversary of the Mabo decision, I am serious about reconsidering the name of this blog and grateful for all the reader input received by comment and email so far. TN readers are invited to participate in a referendum of an advisory nature (who said the blogosphere was democratic?), below. The options represent reader suggestions to date, as well as my own thoughts on the subject. Voting closes and results to be announced in a week!

Land, property and displacement in post-revolution Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

An earlier version of this text was submitted to Forced Migration Review for its newly released Issue 39 on “North Africa and displacement 2011-2012”. The article has been published there in a shorter version. I can recommend the entire, highly topical magazine and am grateful to the editors for their permission to publish the longer version of my piece here.

By post-conflict standards, Libya has a relatively small population of about 70,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, as a result of basic security concerns, many individual IDPs – as well as several entire displaced communities – face the prospect of protracted internal displacement. Despite national and local efforts to foster reconciliation, return will not be a realistic prospect for many until after the national elections currently scheduled for July. Inability to access pre-displacement housing, land and property (HLP) assets poses a significant obstacle to the achievement of durable solutions for almost all IDPs.

However, there is significant variation in the nature of the HLP problem. For households that remain displaced within their own communities due to the wartime destruction of their homes, durable solutions are largely contingent on reconstruction. However, for IDPs displaced outside of their places of origin, inability to access pre-war homes and properties is merely a symptom of the broader insecurity that has blocked virtually all return to date. In most cases, IDPs also face significant tenure insecurity in their current locations, whether they are in collective settlements or private accommodations.

Lurking behind both the tenure insecurity currently facing IDPs and their difficulties accessing pre-war property is a much broader question related to the sweeping and arbitrary redistributions of property undertaken during the forty-two year reign of Libya’s ex-dictator Muammar Ghaddafi. These waves of confiscation and partial compensation undermined the rule of law and sowed the seeds of corruption and legal uncertainty that continue to affect nearly all sectors of society in Libya. While these acts are largely viewed as illegitimate by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC), there is broad recognition that any peremptory attempt to revoke them would risk destabilizing the country.

As a result, these ‘legacy’ property issues are unlikely to be definitively resolved until after the upcoming elections, in the context of democratically-grounded legislative and constitutional reforms. From this perspective, the HLP question in Libya must be seen not only through a humanitarian lens, but also from the perspectives of transitional justice, national reconciliation, rule of law and economic development. While IDPs – and some refugees in Libya – may be disproportionately affected by this question, almost every constituency in the country has a stake in its outcome.

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What Rights? Comparing developing countries’ national legislation on community forest tenure rights

by Fernanda Almeida

Fernanda Almeida is the lead author of RRI’s “What Rights?” report and works as an international legal consultant on comparative legal, regulatory and policy research and analysis.

Indigenous Peoples and forest communities have long-established customary land rights to a large proportion of the world’s forests. The recognition of these rights by governments and international law and jurisprudence, has proven to be one of the few success stories in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Where these rights are recognized, Indigenous Peoples and other communities are not only able to enjoy their most fundamental human rights, but also to develop themselves sustainably.

For example, in the case of Amazonian traditional populations in the Extractive Reserve of Marajoí (Brazil), the açaí palm had virtually disappeared due to previous over-harvesting caused, at least in part, by unclear tenure. Once land tenure issues were resolved, traditional populations invested their resources in managing the açai area as a way to bring back wildlife, fish, and the açai palm itself. As a result, biodiversity was restored and the population had secured its means of subsistence.[1]

In spite of the importance of such rights to the promotion of a sustainable development agenda, very little was known about the extent to which governments around the world had recognized them and how. The What Rights? report by the Rights and Resources Initiative begins to fill this gap. It analyzes national laws that relate to the forest tenure rights of indigenous peoples and communities in 27 developing countries, home to 2.2 billion rural people, that collectively contain about 75 percent of the forested land in all developing countries.[2]

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The Onion on Corporate Social Responsibility Approaches

The Onion has the scoop on Goldman Sachs’ new CSR offensive, namely the hiring of a single employee with moral integrity to sit in an office entirely segregated from the rest of the company’s employees and take ethically grounded decisions his colleagues will resoundingly ignore:

“We are very pleased to welcome Mr. Kohler, who will be adhering to the letter of the law in a workspace physically detached from the rest of our firm’s operations,” public relations chief Richard Siewert said during a press conference. “He’ll be joining a select group of 33,000 talented individuals at Goldman Sachs as our sole employee not motivated purely by the pursuit of obscene wealth at the expense of society.”

“While Mr. Kohler won’t be attending a single meeting or influencing any of our business decisions, we’re confident his acute sense of professional integrity will prove a valuable asset,” Siewert continued. “He will technically be on our staff, collecting a paycheck, and that’s really all that counts.”

TN readers are advised to touch up their resumes – if the trend holds perhaps sovereign agricultural investment funds will soon be sniffing around.

The twentieth anniversary of Mabo (and the reason I need to change the name of this blog)

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is twenty years this week since the High Court of Australia overturned an odious legal doctrine that happens to share the name of this blog. Although the name of the blog has always been meant to reflect the abstract meaning of this term (‘no mans land’, reflecting the contested nature of land and territorial issues in both in international law and national practice), I have remained uncomfortable with it throughout due to the concrete meaning lurking down under. As a tribute to the unpretentious man who brought this doctrine crashing down, I hereby pledge to rename this blog in a manner both un-confusing and inoffensive within the next few weeks (readers are free to submit suggestions).

Annual double-taxation-without-representation time rolls around for US citizens abroad

by Rhodri C. Williams

Spare a thought this week for US citizens abroad, who will be scrambling to comply with one of those nightmarish bureaucratic systems that no rational person would ever propose if they were working from a clean slate today.

As one of those affected, what to say? Many of us will have stayed up far too late during recent nights, working out whether we are likely to fall victim to an arbitrary snap-enforcement program that has imposed massive fines on people out of compliance with a previously dormant filing requirement we had precious little reason to be aware of. Still more of us face the prospect of spending entire days working through a battery of incomprehensible forms in order to prove what should be a self-evident point – we owe nothing to the US Government because our residence is registered in foreign jurisdictions with a legal right (and often a great enthusiasm) for culling our incomes in exchange for the services they offer. Those with higher incomes will simply be taxed on them twice over, and this by the ostensibly most tax-averse country in the developed world.

As an American on the ‘liberal’ side of the political spectrum, I have never had much time for black helicopter conspiracy theories about an oppressive ‘big government’. On the other hand, my experience with the US tax authorities has sharpened my classically American concerns about unrestrained government. While I have little doubt that the US Internal Revenue Service behaves responsibly and responsively (e.g. as a ‘service’) when it comes to ‘internal revenue’, it has taken the form of an unaccountable, repressive juggernaut for those of us in the ‘external revenue’ free-fire zone (consider the terrifying recent experience of one of my fellow US citizens in Sweden). However, it is ultimately the IRS’ masters in Congress and the Executive Branch (ahem, Mr. Obama) that have given these dubious tendencies ample room to breathe.

For those of you interested (academically or personally), there is lots of good information out there on the internet. A few starting points include the Isaac Brock Society representing the enormous population of affected people in Canada, as well as the more academic Federal Tax Crimes blog. Peter Spiro also provides a helpfully contextualized running commentary on these issues on Opinio Juris. However, the most important player is American Citizens Abroad (ACA), an organization that provides updated advice on navigating the double taxation labyrinth while actively seeking to replace it with an ordinary system recognizing residence-based taxation that would let Americans abroad get on with raising families and engaging in the private diplomacy and trade promotion we provide our country with every day (at zero cost to any taxpayer!)

If you surf this topic a bit, you will probably find yourself scratching your head and wondering how this could have come to pass. Foreign banks to refuse to open accounts for US citizens as a matter of policy? Struggling US citizens abroad put to the rack for the sins of fat-cats with undeclared Swiss bank accounts who are mostly US residents anyway? (I mean, who really thinks the Swiss care where you live if the numbers add up?) US citizens lining up to renounce their citizenship because their own government is shaking them down in a desperate and legally questionable attempt to fill the deficit gap?

In the cold light of day, this stuff should not stand up for a single Congressional term, particularly in a Congress now dominated by politicians dead-set on (1) reining in out-of-control Federal agencies, and (2) cutting tax burdens on productive citizens come hell or high water. For the first time in my memory, I may actually passionately agree in principle with my conservative delegates to Congress, at least as far as this issues goes. So why does it just get worse?

My considered opinion after some self-interested research is that affected people have been kept so busy sweating over personal compliance that they have had very little energy left over to focus on political message. There are lots of complaints about how the US media seems only too happy to fall into line with the IRS’ implicit assumption that living outside the US is in itself a form of tax evasion. However, beyond the ACA’s important efforts, there doesn’t seem to be much systematic advocacy. So let me take a first stab of my own. Why should the average US citizen care about the fiscal fates of their brethren abroad?

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YouTube human rights channel, Cambodia and an upcoming guest posting by Natalie Bugalski

by Rhodri C. Williams

A bit of a Monday morning mashup today. First, I wanted to get the word out generally about the fact that YouTube has now teamed up with  WITNESS, an organization that has pioneered in the use of video for human rights, and Storyful, a social newsgathering operation, to provide a new human rights channel. According to the announcement run on the YouTube blog, the channel will add value to the raw footage uploaded to the website every day:

The channel, which will also feature content from a slate of human rights organizations already sharing their work on YouTube, aims to shed light on and contextualize under-reported stories, to record otherwise undocumented abuses, and to amplify previously unheard voices. …. Storyful will source and verify the videos, and WITNESS will ensure the channel features a balanced breadth of issues with the context viewers need to understand the rights issue involved.

This is clearly a valuable service from an advocacy perspective. The rush of compelling footage coming out of places like Syria has grabbed the attention of people everywhere and Kony2012 has controversially but undoubtedly shown the power of net-based media to reach out to non-traditional audiences with a human rights message. Hopefully a systematic effort to sort and contextualize raw footage will have a stabilizing effect, allowing video to continue conveying the urgency of human rights crises, but in a manner that allows people to educate themselves rather than simply be shocked. Whether this service can also allow such amateur evidence-gathering to be given a more prominent role in international criminal proceedings will be an interesting question to watch.

As witnessed in recent writings in this blog on both Azerbaijan and Cambodia, forced evictions and use of force against those protesting them have, among other things, made for some eye-grabbing visuals. The new YouTube channel has not failed to miss this, and one of the early ‘in-depth’ topics listed is ‘Cambodia deadly land clashes‘. TN readers with mobile phone cameras who find themselves at the front lines of the tenure security struggle should take note.

Keeping with Cambodia, I also wanted to follow on to last week’s guest-posting by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred on the ‘Boeung Kak Lake 15’ protesters and my subsequent report on the campaign for their release. This week, I wanted to belatedly announce Natalie’s publication of a Discussion Paper on a human rights approach to the development of Cambodia’s land sector. Natalie will also be guest-writing on TN again shortly in order to describe the World Bank’s forthcoming review of its safeguard policies, with a particular look at the involuntary resettlement policy (note that this topic is the focus of a campaign to be pursued by David and Natalie’s newly-founded, Cambodia-based human rights organization Inclusive Development International).