Daily Archives: September 26, 2012

Beyond restitution: New book explores property rights and durable solutions for the displaced

by Anneke Smit

Anneke Smit is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor (Canada), where she teaches Property Law. She has worked on displacement and post-conflict property issues for more than a decade, including in Kosovo with OSCE and in Georgia with a grassroots human rights NGO. She is the author of The Property Rights of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Beyond Restitution, published this year by Routledge.

Recent posts in TN by Roger Duthie and Megan Bradley as well as Rhodri Williams, highlight the importance of transitional justice in bringing displacement to an end and encouraging processes of reconciliation. Yuliya Alieva’s post on the two decades of internal displacement in Azerbaijan is a critical reminder of the intensifying need to consider the full range of durable solutions – local integration and resettlement in addition to return, in particular in protracted displacements. These discussions reinforce the importance of post-conflict housing, land and property (HLP) restitution to contribute to these processes, but they are also reminders of the limitations of the current international legal framework.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the enormous strides which have been taken in the last decades with respect to post-conflict HLP restitution. The international legal framework on HLP restitution is since 2005 dominated by the (non-binding) UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (The Pinheiro Principles). Principle 2 of the Pinheiro Principles states in part:

2.1 All refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived[.]

As such, the Principles prioritize restitution “in kind” (or in rem) as the preferred remedy to conflict-related HLP rights deprivations. Other remedies, including but not limited to compensation, are possible but these are clearly subordinated to return of the actual property. Since their inception, the Pinheiro Principles have been discussed and publicized widely. At first, it seemed taboo to criticize the Pinheiro Principles, given the substantial and hard-won contribution they made to a critical area of post-conflict justice and solutions to displacement. Recently, however, it seems the floodgates of criticism have opened.

Rhodri’s recent blog post on the UN high level rule of law meeting alluded to the place of HLP restitution within the framework of rights-based humanitarianism; in what I find a particularly compelling warning about that movement, Hugo Slim wrote a few years ago in a paper for ODI that “as a debate essentially concerned with a political, moral and legal framework, rights-based humanitarianism may never leave the paper and seminar rooms where it is debated and find the means to have a practical effect.” This is, of course, the crux of the problem with the Pinheiro Principles – they are a lovely piece of work on paper but one which in many cases has had trouble achieving a significant practical outcome. Much of the criticism seems to point to this question: are refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) actually better off for the existence of the Pinheiro Principles?

I am a pragmatist at heart, but one who does not believe we should throw the human rights baby out with the bathwater. In Beyond Restitution my critique is two-fold. First, I argue, through a discussion that includes consideration of the development of the rights to HLP restitution and return, analysis of a dozen post-conflict case studies, and consideration of the meaning of “home” in the context of forced displacement, that the desired results of return and reintegration could not have been expected to flow directly from Pinheiro-style restitution. Second, I take this analysis as a springboard to address how the post-conflict HLP framework might continue to develop in a way which more effectively contributes to durable solutions, without losing a necessary link to transitional justice and reconciliation. I outline two of my primary arguments here; the book of course treats them in more detail:

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