Category Archives: Guest posting

Lost in transition – EU financed legal aid programme between Serbia and Kosovo falters

by Massimo Moratti

Since 2012, I have been informing the readers on some key developments in the field of property rights, as they emerged from the practice of a legal aid project in Serbia for refugees from Bosnia and Croatia as well as displaced persons from Kosovo*. The November 2011 – June 2015 phase of the project (which has been funded by the EU Delegation to Serbia since 2008) was implemented by a team of lawyers and barristers I had the privilege of leading.

Many of the blog readers might wonder what happened with the Project since the last post two years ago, and I am glad to use this opportunity to provide an update on subsequent developments. At that time, the project was due to end in June 2014, but received a one year cost extension from the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia. The project was financed under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), the main fund to support countries that are in the EU accession process.

Under the terms of the IPA, a local public institution, in this case the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (the OKiM), was designated as beneficiary of the Project. Accordingly, the OKiM provided free legal aid to displaced persons from Kosovo via outsourcing to a consortium of private companies and NGOs, which in turn implemented the project under the EU flag.

This is the standard arrangement for EU funding, but in this specific case, where the divide between Serbia and Kosovo* institutions remains wide, it was crucial to make sure that a team of EU-funded lawyers could operate between the two legal systems, engaging in de facto conduct that I defined as “shuttle legal aid”.

For those not familiar with the practicalities of the issue, it is worth recalling that there are, according to the Serbian authorities, around 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. It is unclear how many of them have not yet solved their property issues. While displaced persons are mostly in Serbia, their properties and other assets are located in Kosovo, and any attempt at ensuring the protection of their rights needs to be conducted before the institutions of Kosovo*.

However, the two legal system do not recognize each other’s documents, and there is no functioning post or telephone system between Kosovo* and Serbia. Lawyers and legal aid NGOs from Serbia are often reluctant to travel to Kosovo, both because of logistical and security issues and due to lack of familiarity with the institutional setting of the former Serbian province. Lawyers from Kosovo do not seem interested in conducting any outreach to potential clients in Serbia and more important than everything else, displaced persons themselves do not have the financial means to pay for legal expenses.

The EU-funded legal aid programme presented a solution to these problems, since it could operate in both Kosovo and in Serbia. The positive aspects were numerous: the project bridged the institutional gaps between the two systems, it was staffed with an adequate number of lawyer and barristers familiar with national and international law, and its proceedings were completely free for the IDPs (including coverage of court fees and expenses).

Indeed, besides successfully representing thousands of persons in administrative and court proceedings, the Project generated valuable information, in that it could closely observe the workings of the courts of Kosovo* in the context of property cases. Most of these cases involved disputes about the possession of property where an inter-ethnic element was present, which raised the profile and the tension in many of these disputes.

The project had a unique point of view, namely that of the claimants and their legal representatives and it could accordingly witness how legal proceedings took place “from the bottom” and very often without other international observers present. This unique point of view allowed the project to use its cases to collect information on court practice and in this manner legal aid became a “fact finding” tool, regularly reporting its findings on its website and from time to time on this blog.

The topics covered were some of the most contentious in Kosovo. Moreover, they involved the issue of property rights, where, as consistently highlighted in the EU Progress Reports about Kosovo, progress was slow or non-existent.

In the course of its work, the Project successfully represented displaced persons who were trying to challenge the illegal occupation, and in some cases demolition, of their properties. In other cases, the Project initiated criminal and civil proceedings cases against persons who acquired property via “fraudulent transactions”, highlighting patterns indicating that the forgery of property documents and records was not just an act of few corrupt individuals, but in certain areas a concerted effort to grab land to be used for business purposes.

In several landmark cases before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, it was also possible to highlight how an internationally funded mass claims mechanism, the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) had itself violated the rights to property and fair trial by refusing to solve property disputes or to award compensation to claimants.

However, like all projects, this one too came to an end on 12 June 2015. Continue reading

Legal precedents for fighting dispossession of land – the Community Land Rights CaseBase

by Rachael Knight, Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Melissa Riess-James

Rachael Knight is the Director of Namati’s Community Land Protection ProgramNaomi Roht-Arriaza is a Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings College of Law. Melissa Riess-James is the Project Coordinator for the Community Land Rights CaseBase.

As global demand for land and resources rises, dispossession of community land is increasing. Lawyers and front line legal advocates are stepping forward to defend communities’ rights, yet often struggle to find supportive legal precedent. There have been many powerful legal victories in national, regional and international courts, but advocates need to know about these cases to be able to harness that power.

To address this need, Namati has created the Community Land Rights CaseBase: the first free, online, searchable database of case law from around the world relevant to community land and natural resource rights. In this post, we describe the inspiration and creation of CaseBase and invite you to join us in building this tool.

The Power of Effective Legal Strategies

For billions of people, land is their greatest asset: the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community. Yet more than ever, rural land is up for grabs. Local communities are being displaced, either directly or through the despoliation of the water, wildlife and other resources on which they depend. As dispossession grows, so does the resistance to it, leading to conflict, the criminalization of social protest, and the violation of a wide range of human rights.

Increasingly, communities seeking to defend and protect their land and natural resource claims are finding allies in the legal community and fighting back through local and national courts. Lawyers are basing challenges on a wide variety of legal sources, including national or international environmental laws, the rights of indigenous or tribal communities under international law, property rights, constitutional and human rights law, and common law principles.

In some cases they are finding support in the courts. For example:

  • National courts are holding governments accountable for violations of their obligations under international law:, in SATIIM v Attorney General of Belize (2014), the Supreme Court of Belize found that the Belize government had violated the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by issuing construction permits on the land of the Maya people without obtaining the Mayas’ free, prior and informed consent.
  • Lawyers are crafting creative legal strategies and waging their campaigns across a variety of legal forums: in Loserian Minis v. Thomson (2014) lawyers used US discovery procedure (28 U.S.C. § 1782) to obtain information vital to litigation in Tanzanian courts.
  • Courts are increasingly receptive to evidence necessary to support traditional land claims, but which historically has not been considered admissible: in Roy Sesana v. Attorney General of Botswana (2006), the High Court of Botswana conducted extensive testimony gathering and site-visits in order to include customary evidence in its considerations.

The Need to Share Lessons

Yet accessing relevant case law can be difficult, especially when records are not digitized or available online. Too often advocates work in isolation, unaware of successful arguments or strategies from other nations that they could leverage. The variety of legal contexts underlying land dispossession also complicate advocates’ efforts to draw cross-national comparisons. Advocates working within an area of specialized law, like environmental law or constitutional law, may not be aware of relevant precedent in other fields.

Some existing efforts already point in this direction. Continue reading

“The Endorois decision” – Four years on, the Endorois still await action by the Government of Kenya

by Rebecca Marlin

Rebecca Marlin is currently the Legal Fellow at Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in London. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley College and her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. During her time at MRG she will be working extensively with the Endorois to achieve implementation of the 2010 African Commission decision granting them rights to Lake Bogoria.

For the Endorois of Kenya’s Lake Bogoria, the process of reclaiming their land from the government of Kenya has been one step forwards and two steps back. In 2003, MRG and partner organisation Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), acting on behalf of the Endorois Welfare Council, went before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the Kenyan government recognise the rights of the Endorois to Lake Bogoria.

The Endorois had inhabited Lake Bogoria for over 300 years before being evicted by the government in the 1970s. In 2010, the Endorois won the landmark case Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International (on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council) v Kenya. The land rights aspects of this groundbreaking decision have been discussed on this blog here and some of the regional implications here.

A pattern of empty promises emerges

Immediately following the Commission’s ruling in February 2010, the government of Kenya welcomed the decision, promising to begin implementation. A large celebration of the decision was held at Lake Bogoria; the Minister of Lands was in attendance and the momentous occasion was broadcast on television nationally. Kenya’s progressive National Land Policy had been enacted only a few months prior to the ruling and, with a forward-thinking new Constitution in the drafting stages, it seemed the decision might soon be translated into restitution of land, compensation, and benefit-sharing for the Endorois.

However, in May 2010, a report on implementation due to be submitted by the government of Kenya to the African Commission failed to arrive. Throughout 2010 and 2011, the government of Kenya failed to take any significant action on the recommendations. One MP openly challenged the Minister of Lands in Parliament about this delay in January 2011; the official response from the Minister was that he would not be able to take any action until he received an official sealed copy of the 2010 decision – despite the fact that the decision had been officially adopted and published one year earlier. A sealed copy was thereafter delivered to the Minister, but this did little to improve the situation.

When pressed on the matter, the government continues to affirm that it supports the decision and is taking steps to carry out the Commission’s recommendations. Yet, steps taken by the government indicate the exact opposite and new legislation on Lake Bogoria threatens to further separate the Endorois from their land.

Continue reading

The Kosovo Constitutional Court on displaced persons’ property rights: Can mediation ever count as enforcement?

by Massimo Moratti

Protecting the property rights of displaced persons in post-conflict scenarios presents a number of interesting challenges, not least when internally displaced persons (IDPs) face illegal construction on their land and therefore are forced to seek remedies before the relevant institutions, including mass claims mechanisms.

One of these cases, which is probably not an isolated one, occurred recently in Kosovo, where the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) is the local mass claim mechanism which inherited the competences of the UNMIK Housing and Property Directorate (HPD).  Established in 2006, the Kosovo Property Agency became an independent agency functioning in accordance with the Constitution of Kosovo after the unilateral declaration of independence.  The mandate of the KPA focuses on claims for land and commercial property, which were not addressed by the UNMIK HPD, since the HPD’s mandate did not cover such claims and the local courts were in theory competent for the receiving them. Since its inception, the KPA has collected claims for over 42,000 properties and decided 96% of those claims.

While the process of issuing decisions is approaching its end, the implementation of such decisions in a number of cases is becoming particularly problematic, especially those cases where a new building has been constructed on claimed properties. It is worth recalling that the KPA was created in 2006 and for the period 1999-2006 there was no claims mechanism to deal with claims for land, nor were courts capable of effectively processing such claims.  In the meantime, “a lot has been built in Kosovo”, to quote one of the officers of the Ombudsman office when contacted about the issue of illegal construction.

The problem the KPA is facing now is how to deal with such cases, where an illegal occupant has built a residential or commercial building on a claimed plot of land. In theory, the KPA could resolve to seize and demolish the building, sell it at an auction, broker a lease agreement or place the building under administration. However, practice has departed significantly from the procedures foreseen in the law. The KPA has instead developed a mediation procedure in order to try to solve these cases without resorting to destruction of buildings. IDPs facing illegal construction are now routinely informed by the KPA about the impossibility of demolish such buildings and offered the possibility for mediation.

This offer of mediation raises a number of issues and leaves a number of questions unanswered.  The case KI187/13 recently brought before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo highlights how the procedure of mediation collides with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In this case, a female IDP who left Kosovo in 1999 and has lived in destitute conditions since sought repossession of a large plot of land in an attractive location outside Pristina with significant commercial value. On the same plot, an illegal occupant had built three houses with a swimming pool. The applicant claimed her property in 2006 and a KPA decision in her favor became final and binding in 2013.

The KPA however told the applicant that they could not enforce her claim, because the property had changed since the time she owned it and the KPA lacked the resources to demolish the existing buildings. They offered instead to mediate between her and the illegal occupant. The applicant refused such mediation and instead addressed the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, claiming a violation of her rights to property, to a fair trial and to an effective remedy. Continue reading

What future for reform? Tracking changes in forest tenure since 2002

by Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque

Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque is a Tenure Analyst with the Rights and Resources Initiative, and one of the lead researchers of “What Future for Reform?” along with Fernanda Almeida and Jenny Springer. He is currently managing and updating RRI’s various tenure tracking data sets and developing new methodologies to track changes in community tenure.

Few things are as political as the rights to the world’s remaining forest land. Forests are viewed by a wide range of actors as a source of timber, fiber, food, fuel, medicine, carbon storage, biodiversity, spirituality, and as sites of cultural belonging. Vast mineral, gas, and oil resources are also found beneath the world’s forests. As populations and incomes grow, pressure will continue to rise on the shrinking, yet increasingly important forest estate and the resources it contains. To understand the current contestation for these resources, it is important to begin with the following question: Who ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ these resources?

While the answers are rarely clear, and frequently contested, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and its Partners have been developing approaches to answering it since 2002. RRI’s recent report, What Future for Reform? Progress and slowdown in forest tenure reform since 2002, is the latest in a series of reports tracking developments related to four different statutory forest tenure categories: 1) forest land under government administration; 2) forest land designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities; 3) forest land owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities; and 4) forest land owned by individuals and firms.

The report presents tenure data from 2002 and 2013 under these four categories for 52 countries, representing nearly 90 percent of the global forest area.[1]  Of these, the 40 countries that have complete data for each category and time-period exclusively inform the global aggregates. The aggregates for low and middle income countries (LMICs) are drawn from 33 countries.

Key findings

On a global scale, it is clear that while governments have increasingly recognized indigenous and local community control and ownership of forest land, governments retain the lion’s share of the global forest estate. Between 2002 and 2013, the proportion of forests owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities increased from just over 11 percent of the global forest estate (at least 383 Mha) to 15.5 percent (at least 511 Mha). The proportion owned by individuals and firms only increased by 0.6 percent over this same time period.  Continue reading

Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The Peace Deal for Mindanao and its lessons for practitioners of environmental peacebuilding

by Paula Defensor Knack

Paula Defensor Knack is a is a former assistant secretary for Lands and Legislative Affairs at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She wrote on “ Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and provides an update in this guest posting. NB: This material may not be published, broadcasted, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without due reference to the author.

This blog provides a guide to peace-builders in analyzing developments in the Mindanao peace process that occurred since the publication of my chapter on “Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” (available here in pdf) in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. The recent signing of the Bangsamoro peace deal for Mindanao or the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) has received both praise and criticism. It is a work in progress as the CAB has been submitted to Congress for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.  This posting, therefore, represents a guide to peace-builders in understanding the implications of these latest developments .

This blog post is part of a continuing analysis, shared with the 700 or so members of the Environmental Peacebuilding group and policymakers, regarding each phase of this protracted conflict and its series of failed peace agreements. The analysis raises questions relevant to conflict studies, negotiation, mediation, law, political science, natural resources and environmental management, governance and peacebuilding, which may serve as guidance to both students and practitioners. A full-blown academic  analysis of this latest peace deal is to follow, but readers are also encouraged to familiarise themselves with the volumes in the Environmental Peacekeeping series related to land, natural resources and governance for case-studies providing lessons on effective post-conflict governance.

The Demands on a Peacebuilder

The work of peacebuilder can be complex, demanding and even life-threatening. Continue reading

Land grabs jeopardize peace in Sri Lanka

by Christina Williams

Christina Williams is an attorney and founder of Reinventing the Rules, a website dedicated to covering the latest trends and lessons learned in the rule of law sector. She has worked on human rights campaigns related to Sri Lanka for several years and is currently focusing on women and land rights in the region.

The end of the 25-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 signaled what many in the international community hoped would be the beginning of a new era marked by peace and reconciliation. Over the past five years, however, one of the key instigators of the civil war has resurfaced. Land grabs, which were systematically taking place prior to the armed conflict, are once again accelerating at a frightening pace. Shielded by the rhetoric of security and development, the rise of land grabs has left few positive prospects for long-term peace and stability.

Who is behind the land grabs?

The Sri Lankan military, sanctioned by the Government, has played a primary role in confiscating public and private land from the Tamil population, which predominantly inhabits the North and East of the island. Despite the end of the war, militarization of Tamil areas has been the main reason land grabs continue unabated.

In 2008, during the latter stages of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka reportedly had a force of 60 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or 1 soldier for every 16.6 civilians in the North. In July 2012, the Economic and Political Weekly of India estimated that there is a “ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province.” The military, which is almost entirely composed of ethnic Sinhalese from the South, includes at least 15 army divisions and personnel from the navy, air force, civil defense force, intelligence, police, and special task force. This conservative estimate roughly translates into 198,000 soldiers or 70% of the security personnel in 14% of the country. View a map of militarization in Sri Lanka here.

The trend towards militarization has only increased with Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2014 reported to be the highest allocation of funds thus far, at $1.95 billion or 12% of the country’s total spending.  The rate at which militarization grows in Tamil areas five years after the war ended is a concerning trend given the significance land played as one of the root causes of the war. Land will likely continue to play an important role in determining whether peace and a return to normalcy can be achieved.

Tactics used to seize land

The seizure of land marked as high security zones (HSZ) during the conflict and the unwillingness to return much of this property to the thousands who were displaced has contributed to the slow return to normalcy in the former war zones. While some of the HSZ have been disbanded, existing HSZs still occupy significant amounts of valuable agricultural land and no one other than the army is allowed to enter, including elected officials. During the war the legality of the HSZs rested on emergency regulations, which have now been repealed. Five years after the end of conflict, there is no clear legal basis for the remaining HSZ.

Since the armed conflict ended, the military has continued to confiscate public and private land largely under the pretext of security. While many military camps have been created for the army and navy, the government has also resettled thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians from the South in Tamil areas by incentivizing them with free land and permanent housing. This is occurring while 57% out of 138,651 households already residing in the North remain in transitional or emergency shelters while only 32% have permanent homes. Consequently, land grabs are reigniting fears of a concerted effort by the government to change the demographics of Tamil areas in the North and East.  Continue reading