Category Archives: Innovations in forced eviction

Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

Continue reading

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.

Euroviction: Azerbaijan demolishes homes for a song (contest)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hat-tip to TN guest-author Anneke Smit for pointing out Azerbaijan’s most recent contributions to the busy field of forced evictions. (And apologies to ToL for partially appropriating their pun. I only realized later – proof, one hopes, that great minds do think alike…)

In many respects, recent rounds of ‘urban renewal’ in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku have followed an all too familiar forced evictions playbook. For instance, according to a February report by Human Rights Watch, the authorities in the oil-flush country have violated their own laws and constitution as well as their international obligations through a well-known litany of omissions including failure to provide notice of evictions, no meaningful consultation or recourse, no protection of residents’ health or safety and inadequate compensation and resettlement assistance.

Moreover, in a manner befitting one of the remaining outposts of the former Soviet Union that has made few concessions to even managed democracy (and may not need to as long as the petrodollars keep flowing), the Azerbaijani authorities also appear to have carried off the evictions with a certain panache. For instance, Zulfali Ismayilov, the senior municipal official in charge, described displaced residents as “greedy” in a press conference covered by ToL, and then went on to make one of those off-the-cuff statements that speak more loudly than volumes of best-practice guidelines and workshop conclusions:

Ismayilov would not answer any additional questions from a reporter. But when a member of one of the last families in the building said she would immolate herself if police came to forcibly remove her, Ismayilov offered to help her do so.

Such an offer can only with some difficulty be reconciled with the embrace of human rights values professed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. In fact, the gap between the MFA’s windy declaration of Azerbaijan’s official aspirations and Mr. Ismayilov’s terse expression of its actual governance approach is precisely what makes these evictions shocking. In a country with current membership in the Council of Europe and long-term aspirations to European integration, forced evictions are clearly counterproductive as well as wrong.

However, the irony of Baku’s most recent demolitions is that they have been undertaken for the express purpose of beautifying the site of next May’s Eurovision song contest, an annual event dedicated to promoting “the cultural union of Europe”. In explaining the historical paths along which Azerbaijan has converged with Europe and its annual glam pop extravaganza, the official Eurovision website highlights both Azerbaijan’s own painful experience of conflict-based internal displacement and its aspirations to democratic rule of law:

In spite of the sad results of Armenia’s aggression against Azerbaijan (Armenia occupied the territory of Nagorny Karabakh and 7 neighboring districts. One million out of total population of eight million are refugees), our country mobilized its potential and had great successes in building democracy. Azerbaijan manages to successfully overcome the difficulties and continues making important and firm steps towards the establishment of a democratic and lawful country with civil society.

While it is true that Azerbaijan has struggled to cope with the effects of conflict and internal displacement, the current imbroglio over the Eurovision contest demonstrates a failure to learn from these experiences. As reported recently by the Brookings Institution, for instance, the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities initially allocated private homes to internally displaced persons on an ad hoc basis and then failed to build alternative housing that would allow the quick return of the occupied properties to their owners led to findings of violations by the European Court of Human Rights. In a country virtually sloshing with oil revenues, such an eventuality was not only unfortunate but also unnecessary.

Similarly, the current botched and abusive nature of the evictions of residents of the nascent Eurovision zone appears to result almost entirely from poor planning and disdain for legal niceties. On one hand, Human Rights Watch notes (Section II) that respect for the procedural requirements for resettlement under Azerbaijani law was nearly impossible in light of the narrow window between the country’s victory in last May’s contest and its hosting of the 2012 contest in two months. However, this would seem to be a rationale for at least minimizing the scope of resettlement necessary, e.g. by refraining from demolishing a nine-story building housing 72 families simply because it “blocks the view from the Crystal Hall.” Moreover, while Azerbaijan may not have had time, it certainly has money, suggesting that any deficit behind the failure to pay adequate compensation to victims (HRW, Section V) may have been of a democratic rather than a fiscal nature.

It is undoubtedly difficult to keep politics out of Europe’s premier kitsch culture event. In the case of Azerbaijan, this is most clearly indicated by the tersely worded notifications on both Azerbaijan and Armenia’s official Eurovision sites that the latter has sent its regrets and will not be attending. While the failure of the authorities in these neighboring countries to resolve their territorial conflict is unfortunate, it reflects poorly on them and not the Eurovision contest itself. However, the new evictions in Baku raise the question of whether the Eurovision contest risks damaging its own standing. When pressed by HRW (Section VII), the European Broadcasting Union disowned the evictions on the grounds that the ‘improvements’ behind them were planned long before Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision:

[Joergen Franck, director of television for the EBU] reiterated the EBU’s position that there is no connection between the expropriations and the Eurovision Song Contest, and said the people in the area would have been evicted even if the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest were to be held elsewhere. “The EBU does not believe its brand has been tainted by government actions or by articles in the press,” he told Human Rights Watch. Franck said that although the EBU is seeking explanations from the Azerbaijani government about development plans in the area, the EBU would not be seeking assurances from the government about addressing eviction-related abuses. Doing so, he said, would interfere with the non-political character of the Eurovision Song Contest. Franck also said that organizations could take advantage of the “bright spotlight” the Eurovision contest was throwing on Azerbaijan in order to highlight human rights violations, and that this was “a good thing.”

While HRW dispensed with these arguments by noting that the current rationale and the timing of the evictions is clearly linked to Baku’s impending boy band invasion, there may be a deeper question involved. Eurovision celebrates European culture in the spirit of unity through respect for diversity. As a result, the winning formula typically involves spicing up a generically catchy piece of synth-pop with some pan pipes or dancers in rustic smocks or terrifying Nordic monster outfits in order to reinforce the idea that Europe is not a bureaucratic steamroller of the things that distinguish member states in inoffensive and enjoyable ways. However, if there is any type of culture that truly distinguishes ‘Europe’ as a post-World War II project and a sum that is greater than its parts, it may well be the culture of respect for democracy and human rights. Be prepared for a clash of cultures in Baku.


Innovations in forced eviction series #3: China

by Rhodri C. Williams

In following housing rights issues, I have been increasingly struck by the frenetic pace of innovation demonstrated by local authorities worldwide in forcing people out of their homes. The first ‘aha’ moment came when I read about the use of sand pumps by workers draining a lake in central Phnom Penh to literally flood the homes of families in the adjoining neighborhood with mud. The next noteworthy development came when Israel – admittedly a country with some tradition in this regard – began notifying Bedouins in the Negev Desert that they would be charged for the periodic demolition of their homes.

However, China has set the bar at a new level and deserves full recognition for their initiative. As reported by the BBC, the Chinese authorities have responded to one village’s failure to comply with an eviction order (their village was flooded by a dam but they moved back to the shore of the resulting lake without permission) by refusing to issue official documents to the residents, effectively rendering them stateless:

“When [children] are born, when they grow up, when they to school, get married, find a job, there is no way to show they exist,” [one resident] says. “When they die we just bury them.”

In recognition of the tireless work of the anonymous bureaucrats who labor day and night to come up with such outside-the-box solutions, I have decided to begin a formal series in TN on innovations in forced evictions. Whenever I read of a new practice that demonstrates unusual initiative, I will ensure that it gets the exposure it deserves. Readers are encouraged to submit nominations anytime.