Category Archives: Resources

Sargsyan and Chiragov: The Strasbourg Court takes aim at frozen conflicts?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week I joined Philip Leach of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) in Strasbourg to present the European Court of Human Rights’ June 2015 judgments in two cases related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to government representatives at the Council of Europe, at a briefing event organised by the European Implementation Network and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The cases were Sargsyan v Azerbaijan and Chiragov v. Armenia, which were effectively joined by being relinquished from their original chambers to the same composition of the Grand Chamber in 2010. Both judgments found continuing violations of the applicants’ rights to property and their homes (as well as an effective remedy) based on their displacement in the early 1990s and subsequent inability to return to or access their properties.

While not (yet) signaling the initiation of a pilot judgment procedure, the court notes that the cases typify repetitive claims resulting from the respondent states’ failure to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reiterate the “primordial” importance of subsidiarity to the functioning of the Convention system, and recommend that both states take immediate steps to address property claims on their own steam:

…it would appear particularly important to establish a property claims mechanism, which should be easily accessible and provide procedures operating with flexible evidentiary standards, allowing the applicant and others in his situation to have their property rights restored and to obtain compensation for the loss of their enjoyment. (Sargsyan, para. 238, Chiragov, para. 199)

Taken together, the judgments represent intriguing developments at a number of levels. Continue reading

Property issues in Libya: A reminder that the road to sustainable peace still goes via root causes

by Rhodri C. Williams

What to say about Libya? Despite the slide from the country’s post-revolutionary and chaotic new normal to civil war, it is still too early to give up hope. While Libya may have yet to scrape bottom, many of the factors that argued for a sustainable recovery from Gaddafi’s long nihilistic night remain latent. And despite the increasing subordination of Libya’s politics to the influence of regional competitions and actors, the country still remains to some degree a case apart, churning in the region’s ideological divisions without the despair-inducing ethnic and sectarian fractures that threaten the Mashriq.

It seems a very long time since my work in Libya, on property issues that stalled (at best), displacement issues that exploded, and rule of law issues that have descended to a near farce, with mass trials of senior Gaddafi regime officials wrapping up amid power cuts and procedural irregularities. By all accounts, Ibrahim Sharqieh’s grim prediction that the lustration law forced through in 2013 would be the equivalent of the Iraqi de-Baathification process has been vindicated, as the heavily militarized winners of the revolution collapsed into open conflict with each other. Then comes IS in Sirte, refugee catastrophes in the Mediterranean, and the needless death of good and selflessly devoted Libyans.

The temptation is strong in such situations to cut losses and contain damage. For Europe, for instance, earlier efforts to build up a Libyan state that could be a responsible partner on migration issues have now given way to desperate proposals to unilaterally stem migration that bypass and undermine what remains of the Libyan state. Fortunately, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has shown extraordinary persistence, chivvying two sides that refuse to recognize each other into 80% of a peace deal even as economic collapse looms. Another refusal to write Libya off came last month, when the Legatum Institute revived the moribund debate over property issues in Libya.

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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

Article on HLP rights and durable solutions in GPC Digest

by Rhodri C. Williams

A short piece I wrote on the relationship between ‘housing, land and property’ (HLP) rights and durable solutions for displaced persons has been published in the Global Protection Cluster Digest, vol. 1/2014, and can be accessed in pdf form here. I have also added the last draft before final edits just below.

The thrust of the piece will be pretty familiar to any regular readers of this blog. I’ve been going on about the steady demise of the Pinheiro Principles and their exclusive focus on restitution (over other forms of reparation) for some time now. As precedents like the ECHR Demopoulos decision and humanitarian changes in tack like the IDP Durable Solutions Framework crowded in, it became ever more clear that a more balanced approach was justified.

Indeed, even before the spike in global displacement seen since 2011, growing awareness of the problem of protracted displacement had put local integration front and center in international discussions of durable solutions. Where displacement persists because return is not on the table, continuing to emphasize the future hope of restitution can distract both displaced persons and host communities from practical steps to ameliorate the here and now. Meaning that a more balanced approach was also necessary.

Continue reading

New book review on “the Åland example”: Balancing engagement and exclusion in autonomy regimes

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce that my review of the Åland Island Peace Institute’s book on “the Åland example” was just published in the Nordic Journal of International Law. The editors at NJIL were quite generous in allowing me seventeen pages to discuss the contribution that the book makes to charting the lessons a distant Nordic language conflict that embraced peace may have for the numerous contemporary ethnic conflicts that evade it.

The review can be downloaded in full here so I will not go into detail in this post. However, it is worth noting that one of the consistent strengths throughout this volume is the emphasis on the process by which an autonomy regime is created and sustained, rather than the substance of its rules, as being crucial to its viability. This echoes one of the fundamental lessons of the ‘new constitutionalism’ described in my earlier research on constitution-building for the Folke Bernadotte Academy, namely that founding documents in ethnic conflict settings should emphasize ongoing dialogue rather than finality in order avoid the recurrence of conflict.

The ironic lesson to be drawn here is that the Ålanders ability to maintain a sustained and constructive engagement with the Finnish authorities in Helsinki has been crucial to securing their highly asymmetrical political status within the Finnish state. However, there is a further irony that will come as little surprise in light of my earlier writings on Åland in these pages. This involves the fact that the strong land rights of the Åland Islanders, including a limited right to exclude outsiders from the rest of Finland from acquiring property, may be a crucial part of the Ålanders bargaining power.

Openness resulting from the right to be closed. Hardly an easy sell in conflict-management settings, but far better than most of the alternatives.

International Humanitarian Law more clear and more debated than ever – updated

by Rhodri C. Williams

The immediate inspiration for this post was the fact that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently put online its vast and expanding database on which norms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are now deemed to have attained the status of customary international law (CIL), binding on all parties to armed conflicts whether or not they have ratified (or otherwise assented to be bound by) the treaties that give rise to these rules.

The database consists of both a comprehensive listing of the rules now deemed applicable and a compendium of practice, both that which supports the emerging rules and objections against its validity (anyone want to take some wild guesses on what states frequently feature in the latter category?) In the new online version, the practice of some seven further states and a number of international tribunals have been added. The new database constitutes a highly accessible and useful tool alongside ICRC’s additional databases on treaty ratification and application by States Parties.

The good news is that there has been considerable progress in this area. I have written on this blog and elsewhere about the role of soft-law documents like the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in consolidating a human rights based approach that has transformed humanitarian action in the post-Cold War period. This transformation has brought new possibilities for advocacy by pairing the cautiously phrased and state-centric provisions of IHL with the less ambiguous and more individual-oriented rules of international human rights law (IHRL).

Moreover, because advocacy for the Guiding Principles has focused on engaging willing states (at the risk of to some extent being co-opted by them), they have been far more successful than most soft-law standards, to the extent of having been incorporated in numerous national laws and policies (compiled by the Brookings Institution here) as well as a groundbreaking regional convention adopted by the African Union. This, in turn, has provided support for customary IHL to more vigorously address areas such as the prohibition against arbitrary displacement (including in internal conflicts), the right of voluntary return for internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as the state obligation to respect their property rights.

However the new force and reach that a rights-based approach has given to IHL has brought new risks as well. Most obviously, by encouraging humanitarian actors to condemn violations of human rights (such as forced displacement) and demand accountability and remedies (such as restitution), the rights-based approach may create dangerously high expectations on the part of beneficiaries of aid while simultaneously undermining the perceived impartiality of humanitarian actors. In the worst cases – and we do not have to look far to find them – this limits the access of humanitarian actors to vulnerable populations and puts their own security at risk.

As a result, this ongoing retrenchment of the rules of conflict has opened up new policy debates, most recently in the extremely difficult humanitarian arena of the Syrian conflict. The latest iteration came with the 28 April 2014 publication of an open letter signed by 35 eminent legal scholars. The letter noted that 3.5 million civilians – over a third of those in urgent humanitarian need in Syria – are living in areas accessible only from neighbouring countries. However, because Syria has denied consent to humanitarian actors operating in Syria to send cross-border aid, these civilians face a catastrophe.

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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