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Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I think it is fair to say that most of us non-Swedes view Sweden as an incredibly seductive place. Mind you, I refer not so much to sheer pulchritude (though any readers out there who think Swedes are past the beauty myth should check out this nonsense) as to social policy. In American terms, right-wingers view Sweden’s allure as dangerous and misleading, with wretched proletarian drones somehow managing to masquerade, year after year, as happy, well adjusted social democrats. Left-wingers, by contrast, drool unabashedly.

And what’s not to like, one might ask? Look around and you will observe a generous and well-funded welfare state balanced by privatization in all kinds of unexpected places, impressive gender equality, rule of law, one of Europe’s more frivolous right wing populist parties, the ability to power through global economic meltdowns without even getting your ponytail mussed, and social capital to burn.

Sweden also occupies a special place in the human rights pantheon. If Americans assume that their human rights record is beyond question because they wrote them, Swedes do the same because they embody them. Where other countries fuss endlessly over balancing public interests and individual rights, Swedes often seem to assume they are the same thing.  Swedes love human rights. At least, fifty percent of human rights. Curiously, in a country shaped by the labor movement, infatuated with solidarity and social justice, and punching well above its weight in development cooperation, economic and social rights seem not to be a polite topic for dinnertime conversation.

This realization has dawned on me gradually during my time here, but I was recently given a reminder by a proposal related to ‘grading’ countries on their human rights performance published in a leading Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) by a leading Swedish jurist (and former Bosnia colleague, Krister Thelin). My proposal to respond directly to Krister’s article was turned down by the DN editors on the unreassuring grounds of “insufficient space, among other things” (it seems that I have yet to stamp my authority on the world of Swedish punditry). Happily though, this gives me the opportunity to finally blog a bit more on local issues of relevance to TN.

All this by way of announcing two forthcoming posts on ‘Sweden versus social and economic human rights’, the first responding to Krister’s grading system proposal and the second focusing on Sweden’s approach to the right to water. Both are indicative of an apparent unease with this category of rights in a country that has absolutely nothing to lose from embracing them.  Sweden probably outperforms most other countries in the world in implementing these rights in practice, but eschews them in principle. Is it a question of local political culture, a hangover from the Cold War, both or neither? And what broader significance might it have in a world where social and economic justice claims remain both burningly relevant and persistently controversial? All this and more to come. Hej så länge!

Part 1: Benchmarking human rights (o9 September 2011)

Part 2: The right to water (15 September 2011)

Cambodia: Resolution of Boeung Kak Lake dispute in sight

by Rhodri C. Williams

TN reader Bronwyn was kind enough to update my earlier post on the standoff between the Cambodian government and the World Bank over resettlement assistance to residents of the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh. It seems that the Bank’s announcement that it had frozen funding for projects in Cambodia pending resolution of the dispute caught somebody’s attention.

As reported in the Khmer service of the Voice of America, the Cambodian government has now met BKL residents’ demands for land plots within their old neighborhood rather than assistance resettling elsewhere:

Thousands of Boeung Kak lake residents who have been fighting a protracted battle with Phnom Penh and a development company have seen their fortunes reversed and have been granted a small plot of land on which to resettle.

Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a subdecree Aug. 11, giving 1,000 families still living near the lake approximately 12 hectares of land on the planned 133-hectare development site.

On its face, this decision represents a significant concession by a regime that had, until recently, received word of the Bank’s decision with disdain. Continue reading

Breaking news: World Bank funding to Cambodia frozen over forced evictions in Phnom Penh

by Rhodri C. Williams

Today’s edition of the Cambodia Daily carries the news that the World Bank has confirmed suspending funding for new projects in Cambodia pending the conclusion of an agreement between the Government of Cambodia and remaining residents of the Boeung Kak Lake district of Phnom Penh that would allow for them to be re-housed on site.

This development marks the continued escalation of a longstanding controversy over the Cambodian Government’s legally dubious evictions of the residents of Boeung Kak. As described in previous TN postings, criticism of these and other similar urban forced evictions led the Government of Cambodia to pull the plug on a multi-million dollar World Bank-supported titling program, while simultaneously embroiling the Bank’s own country team in proceedings before the body’s Inspection Panel over charges that the same program had violated longstanding policies on involuntary resettlement.

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IFRC meeting on post-disaster shelter issues

An invitation to TN readers that may find themselves in Geneva next Wednesday, July 20 – I’ll be co-facilitating an expert group meeting together with Geoffrey Payne on “addressing regulatory barriers to meeting the emergency and transitional shelter needs of people affected by disasters” and would welcome the participation of those of you have had occasion to work on and ponder these issues.

The aim of the meeting is to help the Disaster Law Programme at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to peer review both its current understandings of obstacles to post-disaster shelter and of practices proven to be effective in overcoming them in order to develop a set of recommendations for consideration at the 31st International Conference of the IFRC next November.

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Good morning South Sudan

Its official! The world’s latest country and one of its most hard-won and fragile can take its seat in the General Assembly. As background reading, my previous musings on the topic here, and a lyrical defense of a right to minority secession by Timothy William Waters here on EJIL Talk.

On an administrative note, apologies to TN readers for the long gap since the last posting. I wish I could say it was because I’d already gone on summer vacation but its actually because, in classic consultant style, I am currently consumed by the work I must finish before I can contemplate taking summer vacation! Please bear with me, some interesting postings and guest-postings forthcoming.

Colombia’s Victims’ Law enacted – Last stand or new beginning for programmatic property restitution?

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a signing ceremony attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ratified the Victims’ Law last Saturday, fulfilling his  unexpected and ambitious post-election pledge to enact a property restitution bill. Commentary on TN has highlighted both the unprecedented nature of this effort and the formidable obstacles it faces.

The fate of this legislation takes on additional significance against the background of current debates over the post-conflict ‘right to restitution’ proclaimed most prominently in the 2005 Pinheiro Principles. As early enthusiasm about restitution has faded, the need to respond to prevailing humanitarian trends such as urban vulnerability and protracted displacement has led to an increased emphasis on local integration as a durable solution. The extent to which programmatic restitution – and the promotion of voluntary return – remains seen as a viable complementary strategy to local integration efforts may depend on the outcome of the increasingly rare test cases, such as Colombia, that tackle this challenge head on.

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New report on protracted internal displacement – Nadine Walicki to guest post on HLP issues and local integration

by Rhodri C. Williams

The full proceedings of last January’s Second Expert Seminar on Protracted Internal Displacement (previously posted on here) have now been published on a dedicated webpage by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). The available texts include both a shorter report from the Seminar itself and a longer publication featuring observations on local integration as a solution to protracted internal displacement by Beth Ferris of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and the IDMC’s Nadine Walicki. The latter document also includes my own background report for the Seminar on protracted displacement in Serbia, Nadine’s on Georgia and four further reports on Burundi, Colombia, Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.

The theme of the Seminar was the question of local integration as either an interim or a durable solution to internal displacement. Although integration often remains politically sensitive, international humanitarian actors have been increasingly willing to break the taboo on discussing this issue in light of a greater awareness of the potential consequences of not doing so. Perhaps the most salient point to be made is that keeping IDPs in limbo pending a breakthrough on return that may never come to pass virtually guarantees that they will not have the resilience to sustainably return if it does.

The shifting emphasis from return to integration was given perhaps its most emphatic expression to date by Patricia Weiss Fagen – author of the above-mentioned background report on Colombia – in a recent USIP briefing simply entitled: “Refugees and IDPs after conflict: Why they do not go home.” As Patricia notes, restitution has not lost its relevance, but there is a new consciousness that the challenges to integration may be no less significant than those to property restoration:

While reclaiming land or receiving compensation for losses is important, the challenge for many returnees is to settle where they can maintain sustainable livelihoods; find peaceful living conditions; have access to health care, education, and employment opportunities; and enjoy full rights of citizenship.

In some senses, focusing on integration in protracted displacement settings – where restitution may or may not ultimately be possible – means an effective doubling of the housing, land and property (HLP) challenge – not only must remedies for past violations of HLP rights be kept in the offing but the current HLP rights of the displaced must be respected going forward. Against this background, I am very pleased to announce that the IDMC’s Nadine Walicki will be guest-blogging in the coming days in order to highlight some of the key HLP-related insights emerging from both the Seminar proceedings and the background reports.

Week in links – Week 22/2011

– A Guardian investigation shows that British firms have now secured more land in Africa for biofuels than those of any other country. Unwanted publicity, it seems, particularly in light of Oxfam’s simultaneous citation of biofuel production as a factor in an ongoing food crisis that may see the prices of staples double in the next two decades.

-In the long gap since my last postings on Haiti, the basic dynamic of urban IDP camps settling into informal settlement status is little changed, but the resulting tensions appear to be coming to a head. By November last year, tenure insecurity in IDP camps had become so rife that a coalition of rights groups sought and received a directive from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordering the Haitian authorities to “stop evicting earthquake survivors from camps unless they are provided safe and adequate shelter.” However, last week Beverly Bell of Other Worlds reported on a series of violent and systematic forced evictions of IDPs in the Delmas district of Port au Prince. The evictions were ordered by local mayor Wilson Jeudi, who justified them by disputing the humanitarian vulnerability of the residents:

Jeudi called the camps “disorderly” and claimed that many of those in the tents did not actually live there. “They just come to do their commercial activities [thievery and prostitution] and go back to their homes in the evening.”

The mayor said that no compensation would be offered to those ousted from their temporary shelter. “We were all victims of the earthquake,” he added.

-Meanwhile, a leaked USAID-commissioned report appeared to give some support to Mr. Jeudi’s diatribe, alleging not only that the death toll from the quake was less than one-third of the officially reported 316,000, but also that only 895,000 IDPs moved into the IDP camps after the quake with 375,000 remaining now (compared with IOM’s numbers of 1.5 million original residents and 680,000 current). Most interesting to Mr. Jeudi, the report also “suggests many of those still living in tent cities did not lose their homes in the disaster.” The report is not yet officially released due to the need to address apparent inconsistencies.

– The BBC carries a rather sad story about Palestinian refugees engaged in a lawsuit not be able to return to the village they fled in 1948 – a point they appear to have largely conceded – but to prevent others from living there in its proposed reincarnation as a luxury housing development.

Squatters, IDPs or both? Untangling urban displacement in Liberia

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’m happy to announce the release of a report I wrote (available for download here) for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Liberia Office based on recent fieldwork. The report focuses on the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, during the 1989-2003 conflict who chose unassisted integration into local informal settlements over assisted return to their homes of origin elsewhere in the country.

In resisting the expectation that they would return by becoming urban squatters, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) dropped off the radar of many humanitarian actors. However, their continued presence – which may have effectively doubled the population of Monrovia – has become a development question as infrastructure projects, investors and returning landowners begin to place pressure on the Capital’s many slums. The significance and potential volatility of the issue is reflected in the Liberian Land Commission’s decision to prioritize urban land issues in 2011.

In this context, it is very much to NRC’s credit that they have recognized the continuing humanitarian implications of what had come to be viewed almost solely as a development challenge. To quote from my report, the issue of urban displaced squatters in Liberia can be seen a classic exercise in the emerging discipline of ‘early recovery’, or the attempt to design both relief and development measures in a coordinated and complementary manner:

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With me or against us? The Economist mourns the passing of the rugged individual right

by Rhodri C. Williams

A common problem with minority rights is that their necessity is not always self-evident for the people in the majority, who, as we all know, get to call most of the shots in a democracy. This is most problematic in situations where minorities find themselves inconveniently present in countries that have staked a good deal of their credibility on not having minorities, such as newly consolidated and politically fragile post-colonial states or France. However, it may also raise issues when well-intentioned outsiders turn up and start loudly wondering what all the fuss is about.

Before I cast any aspersions on the Economist, I might as well clear my own conscience. Minority and indigenous rights are complex and contested terrain for minority and indigenous peoples, let alone suburban white Americans. Whatever insights living as an expat in the Swedish-speaking Åland archipelago of Finland may have given me, I am still only really in an intellectual position to assess the issue not an intuitive one. This can result in misunderstandings.

In the year since TN was born for instance, I have come to realize that (1) the tag ‘indigenous groups’ may not please a readership that may include some ‘groups’ that have spent the last thirty years struggling to be recognized as ‘peoples’, and that (2) the name of the blog will be received by some right-minded Australians as a hair less offensive than calling it ‘ApartHeid’ would be to South Africans. The point being that perhaps the first duty of the well-meaning outsider is to seek to attain more than a  superficial understanding of the situation they will inevitably influence through their statements.

Sadly, I’m not really so sure that the latest Economist take on group rights meets this test. The article in question, ‘Me myself and them‘ (May 14, 2011), generates a bit more heat than light in its discussion of this complicated topic and links its conclusions somewhat debatably to the fate of the Arab Spring. To paraphrase their argument:

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