Tag Archives: COHRE

COHRE archive back online

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its been some time since the mysterious demise of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), the protean Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights NGO that inspired and spun off so many others. One of the most direct successors to COHRE, the Global Initiative for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) was early out in placing a selection of COHRE reports and manuals in their resource library. However, COHRE itself, evicted from the web, had ceased to exist as completely as if it had never existed.

Having stumbled across a fully functioning COHRE website this morning on precisely its old, familiar URL, I am happy to announce that the org is back as a resource, even if it is no longer an active force. The site itself is frozen in time in Summer 2011 (when one might wish all of time had frozen), complete with welcomes from its then-Chairperson and Director, and a seemingly complete archive of reports and resources, including my original 2008 salvo on housing rights in Cambodia (here in pdf).

I should note that I have heard more about the demise of COHRE since I blogged on it two years ago, but have been told these things in confidence, which I do not intend to breach. Whatever the circumstances that brought COHRE down, all the involved parties appear united by a desire to focus on the positive aspects of their experience, which is itself quite a legacy. That said, if the mysterious benefactors who brought COHRE back online want to come forward, they are welcome to do so here.

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R.I.P. COHRE?

by Rhodri C. Williams

A few weeks back, Elisa Mason of the Forced Migration Current Awareness Blog got in touch to ask me if all was well with the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Their website had gone blank and their last registered tweet was in July, so there were grounds for fearing the worst. In the meantime, my contacts have informed me that this venerable institution has indeed shuffled off this mortal coil, but I have been unable to find out much more than that.

In retrospect, I suppose, there was some writing on the wall. The Wikipedia entry on COHRE (linked above) already referred to 2008 as its high-water mark and there was undoubtedly a wobble when COHRE founder and HLP-rights guru Scott Leckie left the organization to found Displacement Solutions. However, COHRE seemed to be pressing forward, issuing new reports and doing some impressive work on ESC rights litigation. It is hard to believe that such a vital organization could collapse both so completely – the vanished website itself was in important repository of HLP-rights reports and information – and without a whimper, let alone a press release.

So I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the diligent efforts of COHRE colleagues too numerous to mention on all five continents in pushing forward some of the most important and most often overlooked categories of rights. And to put the question: what happened, and can any of it, in the spirit of the Pinheiro Principles, be undone?

The Pinheiro Principles take a licking (and keep on ticking?)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Based on my early experience of both, working on international soft law standards seems a bit like parenthood – you have a limited period to create a warm, protective space around the text that will give it the resilience and flexibility to make a difference in the world and then you let it go and watch its fitful progress with your heart in your mouth. Maybe you don’t hear from it in a while and then, for better or for worse, there it is in the morning paper.

My first brush with the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ on property restitution for displaced persons came during their infancy, when I sent comments on a draft and was invited to participate in a March 2005 expert consultation to groom the text for  presentation to the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights. I was fresh from my prolonged engagement with Bosnian restitution and pleased to see so much of what we had struggled to articulate there being expressed in the draft. At the same time, a prior consultancy job with IPA had put me on notice that both the nature of post-conflict property issues and means of addressing them could take many forms.

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UN Secretary General urged to address Cambodia evictions

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a press release today, COHRE appealed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to use his current trip to Cambodia to seek an improvement in respect for housing rights. The PR focused in particular on the ongoing evictions from the Boeung Kak district of the capital Phnom Penh, which has been the subject of previous TN postings by both myself and Natalie Bugalski.

Sadly, it is a bit hard to picture the Secretary General spontaneously acceding to COHRE’s suggestion that he

meet with representatives of the Boeung Kak community during his visit to Cambodia this week, to “demonstrate the commitment of the UN to its core founding purpose of ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’ for all people everywhere.”

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if the SG will be so indelicate as to mention any of the rather alarming lurches Cambodia has made away from the extensive human rights obligations it undertook as part of the early 1990s peace process.

For some insights, I turned to Turtle Bay, where I was most immediately struck by China’s recent diplomatic successes in the UN, both in terms of obscuring the fact that its own weapons industry appears to be doing a roaring business in Sudan despite the embargo, and in the narrower area of defending states in its near abroad – in this case Burma – from human rights and war crimes scrutiny.

As I’ve noted in the past, Burma and Cambodia have a few things in common, ranging from their increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with China to their poor human rights records. Although there has been a longstanding tendency on the part of development actors in Cambodia to dither a bit on human rights issues like forced evictions, one can’t help but wonder whether China’s recent bouts of vigorous UN diplomacy might not have a further chilling effect on what is already a fairly cooled down topic.

The gloves come off – the Boeung Kak land dispute and the demise of the LMAP in Cambodia

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick post to highlight COHRE’s latest ESC rights quarterly, which focuses almost exclusively on a dispute between government-backed developers and long-settled residents in the Boeung Kak neighborhood of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. In the lead article, Natalie Bugalski (formerly of COHRE) and David Pred (of Bridges across Borders) summarize and update a longer report – Untitled: Tenure Insecurity and Inequality in the Cambodian Land Sector – earlier published by COHRE, BAB and Jesuit Refugee Services.

The article details the collapse of a longstanding accommodation between international donors, who hoped to eventually curb rampant land-grabbing in Cambodia through non-intrusive measures such as capacity-building and legislative reform, and the Government of Cambodia, which proved unwilling to continue playing along when international advice began to impinge directly on its core economic interests. It is a fascinating story and one which has not received the attention it deserves to date, despite the implications it has for donor-driven reconstruction and development activities in other post-conflict settings where land is regarded by local authorities as a resource subject largely to their own discretion.

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Surveyors of the world unite – around a rights-based approach

by Rhodri C. Williams

Many thanks to Erik Petersson at Swede Survey for pointing out some new publications by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) that can be downloaded on their reports page. The page itself makes for an interesting browse.

Some of the listed texts are somewhat introspective documents that one imagines would fire the imagination of only a few select initiates outside the circle of licensed surveyors (“Hydrography in Ports and Harbours” anyone?). However, FIG began engaging with sustainable development issues as early as 1991 and has gone on to cover topics as various and broadly relevant as women’s access to land (2001), disaster risk ‘management’ (2006), informal settlement upgrading (2008), and land governance in support of the MDGs (2009).

This year has already seen a raft of new reports including ones on mega-cities, the history of surveying (sounds tame until one considers the motivations people might have to go off and measure other people’s land), the ‘Social Tenure Domain Model’ (a pro-poor land tool), and, perhaps most notably, the ‘Hanoi Declaration’ on land acquisition in developing countries.

The Hanoi Declaration is a very interesting document that sprang from the seventh FIG regional conference last October in the Vietnamese capital. At this meeting, it was noted that states in the region “require urgent action especially in terms of reinforcing methods for land acquisition in fast growing urban areas in developing economies.” As previously indicated in this blog, Cambodia represents one such case, with urban forced evictions now so endemic and politicized that when the World Bank pushed to extend its Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) to urban areas, the Cambodian government withdrew its support. As the Bank rather diplomatically put it in a September 2009 press release:

[A previously undertaken] review found that LMAP’s successes in land titling in rural areas have not been matched in urban areas where land disputes are on the rise. This was due in part to delays or lack of implementation of some project activities. While originally designed as a multi-pronged approach to addressing a range of land issues, LMAP focused on areas where it could be most successful: titling rural land and building the capacity of the land administration to register and title land and implement policy.

We have shared the findings of the review with the Government but could not come to agreement on whether LMAP’s social and environmental safeguards should apply in some of the disputed urban areas. For the World Bank, the implementation of these safeguard policies is critical. However, we are encouraged by the Government’s statement of its commitment to continuing reforms in the land sector and working towards an improved policy and legal framework for resettlement that reflects their commitment to international treaties.

The result was the termination of an otherwise well-seen and well-established program that had provided title to over a million rural properties. I am hoping to encourage colleagues who have worked recently in Cambodia to guest blog on this incident and the ensuing World Bank Inspection Panel proceedings related to the LMAP in the coming weeks. However, one of the lessons that appears most obvious is the need to promote urban land acquisition policies and practices that are not only in need with the Bank’s own resettlement guidelines but also applicable human rights standards. As indicated in a recent report by COHRE and a number of partner organizations, both Cambodian practice and the World Bank response had fallen short in a number of regards.

It is therefore reassuring to see that the FIG’s Hanoi Declaration breaks with the tendency in South-East Asia (and beyond) to perpetuate a questionable dichotomy between pro-poor development standards and human rights. Both the text and the report are in refreshingly straightforward contrast to the World Bank statement cited above, which makes labored indirect reference to human rights standards (surely the reference to “commitment to international treaties” are not meant to invoke widget standardization or postal union), but cannot bring itself to utter the words. By contrast, the FIG gives human rights their due:

The publication should be seen as an a tool to support politicians, executive managers, decision makers and professional organisations in their efforts to deal with land acquisition in a fair way, based on legal standards, full compensation, and acknowledgement of human rights. Land acquisition should secure that adequate development opportunities are available while land rights and social sustainability are fully protected throughout the process.

The Declaration itself is sufficiently concise to be reprinted in full and not only incorporates many safeguards supported in both human rights and development standards (e.g. related to process and compensation) but also directly invokes human rights and highlights the problem of informality and the needs of vulnerable groups. Specifically the FIG asks that states:

– Provide consistent, transparent and efficient legislation and procedures for acquisition through both voluntary and compulsory means and at low transaction costs.
– Provide clear and transparent rules for inclusion of the parties involved and for determination of adequate compensation which ensures that those displaced are able to re-establish their lives and livelihoods in a proper manner.
– Ensure that good governance principles are applied for conducting the processes of land acquisition whether they are based on compulsory means or voluntary agreements. Processes must be efficient, fair and legitimate.
– Ensure that all rights are addressed including informal rights and human rights especially the rights of the poor and vulnerable.

The report on the Declaration goes on to separately discuss human rights standards in the area of compulsory land acquisition, noting that they are “still under construction” but setting out some key principles (pages 8-9). This section is a bit thin and some of the principles disputable. For instance, while the report asserts that human rights standards tend to require compensation at ‘full replacement cost’, this would not always be borne out, for instance in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights which tends to only require a reasonable relationship between compensation levels and market value. The section does not refer to specific rules or standards and although the Kothari principles on development-based evictions are referenced later in the text, one is left with the impression that reference to human rights in the report – while significant in principle – remained something of an afterthought in practice.

This said, I should not cavil. The Hanoi Declaration itself adds to the growing list of sensible, pro-poor and, crucially, rights-based standards meant to protect those with high dependence on and low recognized tenure to their homes. The surveyors of FIG have broken new ground (and arguably both some regional and professional taboos) by introducing human rights in a development meeting in South-East Asia. If meaningful change is to be achieved, it is now incumbent on human rights advocates to meet their efforts halfway.