by Rhodri C. Williams
An earlier version of this text was submitted to Forced Migration Review for its newly released Issue 41 on “Preventing Displacement″. The article has been published there in a slightly shorter version. I can recommend the entire issue – which addresses one of the most important and overlooked aspects of humanitarian response to displacement – and am grateful to the editors for their permission to publish the longer version of my piece here.
Current global trends are placing increasing economic pressure on land and natural resources, raising the risk that new waves of internal displacement may be caused by the combined forces of climate change and large-scale investment in agriculture. Principle 9 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement was ahead of its time in recognizing the need to prevent the worst effects of such displacement by prioritizing protection for those most vulnerable to its effects. In practical terms, such protection implies state recognition and protection of the land tenure rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities.
When the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were adopted in 1998, they represented a conscientious attempt to apply well-established rules of international law to the then-emergent problem of internal displacement. However, some of the Principles were relatively progressive in their recommendations, choosing interpretations of international law that reflected best practice rather than universal practice at the time in order to encourage effective state responses to displacement.
The protection of property rights is one of these areas. The Guiding Principles set out relatively progressive rules on both the protection of property left behind by internally displaced persons (Principle 21) and on its restitution in the context of durable solutions (Principle 29). Both of these provisions accurately foresaw trends in international practice, with restitution having become virtually a standard component of post-conflict peace building efforts and protection of property rights increasingly highlighted even in responses to natural disasters.
Less well-known but hardly less innovative is Guiding Principle 9, which sets out an obligation to prevent displacement by protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to the loss of their land:
States are under a particular obligation to protect against the displacement of indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands.
by Rhodri C. Williams
As we become inured to a steady procession of breaking political and humanitarian crises, it is relatively easy to forget about the many protracted low-level conflict scenarios that seem to grind relentlessly forward, perpetuating human misery in isolated corners of the world without ever improving or deteriorating sufficiently to register very strongly in the public consciousness. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the premier example of this phenomenon. Featured in the most recent issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), the situation in DRC is succinctly described by former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes as ‘a scandal that needs to end’.
With nearly two million internally displaced persons and a history of being locked into its own conflicts and victimized by those of its neighbors, the untapped human potential and resource wealth of DRC is staggering. However, the nervous initial reception and subsequent awkward silence surrounding an October 2010 UN Mapping Report on human rights violations committed between 1993 and 2003 in DRC hint at the extent of the challenges to addressing the root causes of conflict there. This blog has not done justice to land and human rights issues in DRC to date, but that is about to change thanks to the expertise of two upcoming guest-bloggers:
First, Chris Huggins will be contributing his third guest-posting on TN, this time introducing an October 2010 report he wrote for International Alert on ‘Land, Power and Identity: Roots of Violent Conflict in Eastern DRC’. As indicated in the title, Chris’ report focuses not only on the significance of land for individuals but also its role as a sustaining factor in inter-group conflicts, particularly in the volatile province of North Kivu.
Second, first time TN guest-blogger Shane Quinn describes the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Great Lakes region in seeking to draw attention to the findings of the above-mentioned UN Human Rights Mapping Report. Efforts to end impunity and promote reparations for victims identified through the report have been proposed through both political processes such as the upcoming DRC elections and legal procedures such as those before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
As in virtually all other contemporary conflicts, land is a crucial underlying issue in DRC. In both the findings of a recent RSC workshop and a number of articles in the latest issue of FMR (available for free download here), experts and practitioners have attested to the link between land competition and ethnic tensions that persist both within the eastern provinces of DRC and across its borders.