Tag Archives: forced evictions

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.

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Warming up for Eurovision in Baku

Herewith, a belated update to my earlier pieces (1) noting the campaign of forced evictions in Baku in aid of the last minute construction of a venue for the forthcoming Eurovision finals, (2) pondering the extent to which the European Broadcasting Union may wish to reconsider its essentially passive response to these acts, and (3) speculating on how much of the rest of Azerbaijan’s current rash of human rights violations may also be related to the music contest.

More recently, I stumbled across Human Rights Watch’s revelation of how the local press is likely to fare when they are so indelicate to cover such abuses in neighborhoods where they live, whilst wearing clothing clearly indicating they are journalists:

Approximately 20 policemen and SOCAR security guards attacked (journalist Idrak) Abbasov, beating him with fists and kicking him until he lost consciousness. Abbasov was taken unconscious to the Baku Hospital No.1, with multiple bruises and hematomas and blood all over his face.

 Light your fire, indeed.
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Eurovision in Baku: Should the European Broadcasting Union care about human rights?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week, TN reported on a wave of forced evictions of Baku residents unfortunate enough to live in the path of a grandiose development scheme meant to beautify the Azerbaijani capital for its hosting of the Eurovision song contest next May. Quite coincidentally, TN also carried an update on the progress of voluntary guidelines meant to ensure that respect for human rights standards was ingrained into the practices of even private, non-political actors. A closer look at the situation in Baku indicates that the latter story might perhaps make salutary reading for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the ‘non-political’ Eurovision contest.

The latest twist in the EBU’s clammy relationship with its current interlocutors in Baku comes from a recent Guardian article that begins with an airing of the debate on the merits of a boycott of this year’s Eurovision contest. The piece quotes Emin Milli, a blogger beaten and jailed in 2009 over critical YouTube videos, on the importance of the event as a chance to focus the international spotlight on Azerbaijan and its poor record in human rights and democracy. However, this courageous assertion is followed by the EBU’s rather less obviously noble views on the issue of boycott:

Azerbaijan, which won the right to host Eurovision after winning the contest in 2011, has given the organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, a guarantee that foreign delegates will be secure and free from any censorship during their stay.

“We would be very disappointed to have any boycotting,” said an EBU spokesman on Saturday. “We believe strongly that Eurovision is not political. In real life, politics do come up at Eurovision. There was some talk of boycotting England in the 1970s over what was happening in Northern Ireland. But Eurovision can act as an agent of change. It is an event to unite countries and communities and bring understanding. It’s important to know that Azerbaijan’s prime minister has given a guarantee of press freedom during the contest, although we cannot ask for a guarantee for the next 10 years also.”

“It is an astonishing guarantee to have to give,” said Milli. “What does it say about Azerbaijan for the rest of the time?”

This is indeed a fascinating wrinkle. First and most obviously, of course, with regard to the Azerbaijani government, which, as Milli notes, has just conceded that it is not prepared to guarantee media freedom or refrain from censorship at any time other than during the scattering of days when the Eurovision contest is in full swing. How, one wonders, does this apparent policy of default media un-freedom comport with Azerbaijan’s longstanding human rights commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to numerous UN rights treaties?

However, even more interesting is what this quote implies about the EBU’s role in affirming (or ignoring) respect for human rights. In the long quote above, the EBU spokesperson begins by denying that the song contest is political, then goes on to defend it as a means of bringing about positive political change, and then brandishes a one-week suspension of Azerbaijan’s media clampdown as an example of such positive change. Should we be impressed?

First, one might take a substantive rights approach. Is a temporary suspension of human rights violations involving censorship sufficient? The US Department of State human rights report indicates a number of other systemic issues in Azerbaijan as recently as 2010. Perhaps EBU might have flexed its muscles a bit. How about extending the one week suspension to cover torture and killing in official custody, for instance? Arbitrary arrest and detention of political activists? Restrictions on political participation and religious freedom? TN readers might suggested forced evictions as well, of course … ?

The absurdity of the situation quickly becomes evident. What would a ban on police torture be worth if it ended as soon as the disco balls came down? Is a temporary ban on media repression worth more? However, at a deeper level, the absurdity of the situation reflects a lack of engagement with what human rights actually mean. Azerbaijan has already committed itself to European institutions and its fellow UN member-states to suspend all such violations for all time. It has acceded to or ratified numerous human rights conventions and is, by all accounts, manifestly failing to comply with these commitments.

In this context, the EBU misunderstands both its role and its power. Its job is not to induce promises of good behavior from Baku. That has already been done and in a legally binding manner. The EBU is no more required to act as a judge of Baku’s compliance. Human rights NGOs, UN treaty-bodies and mechanisms and the European Court of Human Rights have done all the heavy lifting there. But in the face of such overwhelming evidence of skeletons in the closet of the next Eurovision host, the EBU should have anticipated that its ostensibly non-political role would be politicized – both by a regime craving international prestige as a substitute for clear democratic legitimacy and a population craving political rights.

As Europe expands eastward, it bears both carrots and sticks. The Eurovision contest, however silly it might appear to jaded western Europeans, is still seen as a juicy carrot in some quarters. While its administrators are not required to take over the role of wielding the stick of human rights, they should be aware that failure to ensure a minimum degree of coordination and policy coherence between these two approaches will undermine both. This is particularly evident where, as in the case of Baku’s recent evictions, violations of European human rights standards are undertaken in direct connection with hosting the Eurovision contest.

It is high time for the EBU to go beyond the mantra of being non-political and explore how it can complement, rather than contradict, the effort to build a democratic Europe founded on respect for human rights.

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.


Look before you legislate? The challenges facing restitution in Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

It seems that plans are now afoot in Libya for a full-scale program of restitution of properties nationalized and appropriated under the Ghaddafi regime. Bloomberg reported yesterday that a law envisaging a two phase process will be rolled out as soon as next month:

Libya will announce a law that will return land and buildings expropriated by late ruler Muammar Qaddafi to the original landowners “within weeks,” a senior member of the Land Ownership Committee said.

“Phase one will return unused lands, empty shops, buildings and villas taken by Qaddafi’s regime and then by the rebels to the rightful owners,” said Fawzy Sheibany, legal representative for the committee, in an interview in the capital, Tripoli. “This will mean millions of dinars can be invested in construction projects and provide employment.”

Phase two of the new law involves rehousing families residing in buildings on expropriated land and could take several years to implement fully, he said. The Ministry of Justice will deal with individual cases through a civil court.

On the face of it, there is every reason to welcome this development. The Ghaddafi-era expropriations were ostensibly meant to further public purposes but became, by all accounts, an arbitrary means of both punishing enemies and rewarding those the regime favored. Moreover, the resulting legal uncertainty in property relations was cited (in 2004) by a leading Middle Eastern law firm as a key structural obstacle to legal reform efforts during the run-up to the uprising:

As a result of abolishing real property ownership for investment purposes, the commercial real estate market has been completely distorted. There exists now a private land market and a public land market with a price gap that creates considerable uncertainty for both foreign and local investors. Compounding the problem, the [1997] Foreign Investment Law is not clear as to whether real property can be used as collateral or even can be freely transferred without government approvals. The government has announced plans to reform the laws governing property and rentals, but their scope is uncertain.

Finally, perhaps the most convincing ground for pushing for quick legislative measures is the need for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to be seen to lead from the front. In the wake of Amnesty International’s widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses by ‘out of control’ militias in Libya, anything the NTC can do to stamp its legitimate authority on matters of broad public interest appears welcome. In fact, this is a particularly important issue in regard to property. Recent reports such as this one by the Guardian indicate that the militias have become part of a pattern of spontaneous restitution, often carried out by means of violent self-help.

So what, one might ask, is not to like in a bill that serves not only justice but also economic development and political consolidation? The answer is that if it is rushed through without consultation, this bill may actually have the opposite effect, generating new cycles of grievance, reducing legal certainty and even undermining the authority of government in Libya if it proves impossible to effectively and consistently implement. Perhaps the most cogent argument for a deliberative approach to restitution for the prior regime’s confiscations is that this is to some extent a constitutional decision rather than merely a legislative one. Continue reading

The ADB involuntary resettlement policy: Fifteen years on, the poorest still bear the brunt of development

by Natalie Bugalski

It has been more than 15 years since the Asian Development Bank (ADB) adopted a policy on involuntary resettlement with the objective of ensuring that “displaced people are at least as well-off as they would have been in the absence of the [ADB-financed] project.” The rationale behind the policy was a shift away from the perception that development-induced displacement and attendant harms suffered by those physically and economically displaced is a “sacrifice” some people have to make for the larger good. It is apparent, however, that despite the adoption of increasingly progressive and rights-oriented policies, the utilitarian view of development-induced displacement continues to dominate the culture and individual staff views of the ADB and many other aid and development institutions.

The report Derailed released by Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) this month (which I co-authored with Jocelyn Medallo) describes the policy and international human rights law obligations meant to protect the rights of resettled families and provides evidence of how these obligations continue to be flouted in practice. The Rehabilitation of the Railway in Cambodia Project, principally financed by an ADB concessional loan and an ADB-administered grant from the Australian Government, is affecting over 4,000 households that are being involuntarily resettled or must move back out of the railway’s “corridor of impact” (COI) into the residual right of way (ROW).

Despite decades of global evidence of the necessity of injecting sufficient financial and technical resources into resettlement planning and processes as an integral part of the infrastructure project itself, resettlement under the railways project has been treated as peripheral and has been left almost entirely in the hands of the Cambodian Government. Rather than internalizing the costs of resettlement into the project’s budgets from the start and ensuring that the full costs of policy and legal compliance are covered including though ADB and AusAID contributions, the Cambodian Government is responsible for footing the bill.

Given the well-known poor track record of the Government on forced evictions coupled with the incentive to reduce costs, the alarming result – as recorded in the BABC report – was blatantly foreseeable at the time of the project’s inception. Competent planning and sufficient resourcing from the beginning could have avoided and mitigated the hardships resettled families are now experiencing. Key findings of the report  include the following (a fuller list of the findings is appended to the end of this post):  Continue reading

New report on railway rehabilitation and displacement in Cambodia – Natalie Bugalski to guest-post

by Rhodri C. Williams

Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BAB-C) released a new report this week on displacement in Cambodia caused by donor-funded rehabilitation of the country’s railway system (the PR is reprinted after the jump, below).

The findings are consistent with bad practice in development-induced displacement everywhere – poor planning, little consultation, thinly-veiled coercion, badly located and serviced resettlement sites, resulting in precisely the type of impoverishment risks that the standards long espoused by donors such as the World Bank and (more to the point in this case) the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are meant to prevent.

However, the report also reflects a particularly Cambodian failure to act on decades of advice and occasional pressure to comply with standards that would allow the country – at relatively little cost – to be seen to live up to its international commitments and to avoid the human tragedy and bad optics associated with forced evictions. After all, it is only six months since the Cambodian Government appeared to make tactical concessions in a standoff with the World Bank over evictions in Phnom Penh, but subsequent events indicate a reversion to form.

In this case, it is also over a year since early research on the very project criticized in the BAB-C’s new report forecast the problems that the latter now documents. For instance, Natalie Bugalski guest-posted at the time on the tragic drowning death of two children sent to fetch water because water sources available at the resettlement site where they lived were “polluted by chemicals used for rice growing and … caused skin diseases and other illnesses.”

Natalie will shortly be providing TN readers with another guest-posting with observations on BAB-C’s new report. As is often the case in Cambodia, all of this will make awkward reading not only for the Cambodian government, but also for international donors (in this case the ADB and AusAid) that are responsible for ensuring that the Cambodian Government accepts their resettlement standards along with their funding. For the time being, acceptance of this principle remains elusive.

UPDATE: read Natalie’s guest-posting here:  The ADB involuntary resettlement policy: Fifteen years on, the poorest still bear the brunt of development (23 February 2012)

Continue reading