Tag Archives: HRW

The World Bank adopts sound principles on land, but HRW points out gaps in practice

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two very interesting reports linked land, development and the World Bank’s role last week. Released on precisely the same day, the reports reflected a good deal of consensus on what should be done and rather less agreement regarding what is actually being done.

First, on 22 June, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the World Bank for failing to take human rights issues sufficiently into account in its development calculus – with one of the primary examples being the confiscation of land and villageization of its occupants in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Then, almost as if in response, the Bank released a new study the same day asserting that pro-poor land reform in Africa could provide tremendous benefits at minimal costs by securing the rights of local communities and protecting them against encroachment by large investment projects.

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Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

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The World Bank must stop underwriting human rights abuses in Ethiopia

by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski

A leaked World Bank report calls for an investigation into allegations that a multi-billion dollar aid program in Ethiopia is underwriting the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities to free up fertile land to lease to investors. A meeting of the Bank’s board of directors to discuss the Panel’s preliminary findings was postponed on Tuesday due to objections from the Ethiopian government. Rights groups are watching closely to see how the new Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, will deal with sensitive questions about World Bank accountability and human rights in one of its most important client states.

Anuak indigenous refugees from Gambella region who fled human rights abuses in Ethiopia submitted a complaint to the Bank’s Inspection Panel in September claiming that they had been severely harmed by the flagship international aid program for the provision of basic services in Ethiopia, which is administered and partially financed by the World Bank.

Landlocked in the Horn of Africa and beset by periodic droughts and famine, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.  International relief and food assistance is still needed to feed between 10 and 20 percent of its roughly 85 million people.[1] Many Ethiopians, particularly rural dwellers, lack access to basic services, including water, sanitation and basic health facilities.

Since the ousting of the Soviet-backed “Derg” military regime in 1991, the Government of Ethiopia, led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has implemented a vast program of economic recovery and reform meant to address the dire poverty and enormous social and economic needs of the population.

The government and its development partners claim impressive strides towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and significant progress in key human development indicators over the past two decades, including a quadrupling in primary school enrollments, halving of child mortality, and a doubling of the number of people with access to clean water.[2]

Yet, in parallel to its economic reform agenda the government has become increasingly oppressive and intolerant of criticism and dissent.  As Human Rights Watch has reported, the government has “severely restricted the rights of expression and association, arbitrarily detained political opponents, intimidated journalists, shuttered media outlets, and made independent human rights and election monitoring practically impossible.”[3]

These human rights abuses are rarely openly acknowledged by the bilateral and multilateral donors to Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid, receiving approximately US$3 billion in funds annually from external donors, including the World Bank, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Germany and the Netherlands.[4]

Largely turning a blind eye to the increasingly repressive political climate, donors justify their support by both the enormity of the need and the reported inroads achieved in reducing poverty since the EPRDF came to power.[5] Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi forged close alliances with Western nations based on a common interest in combatting Islamic extremism and establishing greater stability in the volatile region.[6]

Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the World Bank and other donors supported the Ethiopian Government by providing direct budget support through a series of Structural Adjustment Credits and Poverty Reduction Support Operations, in addition to several specific purpose projects. In 2004/05 direct budget support from all donors constituted approximately one third of total aid to Ethiopia,[7] placing significant aid amounts directly in government hands with minimal control and oversight, despite evidence of egregious human rights abuses being perpetrated by the government and military.[8]

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Upcoming guest posting on the World Bank and ‘villageization’ in Ethiopia

by Rhodri C. Williams

Since early last year, Human Rights Watch has kept a weather eye on Ethiopia, where land concessions in the Gambella region and agricultural development plans in the Omo valley are giving rise to allegations of violent mass-displacement of local villagers and pastoralists. HRW also reported on the role of international development assistance actors in actively or passively facilitating such patterns of displacement.

The violent and systematic nature of the displacement alleged to have taken place in Ethiopia – and the government’s invocation of development priorities as a justification for them – place the country firmly within a broader global trend. Just as the 2004 tsunami forced humanitarian advocates for the global population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to turn their attention from conflict to natural disasters, I have argued that the effects of new trends involving large scale investment in land – the global land rush – should prompt new humanitarian and human rights scrutiny of development-induced displacement.

In Ethiopia, such scrutiny has been quick to follow HRW’s reports. In September 2012, the NGO Inclusive Development International (IDI) alleged a link between World Bank projects in Ethiopia and the Gambella ‘villageization’ program and assisted affected indigenous persons in submitting a complaint to the Bank’s Inspection Panel. Now, as reported by Helen Epstein in the NYR Blog, the Panel has forced the Bank to decide whether to act on a finding that a full investigation is warranted:

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Few signs of Spring in Baku (and less in Strasbourg) in the leadup to a tainted Eurovision final

by Rhodri C. Williams

As much as I am a big believer in maintaining a healthy firewall between work and life, the human rights branch can sorely test one’s ability to compartmentalize. As a result, I face a dilemma next Saturday. On one hand, my kids are now old enough to genuinely share in my (not unlimited) fascination with the annual sanitized bacchanalia that is Eurovision. So my private-me would love to break out the popcorn, pile onto the couch with the family and squirm through this year’s crop of ethno-retro-monstro-disco with an untroubled conscience.

Inconveniently, however, my public-me has long since foreclosed this option. Unlike earlier contests, this year’s final in Azerbaijan is tainted not only by the unapologetic disdain for human rights and democracy displayed by its hosts, but also by the self-defeating failure of the European institutions responsible for safeguarding these values to attach even the frailest of strings to the massive PR coup of holding the contest. Free but unwilling to lob criticism from the safety of Brussels, Strasbourg (home to the Council of Europe or CoE, to which Azerbaijan has made binding human rights commitments) and Geneva (in the case of the European Broadcasting Union or EBU, which sponsors the event), these organizations have displayed nothing like the courage of ordinary Azerbaijani activists and journalists who face blackmail, police beatings and hard time for expressing dissent.

In an age in which European leaders are all too willing to disown previously indispensable autocracies in the Middle East, how to explain this blindness to their own backyard? Will presumptive president-for-life Ilham Alijev become for the Council of Europe and the EBU what Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi ended up being for the LSE? And what legitimate claim will the rhetoric of ‘European values’ have on the loyalties of ordinary Azerbaijanis when and if the substance of those values actually prevail? These questions have been raised in a very pointed and concrete manner during recent weeks by a number of international and local organizations.

Beginning with the international advocates, my former Bosnia colleagues at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) today released a blockbuster report on the systematic campaign of ‘caviar diplomacy’ designed to win and retain “the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership”. The ESI alleges that by offering annual gifts of caviar and flash trips to Baku, the Aliyev regime secured the loyalty of key members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (composed of national parliamentarians from CoE member states), as well as the organization’s secretariat. In return, Baku received “ever more anodyne, even complimentary” reports on its blatantly rigged elections and deteriorating human rights record.

In the words of ESI, the Aliyev regime succeeded in only five years in neutering Europe’s oldest human rights organization:

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Someday, none of this will be yours: the predatory state eyes ‘public’ land

by Rhodri C. Williams

In trying to keep track of even a fraction of the local and regional flare-ups over land rights these days, I keep thinking back to times when I was working in Bosnia and a  particularly infected property dispute would come up in the course of the restitution process. My colleague Charles P (one of the unsung geniuses behind the famous ‘PLIP‘) would shake his head wearily and mutter the climactic phrases of a classic quote from Gone with the Wind:

Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for. Worth fighting for, worth dying for. Because it’s the only thing that lasts.

It has long been understood that land is fundamental to the material needs and identity of just about anyone not yet caught up in the great wave of urbanization that characterizes our time (as well as many of those who have). The Endorois decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also represents the latest in a long line of affirmations that recognition of the rights of those with longstanding claims to land through use and attribution is a precondition for them to participate in the life of the state on equitable terms.

It has also long been axiomatic that states retain the final word on land use, and that even where formal nationalization never took place, post-colonial states often inherited – and maintained – laws that held all land not formally owned in a state of inchoate expropriation. Shaun Williams writes on the ongoing challenges presented by ‘state land’ administration in post-colonial urban settings in a recent TN guest-posting, while Liz Alden Wily describes the rural consequences of the ‘public land’ problem in a pithy contribution to ODI’s 2009 research on land and conflict issues.

After the Cold War, the notion that individual and community rights to land might come to be seen as on a par with the state claims to eminent domain were buoyed on the rising tides of human rights and human security. Even if few dared to go as far as to posit a general right to land, there was a sense that policy was pointing in a protective direction. The rise of the post-conflict restitution discourse as symbolized by the Pinheiro Principles has been one example. Another has been the tendency for development standards and instruments to give property rights greater prominence. For instance, The Atlantic recently inferred a paradigm shift in international views on property rights from the post-Cold War proliferation of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) incorporating protections of private property rights:

While the specifics often differ, many BIT provisions protecting foreign investments have become near universal. Both the Turkey-Turkmenistan and U.S.-El Salvador agreements protect foreign investments from direct or indirect expropriation, nationalization, or similar measures “except for a public purpose, in a non-discriminatory manner, upon payment of prompt, adequate and effective compensation, and in accordance with due process of law.” Some countries’ more recent BITs also contain provisions designed to protect environment, labor, public health, and other public policy concerns in addition to the property rights of foreign investors.

However, the Atlantic’s declaration of a post-Cold War “worldwide revolution in how we think about international law and private property” seems premature, precisely because the line between “private” and “public” property remains so heavily contested. Meanwhile, a host of new factors have pushed many states from simply maintaining the status quo (e.g. allowing their populations to continue using ‘state land’ largely unmolested but without the prospect of genuine tenure security) to active predation. The combination of a general economic downturn, rising food and commodity prices, and new forms of state-backed investment have led many states to put their hand in the cookie jar, allocating nationalized and public land to domestic and international investors at a handsome (and typically highly untransparent) profit.

However, the basic dependence and attachment of families and communities to land they consider their own remains, leading to what must be an unprecedented proliferation of sharp and often violent confrontations between states (particularly less representative ones where governments may stand for ethnic or economic elites) and their own citizens over territory. The problem is not limited to states that have nationalized their land or ‘inherited’ public land from prior colonial regimes. However, it seems particularly acute in such settings precisely because the ordinary devices for protecting property from state intrusion assume the prior grant or recognition of rights in such property. Where such rights were ostensibly extinguished by nationalizations or colonial declarations of public land, legality is shifted to the side of the state and communities with every possible equitable right to their land are implausibly – but legally – reframed as squatters.

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Haiti update – emergency response criticized as transitional measures get underway

Refugees International recently issued a new report, Haiti: From the Ground Up, which examines the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti and makes a number of recommendations for improving the international response. Coverage in today’s NY Times emphasized the fact that this report, like an earlier Human Rights Watch report on shelter issues, took the UN to task for lapses in coordination and prioritization.

The analysis in both reports has highlighted housing, land and property (HLP) issues related to shelter needs and durable solutions for the displaced. The Human Rights Watch report focused more narrowly on the need to ensure that sites for camps are lawfully acquired as well as suitable and safe for human habitation. However, the Refugees International report places displacement and HLP issues in a broader context, referencing the implications, described earlier in this blog, of the reverse urbanization that resulted from the quake:

Some 700,000 people in Port-au-Prince are without homes or proper shelter and another 600,000 people have left the capital. This has important implications for the overall development of the country. While the main focus of the humanitarian response has been on the Port-au-Prince area, the protection of displaced and affected families in the provinces requires both immediate assistance and longer term investments. The UN should increase its efforts and support existing activities to identify the needs of displaced people throughout the country.

Tents are in short supply in the settlements for displaced people both in the capital and in the provinces. Most people who have lost their homes sleep under makeshift dwellings of sheets and sticks providing little protection from the rain. The sanitation in the camps does not meet minimal international standards. The need for shelter poses immense logistical challenges and is intrinsically linked to land ownership and property rights, affecting both urban Haitians whose homes were destroyed as well as rural Haitians who depend on land for farming.

However, displaced people are not only in camps. Large numbers have sought refuge with relatives and friends who are quickly running out of resources. Refugees International has learned that families in Papaye, in Haiti’s central valley, now have on average 20-26 people in their homes. In Saint Marc, some 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the mayor has been organizing community support for the internally displaced. More than 25,000 have been registered, living in some 7,000 households. Refugees International also visited a school that remained closed because it housed displaced families. Such situations create a strain on already limited resources and infrastructure.

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If support is not channeled quickly into the provinces, the displaced will return to Port-au-Prince. This would only compound the challenges of distribution and coordination across the city, where at least 75 percent of the buildings have been destroyed and the ability to provide humanitarian assistance while protecting IDPs is overstretched. If support is invested in provincial communities, it will create a draw for those living in the Port-au-Prince camps to the provinces, lessening the strain in population-dense Port-au-Prince, while allowing for decentralized coordination and support of the displaced and host communities. ….

“Decentralization” has been the hot topic for the majority of Haitians. The infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince is weak, and the capacity to absorb and support internally displaced people (IDPs) from the quake-impacted regions is thin. Within a disaster of this magnitude, however, exists the opportunity to support a decentralization movement and country-wide infrastructure investment that will not only provide urgent protection and support for IDPs, but will also address the imbalance in national development that contributed to great loss and vulnerability of Haitians in the Port-au-Prince area.

Meanwhile, the latest OCHA report contained mixed news. While concerns are mounting over the impending rainy season and the continued need to provide agricultural support to respond to the displacement-driven rural crisis, the report also noted that increased food distributions were giving way to food-for-work programs and that the Prime Minister had “approved five plots of land to set up transitional settlements, as well as eight plots to collect and treat debris in the metropolitan area.”