Tag Archives: Lebanon

A problem from hell for the 2010s

by Rhodri C. Williams

In listening to the Obama administration’s latest contortions on the ever-shifting red-line in the face of ever-clearer evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it is hard not to be transported back in time to another Democratic administration facing another problem from hell twenty years ago.

In 1994, it was President Clinton facing a similarly impossible red line in Rwanda, unable to publicly recognize the brute reality of what was happening on the ground because of the legal responsibility it would entail to intervene. As described here by the Guardian in 2004, it would take a decade for the obvious to become a matter of public record:

President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time. Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.

Meanwhile, as the assault on moderate Hutus and any Tutsis continued, officials in Washington, D.C. were reduced to the demeaning sophistry of discussing formulations rather than condemning mass-murder. For a sobering  reminder, witness the agonies of State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly in April 1994:

In Rwanda, as in Syria, there were tremendous risks associated with intervention and little domestic political support for becoming bogged down in another sticky regional conflict. Indeed, in Syria, commentators are only beginning to awaken to the historical complexities that have shaped the region, providing a more accurate accounting of the difficulties that would face any intervention while at the same time feeding the risk of dismissive ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ narratives of the type that arguably delayed a meaningful international response to the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

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From shelter to housing: New NRC report on tenure security and displacement

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) just released a substantial study I wrote for them on the right to security of tenure and how it relates to interim shelter needs and long-term durable solutions for both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). It is a long read, but I would recommend it to those interested in these topics as my most comprehensive attempt to date to articulate the legal and policy dynamics of this important emerging area of humanitarian practice.

The background analysis in the study picks up on themes I developed earlier with regard to Liberia (also for the NRC), as well as Serbia (for the Brookings Institution) and Iraq (for the US Institute of Peace). These include the need for humanitarian actors to continue their engagement with both human rights and development discourses related to access to housing and security of tenure. The nexus with human rights emerges clearly from the moment of displacement, given the increasing trend (as reflected in the Sphere Standards) toward aligning humanitarian shelter provision with the human right to adequate housing. In accordance with commonly accepted understandings of this right, this means that even transitional shelter should meet basic standards of adequacy and be provided in a manner that ensures an appropriate level of tenure security to its occupants.

Meanwhile, the nexus with development standards relates to the insight that an increasing number of both refugees and IDPs find themselves in situations of protracted displacement. As a result (and as described in my earlier study on Serbia), measures to provide interim shelter solutions for displaced persons may quickly take on a de facto permanent character, and should often be planned with this eventuality in mind. This implies that pro-poor urban development standards (such as those developed by UN-HABITAT) should be applied wherever possible to allow the community-driven upgrading of IDP and refugee settlements. It also implies that development standards regarding involuntary resettlement should complement human rights standards in guaranteeing legal security of tenure for the displaced.

In the current NRC study, the case studies chosen related to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as well as IDPs in Georgia. Application of the relevant standards on tenure security is difficult in both cases, but for entirely different reasons. In the case of Lebanon, refugees do not (unlike IDPs) enjoy a right to seek local integration as a durable solution. However, the particular political sensitivities in Lebanon have led to a situation in which efforts to prevent local integration have led to restrictions in areas such as access to housing that cannot easily be reconciled with the country’s international obligations.

In the case of Georgian IDPs, there has been a determined and ambitious effort to facilitate integration in a manner that does not foreclose the eventual possibility of property restitution and return. However, significant complications have arisen in part because this program has been aligned with a broader attempt to privatize state-owned property. This has led to some some difficulties in a program to allow IDPs to buy the shelter allotted to them in buildings subject to privatization as well as questions regarding what can be done for the large proportion of IDPs still sheltered in private accommodation.

It is important to recognize the initiative of the NRC, and particularly its Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) program, in driving these issues forward. The ICLA program has in many respects led the way in terms of seeking effective property remedies for the displaced in the field, and have now pivoted quickly to address new concerns related to tenure security where such remedies are not forthcoming. As always, I benefited a great deal from the insights and hospitality of my NRC colleagues while preparing this report, and it is my fond hope that some of them will guest-post on TN soon with both updates on the specific case-studies covered in the report and comments about their other ongoing initiatives in the area of housing, land and property rights.

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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