Tag Archives: Libya

Week in links – Week 50/2011 – Durban, Wukan, Tawergha, Hoima

Quite a lot of interest last week, here goes:

First, Opinio Juris’ Dan Bodansky produced a nice concise guide to what actually happened in the unexpectedly (and confusingly) successful Durban meeting on climate change, followed by a longer analytical piece.  Hopenhagen its not, but neither, apparently, a complete fiasco. All beauteously skewered by the Onion:

Ultimately, however, our personal moments of distress won’t matter much unless our government intervenes with occasional mentions of climate change in important speeches, or by passing nonbinding legislation on the subject. I implore you: Spend a couple minutes each year imagining yourself writing impassioned letters to your elected representatives demanding a federal cap on emissions.

Next, all hell has once again broken loose in a Chinese village that has seen virtually all its arable land siphoned off in crooked development deals. In this case, Wukan village in southern China’s Guangdong province exploded in protests after a local butcher appointed to negotiate with the government was arrested and died in custody. The villagers succeeded in entirely driving out local authorities and appear to still be in a state of open revolt, with police having set up a cordon  around the area without reestablishing control.

The BBC ran an analysis piece last week pointing out the increasing levels of so-called ‘mass incidents’ related to land and how China’s ‘rigid stability’ policy – which sets a premium on absolute social calm above all other considerations – appears to have reached the point of diminishing returns in the face of such grievances. Tao Ran describes the corrosive effect of land disputes on local democracy for the Guardian. Finally, an analysis on the WSJ blog raised the worrisome intimation that the implacable logic of land development in China may threaten the country’s food security:

(A local expert indicates) that local officials have seized about 16.6 million acres of rural land (more than the entire state of West Virginia) since 1990, depriving farmers of about two trillion yuan ($314 billion) due to the discrepancy between the compensation they receive and the land’s real market value.

China’s Land Ministry has also warned that misappropriation of farmland has brought the country dangerously close to the so-called red line of 296 million acres of arable land that the government believes it needs to feed China’s 1.34 billion people.

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But the central government’s attempts to curb such abuses, and to draft new legislation that would protect against land grabs and give farmers a market rate for their land, have met fierce resistance from local authorities who rely on land sales to maintain growth, service debt and top up their budgets.

In 2010 alone, China’s local governments raised 2.9 trillion yuan from land sales. And the National Audit Office estimates that 23% of local government debt, which it put at 10.7 trillion yuan in June, depends on land sales for repayment.

Moving to Libya, transitional human rights complications continue to pile up (see an earlier posting on restitution questions here). BBC now reports that one of the most problematic human rights issues in the new Libya appears to have resulted from an act of revenge – not that taken on the late ‘buffoon dictator‘ Ghaddafi himself – but an apparent reprisal against the entire population of the town of Tawergha. The population of Tawergha were ethnically distinct, singled out for favor by Ghaddafi (as were the Tuareg minority, see posting here) and allegedly implicated in severe human rights violations related to the regime’s attempt to retake neighboring Misrata. They are now displaced in camps throughout Libya, unable to return to a town described as laid waste:

Building after building is burnt and ransacked. The possessions of the people who lived here are scattered about, suggesting desperate flight. In places, the green flags of the former regime still flutter from some of the houses.

Finally, the Guardian reports on the residents of the Hoima district of western Uganda, where local residents fully expect to bear the cost of the rest of the country’s development as plans to develop an oil refinery there take shape. May the other shoe drop gently and in strict accordance with international involuntary resettlement standards…

Week in links – week 44/2011 – restitution in Libya, privatization in Cuba, assimilation in Israel

I’m a little behind this week having been in Cyprus, where I participated in the launch of the paper on property issues I co-wrote with Ayla Gürel for PRIO. The local feedback was very helpful as we are planning to expand the scope of inquiry a bit beyond the fallout of the Demopoulos case in the coming months.

Much of interest from the net this week, including one of the first really good reports on the transitional housing, land and property (HLP) issues in post-revolution Libya from the Guardian. This new article goes well beyond the expensive but relatively tractable reconstruction issues described by BBC last week and enters into the far more fraught territory of what to do about the great transfer of assets that resulted from the Ghaddafi regime’s selective nationalization of property.

Quite a few familiar dilemmas arise, including lurking historical claims (in this case, those of expelled Jews), multiple subsequent purchases by third parties, weak courts, unclear rules, the suspicious 1982 destruction of the land registry, and the fact that the expropriations had (in many cases) a genuinely distributive element, meaning that reversing them would disproportionately worsen the situation of marginalized groups.

In the area of belatedly getting with the times, the New York Times reports that Cuba has now formally adopted a new property law allowing far less restricted transactions in homes than was previously the case (see earlier observations on these developments here). After decades of state control, no one seems to be able to predict where this will go, although some positive economic affects and quick attempts to buy in to the property market by exile Cubans seem like safe bets.

In the area of never getting with the times, the Guardian reports that Israel has proposed a bill to allow the near wholesale resettlement of Bedouin nomads from (what remains of) their traditional territories in the Negev desert to planned new towns. All in the name of modernisation and progress, all undertaken without consulting those affected or paying any heed to the fact that previously forcibly urbanized Bedouins have hardly benefited. Very 1960s. A brief excerpt from the article reads like a compendium of discredited colonial and post-colonial assimilation policies:

Before 1948, the Bedouin tribes lived and grazed their animals on much of the Negev, claiming ancestral rights to the land. In the following decades, the state of Israel took over almost all of the land; the Bedouin lost more than 3,200 land ownership cases in the Israeli courts in the early 1970s, rejected mainly on the grounds there was no proper documentation. Now the Bedouin are claiming ownership of about 5% of the Negev as traditional tribal lands.

Three years ago, the government commissioned a retired judge, Eliezer Goldberg, to make recommendations for dealing with the Bedouin. He advised that many of their villages should be recognised, acknowledging their “general historic ties” to the land.

A committee chaired by the planning policy chief, Ehud Prawer, was tasked with looking at how to implement Goldberg’s recommendations, and proposed the immediate transfer to the state of 50% of the land claimed by the Bedouin, minimal compensation for the remaining land with severe exclusions and the demolition of 35 unrecognised villages. The Bedouin were neither represented on nor consulted by the committee.

As my soapbox is only so big, I’ll leave aside the issue of Israel’s apparently retaliatory expansion of its West Bank settlements this week.

And a last note, the Guardian also reports on the aftermath of the Dale Farm evictions in the UK (see previous WiL)

Week in links – week 43/2011

First, can’t we all find a reasonable substitute for palm oil if we put our heads together? The litany of indigenous cultures being wiped off the face of the earth so that the formula we give our kids in the evening won’t clot is becoming mind-numbing. Here, the New York Times reports on the latest victims of tasty, affordable transfats in Malaysia. However, lest we forget that plenty of other threats exist, the BBC reports on the standoff over the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, which threatens the traditional fishing grounds of Amazonian indigenous groups, and the UNHCR describes the plight of indigenous peoples displaced by the violence in Mindanao.

Second, the BBC provides evidence that property issues are already rearing their ugly head in the new Libya. The extent to which the NTC tent will be big enough to accommodate the traumatized residents of Sirte may well depend on how quickly the NTC can get said residents out of tents and back into their homes.

And finally, the New York Times reports on how a middle class suburb in Beijing is now being exposed to the same type of frenetic official land grabbing that its relatively pampered residents thought could only happen to “peasants in the countryside or voiceless city people with no education”. In a curious form of negative egalitarianism, the local government has not hesitated to administer beatings to protesters and harnessed an impressive mix of new and old media to its cause:

From morning until sundown, a van drives through the neighborhood blaring warnings. “Don’t be influenced by other people who might cause you unnecessary loss,” the loudspeaker says again and again. Daily text messages that clog residents’ cellphones drive home that point. More than one resident has had a window smashed. A half dozen homes, their owners having folded, have already been leveled.

Sweeter the second time around? Self-determination gets another chance

by Rhodri C. Williams

In reading Barack Obama’s now-famous May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, I was struck by his repeated use of the term ‘self-determination’ . Technically speaking, the right to self-determination was meant to be a one-off. When the two core global human rights conventions were adopted in 1966, self-determination was placed front and center in each with the goal of making good on the promise of decolonization set out in the UN Charter. As such, the right to self-determination was an unusual right – it was more overtly political than the rest, it was to be exercised collectively (by ‘peoples’) rather than individually, and it was implicitly a single-use right: if you were a people entrapped by colonialism, you exercised your right to self-determination, became an independent nation and never looked back.

So why are we talking about self-determination again? All the ‘peoples’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region punched their ticket once already right? Well, maybe not.

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Week in links – week 42/2011: land disputes in Bolivia, India, Kyrgyzstan and the UK

This week, we have a few updates on recent stories covered in TN:

First, the indigenous protesters marching against the construction of a road through the Tipnis national park in Bolivia have reached the capital La Paz and are settling in to force the Government to negotiate on the issue. Nicholas Fromherz of Foreign Affairs provides an analysis of the tremendous damage the mishandling of this issue has done to President Evo Morales’ credibility.

Having recently taken China to task for its stereotypically stilted response to public outrage over crooked land takings, as well as its stereotypically draconian response to community resistance to being evicted, I am now presented with the classic counter-stereotype in India, where public acquisition of rural land to facilitate large-scale investment is also a pressing issue. Having adopted a new ‘light footprint’ policy on facilitating purchases of land for industrial use after protests last spring and summer, the government of the Uttar Pradesh province now faces a court decision ordering the return of previously acquired land and compensation for parcels investors already built on. Without taking a position on the actual case, it is a classic instance of the great BRIC dichotomy, with India a trickier business environment than China, but frequently for the right reasons.

More dispiriting follow-up to the ethnic mayhem in Kyrgyzstan last year, this time in OpenDemocracy. First, Bruno de Cordier gives a bleak overview of structural violence in Central Asia in the form of rentier politics and patronage societies. Then Elmira Satybaldieva portrays how these patterns are reflected in the fragmented and untransparent politicking in the leadup to Kyrgyzstan’s 30 October elections. With the land disputes and other grievances underlying last year’s violence still unresolved, the prognosis is worrisome.

FAO has described how Sweden, notwithstanding its past ambiguity on the right to water, is funding a highly innovative scheme to help farmers in eastern Kenya develop greater resilience in the face of climate instability, in part through better water management techniques. IRIN, for its part, reports on how poorly Kenya fares in general in advance mitigation of disasters, whether of the natural variety or man-made examples such as last month’s appalling pipeline fire.

And just to recall that housing and land issues remain relevant in the Global North, the New York Times reports on the messy beginnings of the eviction of a traveler community from the Dale Farm encampment they have occupied for years in Essex, UK – while the Guardian documents the surprisingly peaceful end of the process. On OpenDemocracy, Justin Baidoo-Hackman explores the issue of whether the evictions qualify as ethnic cleansing (my take: forced evictions are already plenty bad).

More Arab than Spring?

by Rhodri C. Williams

In skimming OpenDemocracy’s latest analysis of the Arab Spring, I came across a curious pair of coincidences. The superficial one involves ten percent, that being the percentage of the Egyptian population made up of Coptic Christians, as well as the population of a set of North African and Sahel countries centered on Libya composed of the Tuareg people. The less superficial coincidence relates to the effect of years of allowing these minorities to be used as a scapegoat.

The more obvious case is described by Nelly van Doorn-Haarder and relates to Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that have come under increasingly violent attack since the 1970s and tend to be blamed for their own misfortune: “Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl.  Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened.”

Harking back to the Economist’s plug for an Arab Spring guided strictly by individual rights of the civil and political variety last May (and my response), the Coptic Christians probably make up one of the most favourable examples for this viewpoint. They are not only a minority that has its home in Egypt (e.g., has no clear secessionist agenda), but also one that suffers from egregious discrimination in the civil and political arena.

A great deal could be done to redress their situation, in other words, through measures ensuring effective equality, e.g. without having to go as far as endorsing any group-specific rights for them. Moreover, the incentives to take such steps should exist – after the most recent rioting, the BBC reported that the violence had not only caused the biggest stock market slide since last March but could also derail parliamentary elections set for next month if it continued.

On the other hand, the Tuareg present a more complicated scenario, raising issues that the Economist’s formulation of human rights cannot necessarily answer. As a transnational ethnic and linguistic minority, the Tuareg of the Sahel are in a similar situation to the Kurds – a nation that had the same potential, in principle, as many others to form a state, but which was ultimately hit with the uti posseditis stick and ended up as a series of contiguous minorities in states dominated by others.

In a fascinating analysis in OpenDemocracy, Hugh Brody notes that this fate may explain why the Tuareg of Libya (well, some of them) have turned out to be the one group demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Ghaddafi regime clear through to the bitter end. Citing a prescient (pre-Arab Spring) commentary on the Tuareg by Jeremy Keenan in Al-Jazeera, Brody notes that many countries in the region had found it expedient to accuse the Tuareg of Al Quaeda ties during the late, unlamented era of the Global War on Terror.

By doing so, these countries were in a position to forge valuable ties with Western security forces and simultaneously continue longstanding depredations against Tuareg land and natural resources. However, they left a legacy of bitterness that translated into an otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Colonel Ghaddafi, the only leader in the region who had seen a tactical interest in doing anything to ameliorate the Tuareg’s situation (notably through preferential economic treatment rather than any meaningful political autonomy).

In light of their situation, the Tuareg present a dilemma to the new Libyan authorities as a group, rather than as individuals, and a sustainable resolution of the conflict is likely to require guarantees of some degree of recognition of this group identity, rather than individual guarantees of equality. The last word goes to Hugh Brody, who summarizes both the nature of the problem and the nature of any meaningful solution:

Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price.  They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies.  The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg.  They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.

Week in links – week 17/2011

A somewhat abbreviated WiL this week as the family is on Åland for an extended Easter break.

BBC coverage of this week’s Communist Party congress in Cuba leads with the news that private property rights will be allowed again, though the details have yet to be released. The main rule at this point appears to be that “concentration of property” will not be permitted. One is tempted to wonder if part of the motivation is to cut off restitution claims by Cuban exiles. As a stratagem, this worked rather well in Cambodia, but that was the Eighties…

– The European Journal of International Law (EJIL) has released its latest issue online. The focus is on the ‘human dimension of international cultural heritage law’, with quite a lot on the restitution of cultural property but also a number of interesting articles on indigenous peoples’ rights, including to land.

– The New York Times reports that scientists met in Aleppo, Syria this week to develop strategies for combating new diseases afflicting wheat. Let us hope that they are not hit by any stray bullets from the strategies the Syrian security forces have developed for combating new diseases afflicting authoritarianism.

– Tim Dunne and Jess Gifkins do a nice job in OpenDemocracy of pushing along the debate on how the current Libya intervention may both support and undermine the new concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P).

– Finally, the New York Times reported first on the pending collapse of a promising flurry of regional cooperation over damming the Mekong in Southeast Asia – and then its actual collapse.

What’s in a border?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The headlines these days still have me scratching my head and I can’t imagine I’m the only one. For example, this morning I learn that the Government of Syria, having solemnly declared that an armed insurgency threatens the life of the nation yesterday, duly responded  by lifting a thirty year state of emergency today.  I guess they figured there wasn’t much point closing the barn doors once the constituency had bolted.

It all seems a bit comical at times, but of course it is deadly serious and symptomatic of the way in which the ructions we are currently witnessing are straining the normal responses states would employ against civil unrest precisely because the neighborhoods involved are not inhabited by ‘normal’ states. Instead, places like Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Nigeria and Syria tend to be recent confections, with a territory defined by borders drawn to the convenience of some other country, a population composed of whoever happened to be living within those bounds at the time and effective control now exercised by those who managed to scramble to the top of the heap or be successfully implanted and hang on. Much of the Middle-East is still a good decade short of a century of sovereignty and I’m older than a few independent states in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its easy to forget much of this when things are going well. Somehow, describing a country as a state and giving it a little stenciled name tag at the UN General Assembly creates all of these reassuring associations that may or may not apply. Certainly, institutions might not be perfectly democratic and economies may be shaky, but statehood implies a totality that is greater than the sum of the parts, bound up in some kind of national identity that can accommodate and eventually subsume local ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties. As previously noted with regard to Sudan, however, the elites that inherited these foundling post-colonial states well understood their fragility and embraced the lesser risks entailed by retaining colonial borders over the greater ones that could be triggered should the question of borders be re-opened.

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Libya on the edge

by Rhodri C. Williams

It remains impossible to resist commenting on the amazing cascade of democratic uprisings convulsing the Middle East right now. In all awareness that these lie far beyond the strict purview of this blog (there are undeniably land issues, but they hardly play a central role), I just can’t quite believe that I’m witnessing this type of transformation all over again.

I hear tonight that Ghaddafi’s remaining time in “office” might be a matter of hours and I’m suddenly back to the Macalester College cafeteria one morning in December 1989 when Neville Blakemore told me the Berlin Wall had fallen and I almost dropped my tray. Having at last finished David Fromkin’s Peace to End All Peace a few weeks ago, I had just begun to feel like I had finally arrived at a sound understanding of how the modern Middle East was patched together – and now the rug is gloriously being swept out from under my feet.

The situation in Libya is horrifying, but the persistence of demonstrators throughout the country is all the more inspiring for Mr. Ghaddafi’s apparently limitless brutality. And as usual, some of the most satisfying revenge seems to be occurring online from a tech savvy generation no one seems to have dreamed existed in the Middle East – not least in the form of a hilarious video by an Israeli musician (!) that skewers the dictator’s buffoonish rants.

From a human rights perspective, one of the most interesting things about the current ructions is that they may after all issue from George W. Bush’s project to transform the Middle East. On OpenDemocracy, Shadi Mokhtari points out that Bush broke a taboo surrounding human rights discussions in the region – but not through what he said but what he did. In essence, once Arab leaders found themselves forced to condemn Abu Ghraib, it was impossible to keep the spotlights averted from the other dungeons that had kept them in power for decades. Where it ends, nobody knows…