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.