Tag Archives: Refugees International

Land, power and identity in complex cross-border areas: Eastern DRC

by Chris Huggins

Around the world, there are a number of international border areas where governance is fuzzy and disputed, citizenship claims are complicated and contested, and economies are trans-boundary in nature. Due to the arbitrary nature of colonial boundary making, ethnic communities are divided by borders, so that loyalties as well as livelihoods are trans-national in character. Illegal resource extraction is endemic, and fortunes are made by the ruthless, even as the majority wallow in poverty. Many such complex border areas are either already in a situation of violent conflict, or at risk of conflict. Examples which have seen violence in recent decades include the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Thai-Cambodia border, and the Chad-Darfur border.

Geographical remoteness is one factor: such areas are physically far from capital cities, and there are often cultural differences between local communities and dominant elites in urban areas. The inhabitants are therefore seen as slightly ‘different’ from other regions, and often viewed with suspicion by the state. Due to this geographical remoteness, land is often under held under customary systems rather than the state land registry, and due to the frequency of cross-border movements, land rights can be disputed, as the citizenship of those claiming land and resources are disputed.

The Eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of these complex and challenging borderlands that is emerging, slowly, unsteadily and precariously, from violent conflict. The history of the DRC is a complex and largely tragic story, too complicated to summarize here. In terms of recent events: during and since the ‘two rebellions’ of the 1990s, which were largely engineered by Rwanda, Uganda, and other regional countries, the country (especially the East) has seen massive bloodshed, some of which is described in Shane Quinn’s recent guest posting on TN. The security situation started to stabilize across most of the country in the mid-2000s as a result of a sequence of peace negotiations. Nevertheless, parts of the East, especially North Kivu Province, remained unstable. While most non-state armed groups engaged in the peace process and were integrated into the government, several groups refused to integrate, and maintained de facto politico-military control over significant swathes of territory.

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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.


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.”

Refugees International on civilian protection: a cautionary note on Blue Helmet HLP interventions

by Rhodri C. Williams

Refugees International just released a report on peacekeeping and civilian protection that makes for some interesting but sobering reading from an housing, land and property (HLP) rights perspective. This in a context where a number of advocacy documents have recently called for peacekeepers to be given a greater role in protecting the property rights of displaced civilians, ranging from ensuring that abandoned properties are not occupied or destroyed to enforcing, where necessary, orders for the eviction of occupants of claimed properties.

For instance, the UN Secretary General’s 2007 report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict recommended “strategic deployment of peacekeeping troops to prevent evictions and the illegal appropriation of land and property” as well as “the inclusion of [HLP] issues as an integral part of future peacekeeping and other missions, with provisions for dedicated, expert capacity to address these issues” (paragraph 59).

UN-HABITAT has gone further in its 2007 “Post-Conflict Land Administration and Peacebuilding Handbook“, proposing that international security forces be mandated to provide assistance in lawful evictions from occupied property (page 23) and that UN peacekeeping forces carry out eviction orders against criminal elements where necessary to execute demolition orders for illegally built structures (page 33).

Finally, the 2005 Pinheiro Principles call for international peace operations to help maintain a a secure and stable environment such that restitution programs can be implemented (Principle 22.5) and, upon request, to “support the protection of the right to housing, land and property restitution, including through the enforcement of restitution decisions and judgments” (Principle 22.6). UN Security Council members are encouraged to consider including these roles in the mandate of peace operations.

By contrast, the new Refugees International report points out the difficulties peacekeeping missions have faced in the exercise of the most fundamental protection mandate imaginable, namely the physical protection of civilians under “imminent threat of violence”. The report points out that structuring even such basic protection is often complicated by the failure of peacekeeping mandates to provide guidance on how to prioritize numerous conflicting tasks. However, it also notes the structural difficulty of getting trained soldiers to to do things they were not trained for – and do them well and consistently:

The lack of clarity is made even more challenging by the fact that peacekeepers do not have a standard doctrine on how to conduct protection activities. This forces peacekeepers to improvise tactics in the field. Traditional military doctrines and training were built mainly to defend territories, not to protect individuals. While a refugee camp is more straightforward to defend, it is much more difficult to plan an operation to protect civilians in far-flung communities.

The report does not really address protection of abandoned property, with the implication that the authors may view this as the type of peripheral task that can raise dangerous expectations on the part of affected populations while distracting peacekeepers from the type of basic protection work they may actually be able to achieve.

This conclusion would largely resonate with international experience in Bosnia, where peacekeepers’ presence and arrests of war crimes suspects was helpful in achieving an overall security environment conducive to restitution but any direct military involvement in actual evictions would have invoked rather unhelpful shades of prior ethnic cleansing and undermined the idea that addressing property disputes was an essentially civilian rule of law exercise.

Moreover, post-Bosnia situations in which international military personnel have been drawn into property disputes appear to reinforce RI’s central point that uninformed protection interventions will lead to improvised, ad hoc outcomes, potentially doing  more harm than good. A good example is provided by Human Rights Watch’s description, in its 2004 Claims in Conflict report on northern Iraq:

In the absence of any legal framework or practical mechanism for resolving property disputes, U.S. forces in some places began conducting their own mediations to resolve property disputes. There appeared to be no coordinated approach to these mediations, and the approach of different U.S. commanders varied widely. Some commanders told Human Rights Watch that they refused to engage in resolving property disputes. ….

Other U.S. troops, however, decided to play a limited mediation role, to resolve the least controversial of property disputes and to prevent inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. efforts presented a host of problems. While well-intentioned, the ad hoc mediations were often conducted by U.S. military personnel with limited knowledge of the complex property issues involved, and without the guidance of a standardized framework to ensure fairness. No clear guidelines were developed to structure the ad hoc mediations, so the weight given to different claims was determined by the mediators, rather than by standardized policies. Neither was it clear that all affected parties, including the displaced Arabs, were fully represented at the negotiations. ….

This message is underscored by the fact that forthcoming UN guidance to humanitarian actors in the field – who could reasonably expected to be more sensitized to the complexities of HLP issues than peacekeepers – has adopted ‘do no harm’ as its departure point and primarily advises humanitarians to avoid getting in over their heads where possible and to defer to land tenure experts.

Given the fundamental importance of HLP issues to security and stability in post-conflict settings, it is not unreasonable to expect peacekeepers to be aware of them and to consciously take on at least indirect roles in securing HLP rights in the course of exercising their mandate. However, RI’s findings serve as a reminder that unclear and unrealistic expectations of what peacekeepers can do will serve no one’s interest.