Tag Archives: restitution

Lost in transition – EU financed legal aid programme between Serbia and Kosovo falters

by Massimo Moratti

Since 2012, I have been informing the readers on some key developments in the field of property rights, as they emerged from the practice of a legal aid project in Serbia for refugees from Bosnia and Croatia as well as displaced persons from Kosovo*. The November 2011 – June 2015 phase of the project (which has been funded by the EU Delegation to Serbia since 2008) was implemented by a team of lawyers and barristers I had the privilege of leading.

Many of the blog readers might wonder what happened with the Project since the last post two years ago, and I am glad to use this opportunity to provide an update on subsequent developments. At that time, the project was due to end in June 2014, but received a one year cost extension from the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia. The project was financed under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), the main fund to support countries that are in the EU accession process.

Under the terms of the IPA, a local public institution, in this case the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (the OKiM), was designated as beneficiary of the Project. Accordingly, the OKiM provided free legal aid to displaced persons from Kosovo via outsourcing to a consortium of private companies and NGOs, which in turn implemented the project under the EU flag.

This is the standard arrangement for EU funding, but in this specific case, where the divide between Serbia and Kosovo* institutions remains wide, it was crucial to make sure that a team of EU-funded lawyers could operate between the two legal systems, engaging in de facto conduct that I defined as “shuttle legal aid”.

For those not familiar with the practicalities of the issue, it is worth recalling that there are, according to the Serbian authorities, around 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. It is unclear how many of them have not yet solved their property issues. While displaced persons are mostly in Serbia, their properties and other assets are located in Kosovo, and any attempt at ensuring the protection of their rights needs to be conducted before the institutions of Kosovo*.

However, the two legal system do not recognize each other’s documents, and there is no functioning post or telephone system between Kosovo* and Serbia. Lawyers and legal aid NGOs from Serbia are often reluctant to travel to Kosovo, both because of logistical and security issues and due to lack of familiarity with the institutional setting of the former Serbian province. Lawyers from Kosovo do not seem interested in conducting any outreach to potential clients in Serbia and more important than everything else, displaced persons themselves do not have the financial means to pay for legal expenses.

The EU-funded legal aid programme presented a solution to these problems, since it could operate in both Kosovo and in Serbia. The positive aspects were numerous: the project bridged the institutional gaps between the two systems, it was staffed with an adequate number of lawyer and barristers familiar with national and international law, and its proceedings were completely free for the IDPs (including coverage of court fees and expenses).

Indeed, besides successfully representing thousands of persons in administrative and court proceedings, the Project generated valuable information, in that it could closely observe the workings of the courts of Kosovo* in the context of property cases. Most of these cases involved disputes about the possession of property where an inter-ethnic element was present, which raised the profile and the tension in many of these disputes.

The project had a unique point of view, namely that of the claimants and their legal representatives and it could accordingly witness how legal proceedings took place “from the bottom” and very often without other international observers present. This unique point of view allowed the project to use its cases to collect information on court practice and in this manner legal aid became a “fact finding” tool, regularly reporting its findings on its website and from time to time on this blog.

The topics covered were some of the most contentious in Kosovo. Moreover, they involved the issue of property rights, where, as consistently highlighted in the EU Progress Reports about Kosovo, progress was slow or non-existent.

In the course of its work, the Project successfully represented displaced persons who were trying to challenge the illegal occupation, and in some cases demolition, of their properties. In other cases, the Project initiated criminal and civil proceedings cases against persons who acquired property via “fraudulent transactions”, highlighting patterns indicating that the forgery of property documents and records was not just an act of few corrupt individuals, but in certain areas a concerted effort to grab land to be used for business purposes.

In several landmark cases before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, it was also possible to highlight how an internationally funded mass claims mechanism, the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) had itself violated the rights to property and fair trial by refusing to solve property disputes or to award compensation to claimants.

However, like all projects, this one too came to an end on 12 June 2015. Continue reading

Sargsyan and Chiragov: The Strasbourg Court takes aim at frozen conflicts?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week I joined Philip Leach of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) in Strasbourg to present the European Court of Human Rights’ June 2015 judgments in two cases related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to government representatives at the Council of Europe, at a briefing event organised by the European Implementation Network and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The cases were Sargsyan v Azerbaijan and Chiragov v. Armenia, which were effectively joined by being relinquished from their original chambers to the same composition of the Grand Chamber in 2010. Both judgments found continuing violations of the applicants’ rights to property and their homes (as well as an effective remedy) based on their displacement in the early 1990s and subsequent inability to return to or access their properties.

While not (yet) signaling the initiation of a pilot judgment procedure, the court notes that the cases typify repetitive claims resulting from the respondent states’ failure to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reiterate the “primordial” importance of subsidiarity to the functioning of the Convention system, and recommend that both states take immediate steps to address property claims on their own steam:

…it would appear particularly important to establish a property claims mechanism, which should be easily accessible and provide procedures operating with flexible evidentiary standards, allowing the applicant and others in his situation to have their property rights restored and to obtain compensation for the loss of their enjoyment. (Sargsyan, para. 238, Chiragov, para. 199)

Taken together, the judgments represent intriguing developments at a number of levels. Continue reading

Property issues in Libya: A reminder that the road to sustainable peace still goes via root causes

by Rhodri C. Williams

What to say about Libya? Despite the slide from the country’s post-revolutionary and chaotic new normal to civil war, it is still too early to give up hope. While Libya may have yet to scrape bottom, many of the factors that argued for a sustainable recovery from Gaddafi’s long nihilistic night remain latent. And despite the increasing subordination of Libya’s politics to the influence of regional competitions and actors, the country still remains to some degree a case apart, churning in the region’s ideological divisions without the despair-inducing ethnic and sectarian fractures that threaten the Mashriq.

It seems a very long time since my work in Libya, on property issues that stalled (at best), displacement issues that exploded, and rule of law issues that have descended to a near farce, with mass trials of senior Gaddafi regime officials wrapping up amid power cuts and procedural irregularities. By all accounts, Ibrahim Sharqieh’s grim prediction that the lustration law forced through in 2013 would be the equivalent of the Iraqi de-Baathification process has been vindicated, as the heavily militarized winners of the revolution collapsed into open conflict with each other. Then comes IS in Sirte, refugee catastrophes in the Mediterranean, and the needless death of good and selflessly devoted Libyans.

The temptation is strong in such situations to cut losses and contain damage. For Europe, for instance, earlier efforts to build up a Libyan state that could be a responsible partner on migration issues have now given way to desperate proposals to unilaterally stem migration that bypass and undermine what remains of the Libyan state. Fortunately, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has shown extraordinary persistence, chivvying two sides that refuse to recognize each other into 80% of a peace deal even as economic collapse looms. Another refusal to write Libya off came last month, when the Legatum Institute revived the moribund debate over property issues in Libya.

Continue reading

Upcoming discussion of restitution at Stockholm University

Just a quick note to say I will be giving a talk on the right of restitution in two weeks at the Stockholm Center for International Law and Justice. Any TN readers locally-based or passing through are welcome to join!

SCILJ V Rhodri 6 oktober copy 2

“The Endorois decision” – Four years on, the Endorois still await action by the Government of Kenya

by Rebecca Marlin

Rebecca Marlin is currently the Legal Fellow at Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in London. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley College and her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. During her time at MRG she will be working extensively with the Endorois to achieve implementation of the 2010 African Commission decision granting them rights to Lake Bogoria.

For the Endorois of Kenya’s Lake Bogoria, the process of reclaiming their land from the government of Kenya has been one step forwards and two steps back. In 2003, MRG and partner organisation Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), acting on behalf of the Endorois Welfare Council, went before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the Kenyan government recognise the rights of the Endorois to Lake Bogoria.

The Endorois had inhabited Lake Bogoria for over 300 years before being evicted by the government in the 1970s. In 2010, the Endorois won the landmark case Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International (on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council) v Kenya. The land rights aspects of this groundbreaking decision have been discussed on this blog here and some of the regional implications here.

A pattern of empty promises emerges

Immediately following the Commission’s ruling in February 2010, the government of Kenya welcomed the decision, promising to begin implementation. A large celebration of the decision was held at Lake Bogoria; the Minister of Lands was in attendance and the momentous occasion was broadcast on television nationally. Kenya’s progressive National Land Policy had been enacted only a few months prior to the ruling and, with a forward-thinking new Constitution in the drafting stages, it seemed the decision might soon be translated into restitution of land, compensation, and benefit-sharing for the Endorois.

However, in May 2010, a report on implementation due to be submitted by the government of Kenya to the African Commission failed to arrive. Throughout 2010 and 2011, the government of Kenya failed to take any significant action on the recommendations. One MP openly challenged the Minister of Lands in Parliament about this delay in January 2011; the official response from the Minister was that he would not be able to take any action until he received an official sealed copy of the 2010 decision – despite the fact that the decision had been officially adopted and published one year earlier. A sealed copy was thereafter delivered to the Minister, but this did little to improve the situation.

When pressed on the matter, the government continues to affirm that it supports the decision and is taking steps to carry out the Commission’s recommendations. Yet, steps taken by the government indicate the exact opposite and new legislation on Lake Bogoria threatens to further separate the Endorois from their land.

Continue reading

The Kosovo Constitutional Court on displaced persons’ property rights: Can mediation ever count as enforcement?

by Massimo Moratti

Protecting the property rights of displaced persons in post-conflict scenarios presents a number of interesting challenges, not least when internally displaced persons (IDPs) face illegal construction on their land and therefore are forced to seek remedies before the relevant institutions, including mass claims mechanisms.

One of these cases, which is probably not an isolated one, occurred recently in Kosovo, where the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) is the local mass claim mechanism which inherited the competences of the UNMIK Housing and Property Directorate (HPD).  Established in 2006, the Kosovo Property Agency became an independent agency functioning in accordance with the Constitution of Kosovo after the unilateral declaration of independence.  The mandate of the KPA focuses on claims for land and commercial property, which were not addressed by the UNMIK HPD, since the HPD’s mandate did not cover such claims and the local courts were in theory competent for the receiving them. Since its inception, the KPA has collected claims for over 42,000 properties and decided 96% of those claims.

While the process of issuing decisions is approaching its end, the implementation of such decisions in a number of cases is becoming particularly problematic, especially those cases where a new building has been constructed on claimed properties. It is worth recalling that the KPA was created in 2006 and for the period 1999-2006 there was no claims mechanism to deal with claims for land, nor were courts capable of effectively processing such claims.  In the meantime, “a lot has been built in Kosovo”, to quote one of the officers of the Ombudsman office when contacted about the issue of illegal construction.

The problem the KPA is facing now is how to deal with such cases, where an illegal occupant has built a residential or commercial building on a claimed plot of land. In theory, the KPA could resolve to seize and demolish the building, sell it at an auction, broker a lease agreement or place the building under administration. However, practice has departed significantly from the procedures foreseen in the law. The KPA has instead developed a mediation procedure in order to try to solve these cases without resorting to destruction of buildings. IDPs facing illegal construction are now routinely informed by the KPA about the impossibility of demolish such buildings and offered the possibility for mediation.

This offer of mediation raises a number of issues and leaves a number of questions unanswered.  The case KI187/13 recently brought before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo highlights how the procedure of mediation collides with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In this case, a female IDP who left Kosovo in 1999 and has lived in destitute conditions since sought repossession of a large plot of land in an attractive location outside Pristina with significant commercial value. On the same plot, an illegal occupant had built three houses with a swimming pool. The applicant claimed her property in 2006 and a KPA decision in her favor became final and binding in 2013.

The KPA however told the applicant that they could not enforce her claim, because the property had changed since the time she owned it and the KPA lacked the resources to demolish the existing buildings. They offered instead to mediate between her and the illegal occupant. The applicant refused such mediation and instead addressed the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, claiming a violation of her rights to property, to a fair trial and to an effective remedy. Continue reading

Land reform in Colombia: One step forward, two steps back

by Nelson Camilo Sánchez and Ilan Grapel

Nelson Camilo Sánchez is a research coordinator of the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society Dejusticia and associate professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota. Ilan Grapel is a recent graduate of Emory University School of Law. For the last six months, he has been working with Dejusticia, where he has been researching issues relating to transitional justice in Colombia’s peace process.

Land reform in Colombia, while politically sensitive, is necessary to stabilize the country and end a violent conflict that has plagued Colombians for more than half a century. Colombia’s internal fighting has deprived millions of their land and livelihood. Adopted in June 2011, Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law, also known as Law 1448, is an important advance in providing restitution for those displaced by the conflict.

With this law, the government officially recognized the existence of an internal armed conflict. The Victims Law demonstrates that the government hopes to provide greater rights to the victims of the conflict. However, this legislation needs to overcome many obstacles; foremost among them, the Victims Law needs to find a way to provide reprieve to the large number of victims who may be entitled to compensation under the law.

To date, the government has made progress in realizing restitution claims. However, the law alone cannot cure Colombia of inequality within its population. As the government struggles to return impoverished victims to their lands, the moneyed classes continues to aggregate land and resources that allow them to maintain a lifestyle vastly different from the average Colombian, let alone the landless farmers. This inequality creates a tension that prolongs the hostilities and continues the displacement in the region.

For Colombia to transition into a successful and stable country, the government needs both to improve the Victims Law and address other land distribution problems.

Continue reading