Tag Archives: UK

Scotland chooses a bird in the hand

by Rhodri C. Williams

I declined to comment in advance on the Scottish referendum in part because I have been too busy to blog much at all, but also in part because it is none of my business. The wonderful thing about free and fair referenda like this is that they render outside observations almost entirely superfluous. Unless you actually have information that bears directly on the outcome – like EU experts – you are just projecting your own concerns onto somebody else’s drama – like the Spanish government panicking about Catalonia’s impending independence bid. Or China freaked out by any state reaction to regional agitation short of obsessive centralized control.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of such projection has been Russia’s cringe-inducing effort to project its new non-linear warfare to Caledonia. As described in the Guardian, a Russian monitoring team has rubbished the vote there because the rooms where the ballots were counted being “too big”. The same article quotes a Russia Today host questioning the high turnout as “what you would expect in North Korea”. Perhaps they are expecting the Scots to begin demanding an intervention by little green men? Perhaps they had a few geographically challenged paratroopers in the belly of the superannuated bomber they sent to buzz Scotland on referendum day?

As nicely skewered by the “Darth Putin – KGB” twitter account, Russia was clearly hoping that a truly legitimate independence referendum in Scotland would not only distract London from things like sanctions but also somehow cast unearned retroactive legitimacy on the shambles Russia staged in Crimea. However, as observed by Thomas De Waal at the time, the Crimea referendum was not only aggression masquerading as self-determination (even accepting that minorities can secede from states that have blatantly violated their rights, this did not apply in Crimea), but also a departure from what Scotland has now consolidated as international best practice for negotiated democratic decision-making on sovereignty.

Despite some post-referendum ugliness in Glasgow, the Russians’ blatant attempt to make hay on a genuinely democratic referendum, and their misreading of public sentiment afterwards may at least give both sides something to chuckle about. Is it really so inconceivable that placing the fate of a nation in its own hands would not inspire widespread and passionate participation? RT’s cynicism on this point says far more about the state of contemporary Russia than it does about Scotland. Notwithstanding the bruised feelings on both sides, Kevin McKenna points out that the combination of passion and civility throughout the campaign does all sides proud:

Scotland has delivered to the world a new gold standard in how modern political democracy ought to function. This was achieved during a struggle that was as passionate, raw and emotional as anything ever previously encountered in these islands. Yet not a bullet was fired and nor were there any physical casualties. The conduct of those chiefly involved in both campaigns was exemplary and, if not entirely chivalrous, certainly characterised by dignity and mutual respect.

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Reparations for Chile’s exiles: upcoming guest-post on the Inter-American Court decision in García Lucero

by Rhodri C. Williams

Earlier this Fall, I had the pleasure of being invited to lecture at the Essex Transitional Justice Network’s 2013 summer school, which focused on land issues in transitional settings. I also stayed on for a seminar on land and traditions that got me back together with some familiar leading lights on HLP questions and acquainted me with a number of others. The EJTN has been doing some very interesting work at the frontiers of the transitional justice discourse, including research on economic and social rights approaches to TJ, rehabilitation as a form of reparation and, most recently, a book on corporate accountability in transitional settings.

As a human rights practitioner frequently (and rightly) accused of being a frustrated academic, the seminar was a good reminder of how many other people believe that the strain of trying to keep a foot in both camps is more than compensated for by the synergies that can result. One of the more impressive examples I encountered during my stay in Colchester was the work of ETJN Director Clara Sandoval, who is also not only a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex Law School, but also a frequent practitioner. Recently, as a consultant for Redress, she helped to bring the case of Leopoldo Garcia Lucero v. Chile before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Garcia Lucero case involves the claim of an 80 year old torture survivor who was held for a year and a half in Chilean prison camps before being expelled in 1975. Since then, Mr. Garcia Lucero has struggled to make a new life in London, one among some 200,000 Chileans forced out by the Pinochet regime. Physically disfigured and permanently disabled, he sought an “effective remedy and full and adequate reparation for what happened to him” before the Inter-American Court.

In the decades since Mr. Garcia Lucero was victimized, the Chilean experience of transitional justice has come to be seen as a model in many respects. However, as Clara Sandoval noted in a BBC interview, efforts to provide reparations to victims of the Pinochet regime have been accompanied by relatively few convictions of perpetrators and largely excluded exiled victims, exacerbating their vulnerability. Meanwhile, with the recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup, painful new revelations such as the failure of the Chilean courts to protect ordinary citizens continue to emerge.

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Demonize the messenger – UN Housing Rapporteur accused of witchcraft

by Rhodri C. Williams

So here is the scenario. A wealthy Western country is early out in 2001 in extending a standing invitation to UN human rights rapporteurs to visit anytime they like. In doing so, they are taking up a Quaker initiative premised on the idea that the first step toward respecting human rights is willingness not be defensive about one’s own record.

Twelve years later, the UN Rapporteur on the right to housing announces the first visit by her mandate to said country, at a time of economic recession. Her initial PR and a subsequent set of preliminary findings praise the host country’s tradition of housing assistance for the poor and provide a reasoned set of criticisms of recent measures to deregulate private rental markets and ensure more efficient use of public housing stocks.

The response? Pandemonium. The chairman of the main party in the governing coalition speeds a letter to the UN Secretary General claiming that the rapporteur arrived uninvited, ignored the relevant government ministers and issued politically biased findings, suggesting “that the UN withdraw her claims” until a “full investigation” is carried out.

A national tabloid accuses her of being a Marxist witch while a conservative columnist is pleased to merely dismiss her as an idiot and a “Brazil nut”. She, of course being the (Brazilian) UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik, and they being the Right Honourable conservative commentariat of the United Kingdom.

So. How has it come to pass that the United Kingdom, with its Magna Carta and its mother of parliaments is unable to engage in a reasoned dialogue with a UN human rights official? To express mild concerns about her criticism, promise to study them and let them slide gently toward the circular file like everyone else? Or conversely, why draw unnecessary attention to the report by engaging in shrill denunciation of UN activism (not to mention sexist and arguably racist ad hominem attacks on its author)?

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A roundup of international law debates

by Rhodri C. Williams

For the international lawyers and those who take an anthropological interest in their doctrinal debates, there have been a few interesting iterations on old themes recently. They fall into three categories, namely the ‘law of peace’ debate, the ‘justiciability’ debate, and the debate over whether UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s international law advisor is a crank or a mad genius. Lets take them in that order.

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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 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).

Week in links – Week 22/2011

– A Guardian investigation shows that British firms have now secured more land in Africa for biofuels than those of any other country. Unwanted publicity, it seems, particularly in light of Oxfam’s simultaneous citation of biofuel production as a factor in an ongoing food crisis that may see the prices of staples double in the next two decades.

-In the long gap since my last postings on Haiti, the basic dynamic of urban IDP camps settling into informal settlement status is little changed, but the resulting tensions appear to be coming to a head. By November last year, tenure insecurity in IDP camps had become so rife that a coalition of rights groups sought and received a directive from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordering the Haitian authorities to “stop evicting earthquake survivors from camps unless they are provided safe and adequate shelter.” However, last week Beverly Bell of Other Worlds reported on a series of violent and systematic forced evictions of IDPs in the Delmas district of Port au Prince. The evictions were ordered by local mayor Wilson Jeudi, who justified them by disputing the humanitarian vulnerability of the residents:

Jeudi called the camps “disorderly” and claimed that many of those in the tents did not actually live there. “They just come to do their commercial activities [thievery and prostitution] and go back to their homes in the evening.”

The mayor said that no compensation would be offered to those ousted from their temporary shelter. “We were all victims of the earthquake,” he added.

-Meanwhile, a leaked USAID-commissioned report appeared to give some support to Mr. Jeudi’s diatribe, alleging not only that the death toll from the quake was less than one-third of the officially reported 316,000, but also that only 895,000 IDPs moved into the IDP camps after the quake with 375,000 remaining now (compared with IOM’s numbers of 1.5 million original residents and 680,000 current). Most interesting to Mr. Jeudi, the report also “suggests many of those still living in tent cities did not lose their homes in the disaster.” The report is not yet officially released due to the need to address apparent inconsistencies.

– The BBC carries a rather sad story about Palestinian refugees engaged in a lawsuit not be able to return to the village they fled in 1948 – a point they appear to have largely conceded – but to prevent others from living there in its proposed reincarnation as a luxury housing development.