Organizations working with Phnom Penh's urban poor on land issues have formed a housing
rights task force (HRTF) in an effort to avoid forced evictions and better deal with
emergency situations as they arise.
The task force will gather information on cases where communities of more than ten
families face an imminent or potential eviction by a landowner, company or the government
that breaches international human rights and Cambodian law.
The group is currently chaired by the UN's Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights and includes representatives from urban poor and housing NGOs, relevant
UN agencies, Phnom Penh municipality, Ministry of Land and a range of other interested
The HRTF met on February 16 to refine its terms of reference and discuss the first
case, a land claim on a community of at least 320 families in Steung Meanchey commune,
and 70 monks in a wat.
Appeals to courts, ministries and even the King have failed to reverse a 1998 decision
by the Phnom Penh Court that the land belonged to the lottery company Beta International.
Members of the community who attended the court hearing said the company, whose lottery
activities were suspended several years ago, wants to build a horseracing track on
the site. But the community says it has occupied the land since 1991 and should be
afforded land titles.
Article 30 in the 2001 Land Law says people who have "enjoyed peaceful, uncontested
possession of immovable property" for five years or more have "the right
to request definitive title of ownership." A decision about the case is pending
in the Supreme Court.
The idea to create the HRTF came after a violent eviction on January 9, when 11 members
of a 45-family squatter community in Phnom Penh were injured by police before their
homes were burnt down. Several HRTF members were involved in the heated negotiations
between a lawyer representing the legal landowner and the community, which marked
the first large-scale eviction since May 2003, when Prime Minister Hun renounced
the government's practice of evicting and relocating poor people from settlements
on public land.
While emergency advocacy will be part of the HRTF's work, they want to work with
the authorities to find alternatives to forced evictions before they happen.
"I hope that the task force will be able to anticipate land conflicts and evictions
but this requires good coordination between public and private parties, NGOs and
community groups," said Paul Rabé, a land management expert with UN-Habitat
at the Municipality of Phnom Penh, after the HRTF meeting on February 16.
The HRTF plans to investigate the housing issues caused by a fire on February 13
that destroyed 201 homes in the Vietnamese-Cambodian settlement near Chba Ampeou
market. It will also follow up on the fate of the families who were relocated after
the January 9 eviction and are now at a temporary settlement.
The massive displacement that occurred during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime and
the slow rebuilding of the national legal system that followed have left Cambodia
inundated with conflicting land ownership issues. In an extensive study of land disputes
between 1987 and 1999, Oxfam Great Britain found "a rapidly deteriorating situation
requiring urgent action".
A World Bank paper estimated that in 2002 at least 200,000 poor Cambodians were in
conflict with military generals, large businesses and high-ranking government officials