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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Harried urban poor gain champion for housing rights

Harried urban poor gain champion for housing rights

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

parties.

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

over land.

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