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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land evictions reaching 'crisis proportions'

Land evictions reaching 'crisis proportions'

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Scenes at Village 14 and Preah Monivong Hospital.

J
ean du Plessis, acting executive director of the Geneva-based Center on Housing

Rights and Evictions (COHRE) spoke to the Post about his agency's assessment of recent

land disputes and evictions in Cambodia.

What does your office make of the situation in Cambodia at the moment and how does

it compare to other nations?

Security of tenure is under threat in many parts of Cambodia, and this threat in

particular affects Cambodia's ordinary citizens. One of the best definitions of the

concept of security of tenure is "freedom from fear of forced eviction."

Unfortunately, far too many people do not experience this freedom, but rather live

in constant fear of eviction.

Forced evictions have various and often complex and interconnected causes. Regardless

of the actual cause, those carrying out forced evictions generally attempt to justify

evictions in the name of "development" and, by implication, as intended

for the general public good. Governments and other implementing agencies use compelling

"developmental" language, often backed up by complicated technical jargon,

in an attempt to defend actions which are, in most cases, totally indefensible.

It must, therefore, be made unambiguously clear at the outset of any discussion of

forced evictions, that the practice of eviction without consultation or adequate

alternatives and compensation is illegal in terms of international law. It is also

unjust, compromising fundamental human rights principles, with devastating consequences

for those affected. Moreover, in terms of international experience and best practice,

it is fundamentally counterproductive to the goal of human development.

Why do you think there are so many fiercely contested and internationally condemned

evictions in Cambodia at the moment? Why has there been an increase in evictions

in Cambodia in recent years?

Land disputes and evictions have indeed reached crisis proportions in Cambodia. Many

land disputes have roots in the conditions created by land privatization in the late

1980s. This problem is exacerbated by the political nature of the allocation and

privatization programs initiated by the Government of Cambodia over the last 15 years.

While these processes were ostensibly intended to provide users of land with greater

security by providing them legal title, they have thus far proved counterproductive.

Indeed, implementation of these policies has diverted resources - including housing,

land and property - away from ordinary citizens and farmers, to the benefit of a

powerful elite.

Analysis of the way in which land distribution and privatization programs have been

implemented by the government reveals that access to land has decreased rather than

increased in recent years, particularly for the poor. In spite of some positive legislation

and mechanisms that have been put in place, land opportunities and security of tenure

are primarily accessed through political connections and patronage.

As the government owns a majority of the land, it has had a free reign in deciding

how the land will be utilized. For the most part the government has utilized land

for commercial and economic gain, and not to promote the land and housing rights

of its ordinary citizens. It has done this by transferring ownership and title to

domestic and overseas investors as a means of generating income for the state coffers.

Although the Land Law of 2001 created a legal framework that went a long way, on

paper, towards securing property rights to land and housing; local and national government

authorities often bypass laws and standards in the process of forced evictions, land

expropriations and concessions of land and natural resources to powerful business

interests.

Are evictions and land disputes likely to get better or worse over the next five

to ten years?

This question is in the hands of the government. It is worth pointing out that the

question of revoking illegal land grabs and economic concessions constitutes an acid-test

of the government's commitment to the rule of law.

Studies indicate that there is very little viable land currently available for redistribution

as social land concessions to the poor and vulnerable [without] the reclamation of

illegally confiscated land. However, many high-level officials from the ruling party

and other political groupings are implicated in land-grabbing. If illegally claimed

land is consistently taken back and distributed to the landless without regard to

the rank or political affiliation of the person alleged to have confiscated it, this

will be a victory for both social land concessions and the broader rule of law in

Cambodia.

Do you agree that the most serious land disputes and evictions all seem to involve

private companies that have bought land from the state or received concessions?

The government has a crucially important responsibility for ensuring that the land

under its control (ie land which has been decollectivized since the end of the Communist

era in Cambodia) is redistributed in a fair and equitable manner which forms the

basis of long-term sustainable development. However, this has all too often not occurred,

and most land concessions have been given to both local and international companies

who have strong links with the political elite. Land allocation is clearly a tempting

and lucrative source of income.

Because the government has failed to adequately regulate economic land concessions

to date, the private companies that benefit from them have had a relatively free

hand to take any measures seen as necessary to maximize the profit they will extract.

Is there political will in Cambodia to introduce a consistent and transparent policy

of development and land management that benefits the poor population?

It is unclear whether such political will exists. Some positive steps have been made

in putting in place a legal framework and, more recently, a new National Authority

on Land Dispute Resolution. However, the patronage system which exists at most, if

not all, levels of government in Cambodia is a major obstacle. It has created a situation

where a range of essential public services (ranging from issuance of land title certificates

to medical treatment and education) depend on the payment of bribes that are unaffordable

to most Cambodians. This is further worsened by patronage politics that continue

to undermine the rule of law in Cambodia.

The government should be urged, pressured and assisted by all parties to tackle this

problem head-on in order to reverse current trends, and to vigorously implement policies

and programs that will promote and protect the right to land tenure security and

adequate housing of all its citizens.

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