Rights groups say protections could backslide for residents facing eviction
Children play in Phnom Penh at the Group 78 community, which lives under threat of relocation.
FOLLOWING the violent eviction of a Phnom Penh community last month that drew extensive press coverage and outcries from rights groups, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Monday kicked off its first regional workshop on involuntary resettlement in Phnom Penh.
Some 72,000 Cambodians have or will be displaced by outgoing public works projects, according to the ADB. Organisers of the five-day conference say it aims to promote policies to ensure residents in communities slated for public projects are displaced in a regulated manner that ensures they receive compensation "equal to or greater than" what they lose.
Most recently, in late January, hundreds of police and workers hired by private developer 7NG forcibly removed scores of residents who remained at the slum community of Dey Krahorm as they petitioned for better compensation. The eviction displaced over a hundred families - most trucked off to an isolated relocation site 16 kilometres outside the city to live in makeshift tents in fields as they awaited assigned homes.
Behind involuntary resettlement lies a web of laws and policies that development groups say are inconsistent and deeply inadequate in scope.
Originally drafted in 2005 and awaiting approval by the Council of Ministers, the sub-decree on resettlement is supposed to stipulate when, how and why the government may expropriate individual or communal property. The bill also proposes a legal framework for the types of compensation received in different scenarios, the mechanism for compensation and judicial appeals.
A second draft of the bill was released at the end of 2007, but its final version has remained in the hands of the government.
A ‘roll-back' of protections
In a review completed at the beginning of last year, the Housing Rights Task Force and the Resettlement Action Network - a coalition of some 30 NGOs - picked holes through the proposed legislation.
"[T]he NGO review has found the current draft sub-decree falls substantially short of international standards and of protecting the rights of Cambodian citizens," the report states.
The authors found that the body charged to approve projects would be powerless to reject a proposal that could cause large-scale relocation, public health concerns or harm to the environment as long as it conformed to a vague definition of suiting public interest. And the proposal required no consideration of alternative project designs that would minimise or avoid evictions or other negative impacts, they said.
The proposed accountability mechanisms fail to ensure affected communities can hold the government accountable to its legal obligations, according to the report.
Development groups were also alarmed by what they said were excessive discretionary powers for the prime minister, as the bill "effectively grants [him] de facto power to approve any acquisition of land within the country".
David Pred, head of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia and a contributor to the review, said the second draft of the subdecree "falls short of international human rights standards, as well as the standards of the ADB's own Resettlement Policy."
"It also constitutes a significant roll-back of the legal rights guaranteed to Cambodians by the Constitution and the 2001 Land Law," he added.
But Chhorn Sopheap, director of the Department of Resettlement under the Ministry of Economy and Finance, was confident the subdecree, in its final form, would be up to international standards and that it would be passed this year.
Residents pave road
As the resettlement workshop heard opening remarks, City Hall condemned road renovations by residents of Phnom Penh's Group 78 community, saying the action was unauthorised and carried out as a flagrant attempt to put their mark on land they do not own.
Last week, residents of Group 78 began paving a dirt road that runs along their small Phnom Penh riverside neighbourhood in what residents say is a show of their ability to mobilise as an organised, upstanding community.
Kheng Soroth, a community representative, said residents pooled $700 to start roadwork after having receiving no response from communal or municipal authorities to a December letter asking for authorisation and state funds.
"We could not wait any longer because the road was in bad condition."
But Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said residents did not have title to the land and had acted illegally by moving ahead with road construction prior to government approval.
The municipality has planned a road through the small neighborhood as part of its plan for a new bridge spanning the Bassac River.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHRANN CHAMROEUN