At the end of a 13-day tour of Cambodia, Miloon Kothari, the special rapporteur on
adequate housing for the United Nations national commission on human rights, spoke
to Markus Bernsen about what he describes as the nation's biggest crisis: land.
Miloon Kothari, left, meets with the widows of the men killed during a forced eviction in Kbal Spean, Poipet. The special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations, Kothari finds the situation grim: "The land crisis in Cambodia is probably ... the national crisis."
MB: In 2004, you began your report to the UN commission on human rights with a
poem: "If we fail to speak up today, deadly silence we will earn, every home
will be on fire, every dwelling we will see burn." After two weeks in Cambodia,
which poem would you recite at the next commission?
MK: Well, it will be something similar. The reason I chose that poem was because
my report was on homelessness and landlessness in the world, and the year before
it was on forced evictions. I was trying to express that if we don't control this
phenomenon we are going to have major chaos.
And I think that Cambodia is in that respect - if you look at the scale of land grabbing,
at the scale of dispossession that is occurring and is coming in the next years -
it is probably one of the worst examples of what we are talking about in terms of
dispossessing people from their lands. And of course, in numerous cases as we have
seen in Poipet, and some of the other cases where protests from indigenous people
have been repressed, there is violence involved as well. ...
But I think the NGOs are doing a lot. Some very courageous work is going on both
by national and international NGO's, and most importantly by the communities. I think
it's the kind of work we probably haven't seen in Cambodia before and it could be
one of the areas of hope that people are at least speaking out.
In your work around the world, how often do you come across cases like Kbal Spean
in Poipet, where five people were killed and 40 injured in a forced eviction?
Well, we do come across cases like that. It's not uncommon, but I think what is striking
in this case and what is very disturbing, is that there has been made no attempts
to bring justice to people. I mean, it's incredible that the widows haven't even
been compensated. And nor has there been any attempt to compensate people for the
destruction of property, nor has there been any attempt to say, 'Okay, perhaps there
was a mistake in the judicial process.' ... And I find it even more striking because
there has been international publicity; this is a case that is known everywhere,
and why is it that the government is not sensitive of that?
So what do you propose the government should do on a short- term basis?
I think there should be immediate compensation for the widows, there should be compensation
for the loss of property, there should be an independent investigation into, you
know, who does the land belong to? Who is behind the chief? What is it worth? What
is it going to be used for? Is it possible to settle the families where they are,
for example? There has to be an investigation that is impartial, and then there has
to be a prosecution for the people who are responsible for the murder. I mean, these
are killings, they are not accidents, and I think that something we [the UN] would
look for in a situation like this is even an announcement from the prime minister
or something to say that, "We are aware of the problem, we are moving as fast
as possible," but there hasn't been anything.
That is also very striking here; when you have a situation like Koh Pich or a situation
like the Royal University of Fine Arts where the private sector is involved, it seems
as if as soon as that deal goes through, the government loses it's sense of responsibility
towards its citizens...
Where is the municipality, where is the government? People don't stop being citizens
just because there is a private company involved. So I think there are lots of irregularities
which I think have now added up to so many cases that I would say it's a national
crisis. The land crisis in Cambodia is probably, I would say, the national crisis,
because it affects simple people everyday of their lives.
Do you feel that transparency should be the first step for the Cambodian Government?
I think a number of steps have to take place simultaneously, but I think transparency
certainly is one of them. For example, one thing I have called for is that there
should be a national land use plan. ...
You don't have the kind of transparency to say, okay, this is public land, this is
private land, this land can be used for public services. ... That is the kind of
transparency you need, and I think without that kind of transparency, without the
participation of people, without accountability for developing projects or handing
over land to the private sector, democracy becomes a very surfaced kind of democracy;
there is really nothing below the rhetoric. In a democracy you would expect a place
for people to go and complain, you would expect information ... but here you are
as far away from that as possible.
Compared to other countries with major housing issues, how would you rate Cambodia?
That might be a little bit difficult to do, but I think what is different here as
supposed to other places I have been - like Afghanistan, Kenya, where they are also
dealing with land issues - is that here there seems to have been no attempts to build
institutions. In any post-conflict situation, where there is some kind of political
or economic stability, you would immediately see the call for a land commission,
which would examine dealings, whether they were irregular or not, you would see the
formation of an independent human rights commission which would investigate independently
of the state.
You still haven't told us how you will begin your report before the high commission
in April next year?
Which poem? I'll have to look for one now. I think I've already used all the strong
ones. I think certainly something that expresses the cost of keeping silent, when
you are faced with such levels of injustice.
Of course, in this case, it is of predominant concern to me, because it's all about
the homes and the land. It is not an armed, conflict situation where armies are going
in and target the homes and the village, because that is how you get to the people,
like in Palestine. ... But [in Cambodia], as far as people are concerned, in just
as destructive a manner, you have this form of dispossessing people from their homes
by land grabbing, evictions, land confiscations.