RESPECT for human rights and human dignity is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, the United Nations General Assembly declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Today marks the anniversary of the assembly’s adoption of the declaration in 1948. Despite that pledge, made more than 60 years ago, many Cambodians see their rights to adequate housing violated.
Land grabbing and forced evictions are widely regarded as being the most widespread and one of the most pressing human rights problems in Cambodia. Human Rights Watch recently reported that Cambodia’s rate of forced evictions of the urban poor and confiscation of farmers’ land in the countryside has reached crisis proportions.
Land rights are routinely violated with impunity. In the countryside, home to approximately 83 percent of the Cambodian population, landholdings are increasingly distorted, with hard-pressed subsistence farmers often forced to sell to urban speculators who hold large plots of arable land and then leave them idle.
Poor farmers and owners of land in desirable urban areas are often forced to accept paltry sums in compensation, despite evidence of legitimate tenure or land titles, or to move to alternative sites lacking in the most basic of facilities. Rural migrants have swelled the numbers of the urban poor, particularly in Phnom Penh, creating a population of unskilled casual workers who live in informal settlements under poor conditions and with precarious tenure.
Military units are often deployed to carry out forced and violent evictions of villagers whose ownership claims to the land had never been fairly dealt with by a court. Residents are subsequently too scared to protest or voice dissent and are badly in need of support from civil society, both ordinary citizens and organised groups alike.
Across Southeast Asia, community groups have proven to be the most efficient way for communities to secure their legal rights to housing, water, sanitation, healthcare, education and even jobs.
As a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Cambodia is legally obliged to protect the right to adequate housing by all appropriate means, including the adoption of specific legislation to tackle the issue and the provision of judicial remedy.
The treaty obligates the government to affirmatively guarantee security of land tenure and to facilitate access to housing that also provides affordability, habitability, accessibility, availability of necessary services, location and cultural adequacy.
The most important protection is security of tenure and protection from forced eviction.
Under international law, evictions are only lawful under exceptional circumstances that constitute a compelling public interest, and only after all feasible alternatives have been explored in consultation with the affected persons.
Evictions must not render persons homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights abuses. Relocation sites such as the village of Andoung on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, which now houses many of those forcibly evicted from Sambok Chap, Dey Hoy and Boeng Salang and where residents lack access to clean water, health facilities, a reliable source of income and security of tenure, clearly represents a breach of the minimum standards enshrined in the declaration.
Many housing rights abuses are related to the relatively recent transition and sudden exposure to the globalised market economy. The country’s rapid economic growth means land is now a highly valued resource and fast-appreciating asset.
As a result, Cambodians are increasingly losing their homes, land and access to natural resources on which their livelihoods depend, to make way for commercial development, agribusiness plantations, hydro-electricity dams and mining concessions.
Forced evictions are sometimes viewed as a necessary side-effect of development or of urban renewal rather than an issue of human rights. However, to be persistently threatened or actually suffer forced eviction from one’s home or land is surely one of the most supreme injustices any family or community can face.
Land disputes have become arguably the greatest concern for rural Cambodians given their interdependence with the right to adequate housing, food, water, health, education and work. Aid donors and development partners must apply more pressure on municipal governments and relevant ministries to ensure the rule of law is respected.
Disputes must be settled judiciously in fully independent courts. Ownership should be determined by Cambodia’s Land Law, rather than wealth and political cronyism. Unless the drafting of donor-sponsored laws and regulations are accompanied by unified international insistence that legislative rules be applied consistently, impartially and with adherence to Cambodia’s international obligations, such laws will remain ineffective in protecting the most vulnerable of communities.
Asia represents a significant challenge for those seeking to remedy human rights breaches, in part due to the lack of a fully functioning regional protection mechanism. One of the greatest human rights challenges today is that human rights violations happen not because people assert their rights, but because people are suppressed and denied them, often by own their governments.
Human Rights Day should be celebrated, but also used as an opportunity to remind relevant authorities that the rule of law respects everyone as equal and is the foundation for both our liberties and for order.
Rolando Modina is the Asia Director at The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.