News / Africa

Humanitarian Guidelines Help Refugees Get Back Land, Property

The UNHCR estimates that there are nearly 44 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Of that number, about 15 million refugees and over six million internally displaced are in sub-Saharan Africa. Each year, tens of thousands of them return home. Helping resettlement is a set of guidelines grounded in humanitarian law used by NGOs and national governments.

William Eagle

Their name is long but precise: The UN Principles for Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and IDPs.  Relief groups and lawyers know them as the Pinheiro Principles, named for Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the author of a study that assembled the guidelines and a former UN sub-commission special rapporteur on housing and property restitution.

The principles are a consolidation of international human rights law and best practices for resettling those driven off their land. They are included in the UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation, which provides additional guidance on resettlement and restitution of land and property.

In Africa, there are over 15 million refugees and nearly six million internally displaced people.
In Africa, there are over 15 million refugees and nearly six million internally displaced people.

They’re endorsed by the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and are used as guidelines by the UNHCR and other groups resettling the displaced.

 

 

 

Rights for refugees and the internally displaced

The 23 principles include the right to be protected from forced displacement, and to adequate housing and to the freedom of movement, including the right to return in freedom and dignity. They also suggest legal and political procedures, including compensation, that can be provided by states to protect both returning refugees and current inhabitants of their properties.

Today, they’re referred to in courtrooms around the world for those pressing restitution claims by refugees and IDPs. They’re also used by governments in creating legislation to meet the standards of international treaties.

Chris Huggins, the director of the consulting firm called Land Conflict Research in Ottawa, Canada, said the Pinheiro Principles bring with them recommendations and standards relating to the restitution of refugee lands.

"[The principles interact] with existing guidelines and international frameworks," he said. "[They are] not what we call 'hard law' so [they] don’t necessarily represent a legal obligation by governments or the UNHCR, but in certain parts of the world, they have been used to interpret existing treaties or agreements."

The Pinheiro Principles and Sudan

They include the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. It relied on the Pinheiro Principles when deciding a recent lawsuit against the Government of Sudan for abuses against the internally displaced in Darfur. The commission found that Khartoum had “failed to show it refrained from forced eviction or the demolition of houses and other property” from Janjaweed militia.

In its ruling, the AU cited Principle 5.  It calls on states to prohibit forced eviction, demolition of houses and destruction of agricultural areas, and the confiscation of land as punishment or as an instrument of war. The principles say governments should prevent displacement, even when threatened by people, corporations and other non-state actors.

The African Commission’s ruling calls on the Government of Sudan to provide conditions for the safe return of IDPs and refugees and to establish “a National Reconciliation Forum that would, among others, resolve issues of land, grazing and water rights….”

The Pinheiro Principles also influenced the Kampala Convention. African signatories to it commit to protecting and helping IDPs return safely – and voluntarily – to their homes and to recognize the right of returnees to their property, or to compensation.

Peace agreements

Huggins said there are efforts to have the principles be part of peace agreements. For example, the principles encouraged the inclusion of property rights and housing issues in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, that ended fighting between north and south Sudan in 2005.

"[Several] international actors like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization did a number of studies on southern Sudan and identified potential problems regarding to post conflict land disputes and the rights and livelihoods of returning IDPs and refugees, and those studies fed into the CPA for Sudan," he said.

"[It] mandated a land commission to look into these issues, and one is looking into these issues now in the south and there are commissions in all of these transitional states looking at how to resolve these land disputes."

A planned village, or 'umudugudu' for returnees from the DRC in Gatare, in the district of Nyamagabe (formerly known as Gikongoro Province), Rwanda.
A planned village, or 'umudugudu' for returnees from the DRC in Gatare, in the district of Nyamagabe (formerly known as Gikongoro Province), Rwanda.

In the DRC, there are local reconciliation and return commissions working to resolve land issues and find alternative local lands to serve as compensation. In Burundi, the government has created a land and property commission mandated by peace agreements to look for solutions to IDP and refugee property claims.

Protecting secondary occupants

The Pinheiro Principles forbid discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, language, disability or other status.

They also protect secondary occupants, who have settled on refugee property, from arbitrary eviction and encourage governments to find a remedy to their claims to property as well.

Huggins notes that some say Rwanda has tried to follow the spirit of the principles by having returnees and current occupants share land. Others say the policy violates the principles by eventually undermining land tenure security.  Huggins says critics ask how secure a claim to the land can be if the government can order the owner to give up half of it without compensation ?

Tripartite agreements

The Pinheiro Principles are also part of the tripartite agreements signed between the UNHCR, the country of origin and the host country, which cannot arbitrarily deport them.

A public information officer with the UNHCR, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, explains how the Principles’ support for the vulnerable, including women, are ensured in the signed contract:

"Women, for example, may not have their rights respected," she said, "because of traditional practices that prevent them from inheriting land [though they may be] entitled to it because their husband was killed in the war, or maybe they themselves helped purchased the land [though by tradition they do not have a right to property]. This is the type of thing we would seek to address through a tri-partite agreement."

"When we enter [such an agreement]," she said, "every word, every passage about every contentious issue negotiated is discussed. By the time we’ve signed an agreement, it means we’ve negotiated all the issues, and if there are any that need to be resolved, it will be stated if we or the country needs to continue to work on these issues."

One size does not fit all

Huggins said it’s not easy to apply the principles everywhere.

He said they worked well in Eastern Europe, where governments have kept records of land ownership. But that’s not the case in much of Africa, where most land is not owned by individuals, but by the community under customary law.

It may also be difficult for weak governments to ensure the protection of all returning refugees, especially in remote areas, or where the rule of law is not well established.

Huggins calls these the grey areas in post-conflict restitution.

"There are a number of conflicts in Africa where ethnic minorities who are targeted with violence tend to sell their land before they flee the fighting," he said. "There’s controversy in many areas over whether that was a forced sale, because the price of land plummets when there’s going to be conflict in an area, and people sell their land for whatever they can get…But often, afterward, those same people come back and say 'My life was threatened, I sold you this land at a discounted price as a forced sale, and I want it back.' "

"[Or], people will entrust their land to a neighbor of a different ethnic group and say 'Look after may land and use it, but when I return I want it back. But after 20 years, the friendly neighbor has been replaced by his sons, and this was based on a verbal agreement and difficult to prove. So it’s complicated to put the principles into practice in some African countries."

He said this was the case in eastern DRC, and in Rwanda and Burundi and other areas where ethnic minorities were forced to flee.

Some international NGO handbooks recommend that where tenure is not registered or contested, programs should be put in place to define and register land and to give people formal documentation that secures their right to it.

Huggins says this reinforces the importance of having well functioning land tenure systems -- still an issue for a continent where only a small percentage of property is officially registered.

You May Like

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs