Time to assert land rights as human rights

Because secure land rights are essential to the full enjoyment of other rights, land conflicts have dramatically crippled the bundle of human rights exercised and enjoyed by the rural poor.

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Livio Sarandea Chairing the panel
Livio Sarandea Chairing the panel

In light of increasing land investments in Asia and intensifying conflicts over scarce resources, civil society organisations (CSOs) working with rural communities, national human rights institutions and inter-governmental organisations came together to assert that land rights are human rights.

CSOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from eight Asian countries met in Bangkok, Thailand on November 15 and 16, 2018 for a conference on ‘Engaging National Human Rights Institutions Toward the Recognition of Land Rights as Human Rights’.

The two-day event is part of an ongoing initiative by the Land Watch Asia Working Group on Land Rights as Human Rights, supported by the International Land Coalition (ILC).

“Working in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines, the initiative aims to contribute to the reduction of land rights violations, and mainstream the recognition of land rights as human rights.”

As an initial step, the Working Group sought to engage NHRIs and regional human rights organisations towards joint actions to monitor and address land conflicts.

 Commissioner Roberto Cadiz of the CHR of the Philippines chairing the panel.
Commissioner Roberto Cadiz of the CHR of the Philippines chairing the panel.

In attendance were CSOs closely working with rural communities as well as officials of the National Human Rights Commissions of Bangladesh, Nepal, Timor Leste, and the Philippines.

Officers from the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT), headed by Chairperson What Tingsamitr were part of the gathering. The Chairperson welcomed the body with a message that highlighted the correlation of secure rights to land with the protection of inalienable human rights. He likewise shared NHRCT’s recommendations to the Government of Thailand to concretely address the country’s own land rights’ concerns.

“Through the initiatives of the NHRCT, the Thai Government is also nearing the completion of their National Action Plan (NAP) on Business and Human Rights, with a chapter dedicated to land rights.”

The Conference discussed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP BHR) with an overview of the Guiding Principles ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy’ pillars provided by Livio Sarandea of the UN Development Programme.

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Given the continued surge of land investments in Asia, governments should apply the principles of business and human rights to safeguard the land rights of poor and marginalised sectors in the quest for economic development. As part of the regional initiative of the LWA Working Group, Joel Pagsanghan of ANGOC presented the status of adoption and implementation of the UNGP BHR in six countries in Asia.

While governments of the six countries have yet to formulate NAPs to operationalise the BHR, NHRIs of the states have been working closely with CSOs on activities to facilitate the creation of a NAP. Sarandea underscored that CSOs and NHRIs may utilise the Universal Periodic Review process of UN member-states in advocating for land rights protection in business ventures.

Kazi Reazul Hoque Chairing the panel
Kazi Reazul Hoque Chairing the panel

Although several land conflicts have been attributed to the entry of investors and the drive for industrialisation, a closer look into Asian experiences reveal that land conflicts are brought out by a number of other inter-linked factors as well. In a two-part session, representatives from South and Southeast Asia each shared findings of research on recent prevalence and causes of land conflicts in their respective countries.

State land acquisitions, large-scale plantations and extractive industries, unfair business contracts, and overlapping land policies emerged as common drivers of land conflicts in Asia. These conflicts have displaced thousands of families from their homes, caused food insecurity, damage to the environment, and have led to the death of hundreds of rights defenders.

“Tying the narratives together, former ANGOC Chairperson Antonio Quizon reflected that land conflicts are oft caused by enduring historical injustices, inequitable access to vital resources, faulty implementation of asset reform laws, clashes between tenure systems, lack of regard for rights of vulnerable sectors, and misappropriation of state domains.”

Because secure land rights are essential to the full enjoyment of other rights, land conflicts have dramatically crippled the bundle of human rights exercised and enjoyed by the rural poor. As Quizon puts it, “the right to land and security of tenure are human rights, regardless of how laws see them.”

The Working Group also set forth to initialise the creation of a tool to monitor land rights and human rights in business ventures. On behalf of the CSOs involved in its formulation, Roel Ravanera of the Xavier Science Foundation in the Philippines presented the set of indicators and corresponding points identified for the ‘Scorecard for Private Investors in Land and Agriculture in Asia’.

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Using the principles of the UNGP BHR and the Principles on Responsible Agricultural Investments (rai),the LWA Working Group developed a scorecard tool for local communities to assess and monitor investors’ respect for land and human rights of communities affected by their operations. At present, the score card is still a work-in-progress, and is only applicable to private rural investments at the initial stages of their operations. Nevertheless, conference participants welcomed the scorecard tool as a promising development that allows for an alternative, community-based, rights monitoring mechanism.

Dr. Seree Nonthasoot, Thailand’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Committee on Human Rights (AICHR), provided the body with several ideas on moving the discourses forward. He affirmed the integral role that NHRIs play in protecting human rights, and encouraged attendees to monitor their governments’ compliance to international declarations and the common targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Recognising the international dimensions of land rights issues, Dr. Nonthasoot urged those in attendance to further engage with other countries, regional bodies, and the international community in their monitoring.

Livio Sarandea of Business and Human Rights, UNDP
Livio Sarandea of Business and Human Rights, UNDP

The conference body’s adoption of the Bangkok Declaration on Land as Human Rights, in which CSOs and NHRIs expressed their commitment to join efforts towards the full realisation of land rights and human rights.

The Declaration stated that with other land/human rights defenders and organisations, “we commit ourselves to continuously monitor and document human rights violations and abuses arising out of land conflicts” so that such violations and abuses are brought to the attention of international bodies like the United Nations through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process, and “to vigorously engage governments and businesses on these issues through vigilant and non-violent means”.

“As one body, the attendees also supported the call for the establishment of an independent NHRI in Cambodia.”

The conference on Engaging National Human Rights Institutions Toward the Recognition of Land Rights as Human Rights was co-organised by the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC), Land Watch Asia (LWA) Campaign, International Land Coalition, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).