(ENG) A Pattern of Persecution: The Growing Attack against Housing and Land Rights Defenders


>>download full PDF Report<<

A Pattern of Persecution: The Growing Attack against Housing and Land Rights Defenders

house/community demolition, forced eviction, dispossession,
use of force, and arbitrary arrest and detention

Over the past year, the coordination office of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), a thematic group of Habitat International Coalition (HIC) Members, has received mounting information from various sources on an apparently increasing global trend of physical attacks, imprisonments and mistreatment of housing and land rights defenders, including several killings and at least one recent death in detention. In defence of the rights of the impoverished, disadvantaged, subjects of discrimination and the voiceless, human rights defenders have long maintained efforts to globalize their struggles and to ensure that each person’s housing and land rights are respected, protected and fulfilled in accordance with states’ treaty obligations. Essential to that goal is ensuring that vulnerable and marginalized people have, at the very least, a chance for their voice to be heard. Beyond that, housing and land rights defenders are essential sources of relevant information and alternative solutions. Recently, that pursuit has been at great personal—and, in many instances, physical—cost.

On the occasion of World Housing and Land Rights Day (a.k.a. World Habitat Day), 1 October 2007, UN HABITAT is promoting the theme, “A Safe City Is a Just City.” For housing and land rights defenders, this year especially, the city is increasingly neither. Human rights defenders and their families often live under a perpetual shadow of insecurity. Diverse governments around the world actively have targeted human rights defenders, hiring thugs to attack and even kill housing and land rights activists to ensure a permissive atmosphere for private interests. Employing a variety of public-security pretexts, including newly adopted “antiterror” laws, the official practice combines threats and actual physical assault, dubious arrests and prosecutions.

Our targeted and vulnerable defenders and activists, as well as their communities, now need the international solidarity community to unite actively, in order to protect them globally and to resist dispossession, displacement and further impoverishment. Your URGENT SOLIDARITY ACTION is needed NOW!

Illustrative Cases
Germany exemplifies trends within Europe, introducing its 2005 “Hartz IV” reform of the social security system and imposing a new cost ceiling on housing assistance, even as Germany faces exorbitant housing cost increases. As a consequence, potentially 1–3 million unemployed, particularly longer-term unemployed, in Germany are under pressure to leave their homes because they no longer can afford the rent. While the number of forced evictions in Germany is limited, another picture emerges with growing legal and extralegal, market-driven and policy-driven pressures. While these are so far less characteristically violent as in other regions, they are nonetheless effective in forcing inhabitants to leave their dwelling and join the ranks of Europe’s new “rent refugees.“ Meanwhile, the German government has been increasing its actions against human rights defenders opposing its policies of gentrification.

On 31 July 2007, the Federal Prosecutor of the German Supreme Court charged seven persons with alleged ”membership in a terrorist association.” Three of the arrested persons are urban researchers, including the Dr. Andrej Holm from Alexander Humboldt University, in Berlin, and an urban sociologist specializing in urban gentrification.

Dr. Holm and the other six were charged under paragraph 129a StGB (German Penal Code, Section 7: “Crimes against Public Order”). The Federal Prosecutor accused the group of being members of an urban activist organization, miltante gruppe. Repeatedly citing various urban research terminology used by Holm in academic papers, including “gentrification” and “inequality,” the Prosecutor’s report has concluded that the overlap in terminology with that used by militante gruppe was “striking, and not to be explained as a coincidence.” According to the arrest warrant against Holm, the Federal Prosecutor listed the charges as follows:

• Commonality of “phrases and key words” in the academic work of the researchers with those used by militante gruppe;
• Holm and another of the accused as presumed to be intellectually capable of “author[ing] the sophisticated texts of militante gruppe. Additionally, as employees of research institutes, the accused have been indicted on grounds of their having access to libraries in which resources can be inconspicuously used in order to conduct the research for and/or drafting militante gruppe’s texts;
• Two of the accused are said to have met with members of militante gruppe in “meetings [that] were regularly arranged without, however, mentioning place, time and content of the meetings” and all are being charged with being active in the “extreme left-wing scene”;
• Dr. Holm is alleged to have been active in the “resistance mounted by the extreme left-wing scene against the World Economic Summit of 2007 in Heiligendamm.”

In effect, the charges are tantamount to an indictment, based on the use of Andrej Holm’s work on urban gentrification in the pamphlets of militante gruppe, who have long publicized their cause against social violations arising from government housing policies.

Since their arrest, Dr. Holm and some of his fellow accused have been variously detained in Berlin-Moabit Prison under very harsh conditions, including solitary confinement for 23 hours of the day, limited visitation to a total of a half hour over two weeks, and limited contact with their legal counsel. In addition, the friends, relatives and colleagues of the accused all have been under surveillance for knowing alleged “terrorists.”

On 23 August 2007, Dr. Holm was released on bail, a decision that the Federal Prosecutor has contested and whose ruling shall not be made until October. The charges of belonging to a “terrorist association” still remain. Notably, the first hearings in the case are taking place in the week of International Housing and Land Rights Day (World Habitat Day) 2007.

The work of Dr. Holm and the other defendants has been a vital source of information on the violations that typically accompany any gentrification process. In addition, his work serves to highlight the standards by which states must remain accountable to their citizens in ensuring the maintenance, respect and protection of basic human rights. The use, or misuse, of such work is the responsibility of the user and not the publisher. However, the Prosecutor is seeking penal action against them for potential violent acts of others.

In charging Holm and the others with flimsy indictments, the German legal system has tread very dangerously on freedoms of expression and conscience, a historically proven misstep. In addition, the standards of evidence used in this case set a dangerous precedent, whereby the work of any academic, any research activity and/or political work, could be construed as potentially criminal. The German government, while often retaining a progressive international position on basic human rights and freedoms, by its recent actions now joins a circle of governments repressing housing and land rights defenders. HIC-HLRN and its Members appeal to more-democratic forces in Germany to reverse this irrational tide.

China has long been notorious for mass housing and land rights violations, ever more so with its construction and urbanization boom, including preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. With the rapidly approaching 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government is escalating public repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders who themselves have used the spotlight of the Olympics to intensify their public campaigns.

Within the past ten years, various levels of Chinese government have demolished at least 1.25 million houses and evicted approximately 3.7 million people. Since 2003 alone, Chinese authorities forcibly have evicted some 647,000 people from their homes, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security has requisitioned the land of an estimated 40 million farmers within the past two decades. This has been exacerbated by a 20% increase in illegal land seizures within the first five months of 2006. While negotiations for compensation are possible, eviction processes are not, once a government panel has ruled. However, compensation takes the form of poor housing far from urban centers and inhabitants’ sources of livelihood.

Consequently, the number of public protests has increased from 74,000, in 2004, to 87,000, in 2005. The Government of China increasingly has taken brutal measures to silence public and private demonstration against its illegal violations, including arbitrary detainment, mass arrests, mistreatment in detention and torture. One prominent example was the tragic death of Chen Xiaoming in 2006. After the Chinese government expropriated his house in 1994, Xiaoming, a self-taught expert in Chinese law, became an activist publicly contesting the government’s actions against the housing rights of the poor, including by organizing public awareness events and letter writing campaigns. In February 2006, Shanghai’s Luwan District Public Security Bureau arrested Xiaoming on charges of meeting a U.S. diplomat to discuss problems faced by evictees. Xiaoming suffered from a chronic illness, but authorities repeatedly turned down his requests, in addition those of his family, for needed treatment. On 1 July, Shanghai authorities finally conceded to his family’s requests and approved his parole. A few hours after, during transfer procedures, Xiaoming died of a massive hemorrhage.

In tandem with its increased housing and land rights violations, the Chinese government also has increased efforts to use politically motivated persecutions of the most-vocal human rights defenders. Due to the excessive state monitoring of its citizens, particularly media and internet outlets, many defenders have been forced to seek external aid for their local struggles, thus putting them at even higher risks.

The right to water is not only a subject of international human rights norms, but is the very essence of human survival. Water wars, crises and shortages have long been a source of conflict. In recent years, water has become increasingly commodified and, consequently, a source of greater deprivation and conflict. The global move to corporatize water resources is resulting in diminished access for impoverished populations and, thus, greater threats to personal and public health. Global corporations, including The Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, Veolia and Vivendi, are rapidly becoming key violators. Their illicit practices include environmental destruction (as Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate dumping of sludge and hazardous chemical waste into community water sources, or even its sale as animal feed), illegally seizing communal land, terrorizing civilians, and bribing state officials. This all occurs as many of these corporations are falsely advertising their corporate practices as ethical and “environmentally friendly.” Dam projects represent another major source of human rights and environmental violations through harnessing water resources. Often they displace thousands of already-impoverished populations—and millions globally—and have catastrophic environmental consequences, including the destruction of entire ecosystems.

Water human rights defenders have not only had to pay the cost for their opposition to water privatization at the hands of the state, but also have been subject to corporate-led brutality. On 4 July 2007, Santiago Pérez Alvarado, a lawyer and human rights defender, was arrested in Mexico. Accused of a kidnapping that allegedly took place nine years ago, Alvarado is being detained at a prison in Temascaltepec, Mexico. Alvarado is well-known in Mexico for his defense of natural resources. During the time of the alleged ”kidnapping,” he had been working with the citizens of San Pedro Tenayac to stop the construction of the Tule Dam. The dam project would have taken water from the Temascaltepec River to a water purification plant in the Cutzalmala water system, and then pumped into Mexico City, where experts estimated that an amount of water equal to that delivered in the capital would have been lost in the process through leakage. This is in addition to the project’s other destructive environmental and human implications. Most recently, Alvarado was working on a campaign against a ski resort development project in the Nevado National Park, Toluca, an important religious site for the indigenous population and a key water catchment area. Alvarado is one of many examples of Mexican government abuse of activists and farmers movements. Despite continuing public efforts to free him, Alvarado remains incarcerated as of this writing.

The year 2007 witnessed concerted attacks by central and local government in Egypt against human rights defenders, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights defenders. Most recently, the Egyptian authorities shut down two human rights organizations, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid (AHRLA) and the Center for Trade Union and Worker’s Service (CTUWS). The authorities informed AHRLA that the pretext for their closure was a breach of Article 17(2) of Law 84 (2002), which prohibits the expenditure of foreign funding without government permission. AHRLA’s work is closely linked with supporting victims of torture and defending housing rights and refugees in Egypt. One of these victims is political detainee Muhammad `Abd ul-Qadir al-Sayyid, whose relatives came to the AHRLA for advice after he died in police custody in 2003. It is generally believed that their advocacy is the real reason for AHRLA’s closure. The decision to shut down the association also will entail the seizure of its assets and further charges against its director.

Roma and Shanta Bhattacharya, of the National Forum for Forest Peoples and Workers (NFFPW), are two human rights activists working for the land rights of women, Dalits, tribals and other marginalized communities in the Sonebhadra region of the State of Uttar Pradesh. Local police arrested them in Robertsganj on 3 August 2007, along with several other women from the community. This was followed by the 5 August 2007 arrest of two Dalit activists working with them (Lalti Devi and Shyamlal Paswan), and activist Mohammed Hanif. The arrests were accompanied with violence against the activists and villagers. Reports indicate that, on 10 August 2007, police also attacked Dalit women in Chanduli village in Sonebhadra.

Charges against the arrested range from inciting encroachment on government land to cutting trees and fomenting violence. On 10 August 2007, authorities brought new charges against Ms. Roma under article 4 of the National Security Act, but these were withdrawn on 17 August 2007.

Due to intense mobilization and agitation by communities in the area and civil society pressure on the state government, authorities finally released the activists on bail, on 31 August 2007. However, they continue to face these false charges and receive threats of violence and intimidation while working in the region.

Currently, three cases are pending against the activists, in which 300 villagers also have been implicated. Only 63 have been named; over 50% of them are women. The three pending cases relate to:

1. Violation of the Indian Penal Code, Sections 34, 120(B), 143, 144, 147, 148, 149, 427, 504, 506;
2. Violation of the Indian Forest Act (1927), Sections 5/26 and 63; and
3. Violation of the Forest Conservation Act (1980), Section 2/4.

On 1 September 2007, the High Court of Uttar Pradesh passed a stay order against the arrest of 40 of the 63 implicated community members.

Ms. Roma along with 19 other community members, mostly women, has two other false cases pending against her since 2001. While the charges filed against them are similar—encroachment of forestland and poaching—one is under the Indian Penal Code and the second under the Indian Forest Act.

The community believes that the arrests were a conscious attempt to demoralize the activists and the members of the local organizations. The region has long witnessed violence from authorities reportedly in collusion with the land mafia. The activists have been working in a hostile and difficult environment, battling corruption, discrimination, violence, political unrest, lawlessness and impunity. Despite the odds against them, the communities, especially the women, have managed to retain their land and continue the struggle for the realization of their land rights and the implementation of the recently passed Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (2006).

* * *

These are only five examples of a long list of state-sponsored assaults on human rights defenders. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has recorded 1,311 cases of repression against human rights defenders in approximately 90 countries in 2006 alone. Within the past year, this list includes: Philippines, Colombia, Thailand, Belarus, Cambodia, India, Jordan and Egypt. And, even while the states of the West actively promote democracy and human rights globally, Germany—not alone—demonstrates that even the “democratic” West is also a focus of concern. Anti-terror laws, unjust policies and treatment toward refugees and migrants, repression of labor movements, the corporatization of national economies and the commodification of basic natural resources all represent ways in which States are degrading human rights, and imperiling those few defenders willing to resist injustice.

In addition, the list below illustrates a sample of human rights defenders, whose work is related to housing and land, attacked or killed in 2006 alone.

(see table in PDF file)

The year 2006 saw the consolidation of this growing trend: using the legislative arsenal to repress freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly in States that consider independent civil society as a threat. This method, which is a formidable tool for blocking the activities of human rights defenders, seems to have become generalized through the enactment of restrictive laws on associations that impede their formal registration as organizations, limit their ability to receive funds, facilitate official interference in internal organizational matters and criminalize their activities.

In addition to the violations against human rights defenders, we raise this Call for Solidarity against a trend of mounting official violence toward the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable, notably in Northern countries. Homelessness is a symptom of much deeper societal and political causes, including poverty and a lack of State responsibility to ensure the social welfare of its citizens. For example, while the housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has deepened since 2001, demands for emergency shelter far exceed supply. In the course of any year, 3.5 million people in the U.S. experience homelessness. Meanwhile, U.S. cities have been responding by applying the criminal justice system to penalize further those people living by necessity in public spaces. Laws against sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces,criminalize homeless peoples mechanisms of survival. European countries and Canada are following the U.S. model of “governing social marginality” with an expanding prison population. Among antihomeless legislation introduced in several Canadian cities and provinces during the 1990s, most controversial is British Columbia’s “Safe Streets Act,” implemented since January 2005. That law aims “to ensure public street safety of citizens from aggressive solicitation,” but serves instead as a handy pretext for punishing the poor.

The criminalization of homelessness extends beyond the violation of basic rights. Specifically, the criminalization of homelessness also means the expansion of, and public investment in, prison construction. For example, the U.S. has the world’s highest prison population rate (over 2.3 million, or 738 per 100,000 population), and now is projecting its prison population to grow another 200,000 by 2011. England has the highest prison rate in Europe, and foresees that to expand through 2013. Never before have democratic societies resorted to incarcerating so many of their fellow citizens and residents. These measures not only include society’s poorest and most vulnerable, but also now target them explicitly for their poverty and, in particular, their homelessness. Meanwhile, the poor, underhoused and homeless figure also as the most vulnerable to acts of crime against their persons and possessions, including those committed by third parties as well as government officials.

In addition, laws aimed at eliminating human diversity increasingly make it illegal for traveling and migrating populations, including the Roma and pastoralists, to maintain their unique ways of life. In these instances, states, and particularly those of the global North, are implementing unilateral and illegal decisions to punish those who are impoverished and/or live a lifestyle other than what the decision makers identify as the norm. Within this insidious cycle of stripping people from their rights and rendering them automatic outlaws, human rights defenders are paying an increasingly heavy price to bring such issues to light. As such, greater efforts are needed to ensure that defenders themselves do not become the victims.

Legal Duty Holders
The duty—and beauty—of statecraft is first for the State to implement its human rights treaty obligations, at a minimum, and to devise locally appropriate means to do so. The pattern of persecution delivered upon the housing and land rights defenders is contrary to any civilized standard.

The primary duty holder, at all times, is the state, which is legally responsible for the respect, protection and fulfillment of the human rights of its citizens and inhabitants. While the state, or its representative may not necessarily be the direct perpetrator of all human rights violations noted here, violations by omission also constitute a breach of treaty on the part of the State. Inaction that constitutes a failure to protect against violations is inadmissible and does not exonerate public officials of their duties to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

Various nonstate actors, including paramilitary and opposition groups, also carry a burden of responsibility as secondary duty holders. However, even in such cases, “States often play an indirect role that is just as significant when they foster a climate of impunity or act as accomplices to these militia and paramilitary groups.”

In December 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). The Declaration contains a set of principles based on norms already enshrined in international human rights law, and delineates the rights of human rights defenders and the specific freedoms and activities necessary to their causes. These include various basic entitlements, including the rights to know and receive information about human rights, to publicize violations and to criticize government actions and raise human rights violations before State mechanisms.

Against this affirmative backdrop it is clear that we need to reinforce and join housing and land rights defenders against the forced evictions, destruction, dispossession and consequent homelessness that characterize current and ominously foreseeable trends. Without our protective efforts, for the impoverished affected persons and their defenders, the city, as well as the countryside, will be neither safe nor just.

Action Requested:
Please write to the international officials, and/or your local politicians and media personnel demanding protection for housing and land rights defenders in your community and country. Additionally, the following Special Rapporteurs hold a special mandate to protect the rights of human rights defenders. Please also include them in any letters of concern sent out.

Adv. Reine Alapini-Gansou
Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)
48 Kairaba Avenue
P. O. Box 673
Banjul, The Gambia
Tel: +220 (0)42 439–2962 / 437–7721
Fax: +220 (0)42 439–0763
E-mail: achpr@achpr.org
Website: http://www.achpr.org/english/_info/index_hrd_en.html

Hina Jilani
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais des Nations
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Fax: +41 (0)22 917–9006
Website: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/defenders/index.htm
c/o Mara Steccazzini msteccazzini@ohchr.org
c/o Guillaume Pfeifflé gpfeiffle@ohchr.org

Ignacio J. Álvarez
Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Organization of American States
1889 F Street NW
Washington DC 20006, U.S.A.
Tel: +01 (0)202 458–3796
Fax: +01 (0)202 458–6215
E-mail: ialvarez@oas.org
Website: http://www.cidh.oas.org/relatoria/index.asp?lID=1

Kindly inform HLRN of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply to: urgentactions@hlrn.org