HLRN Land Forum “The Human Rights Dimensions of Land in the Middle East / North Africa: Dispossession, Displacement and Development Alternatives”

The HIC-Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN) organized and hosted a civic forum on the human rights dimensions of land in the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region, held in Cairo, Egypt,  10–12 May 2009. The first conference of its kind in the region, the forum brought together experts from diverse approaches in an exploratory dialogue concerned with upholding land rights, ranging from popular and legal challenges to the privatization of public and environmental goods and services, affecting land and—especially—water, exploring regionally specific tools for land and water management as public goods, also involving Islamic law and moral principles.

The forum sought to support processes of emerging claims to a human right to land by identifying and developing methodologies and tools for monitoring, documenting and resolving the problems of land management by applying the criteria of human rights and corresponding state obligations.  

A series of analytical country papers from Sudan, Morocco, Western Sahara, Tunisia, Palestine, Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt prepared by the forum’s expert contributors described the theoretical and material facts related to land rights and the current campaigns and initiatives at multilateral, national and civil society levels. These were shared with regional and international participants in advance and guided a general discussion, feedback and questions during the forum. Working groups divided around shared themes between country-specific cases, to culminate and further define recommendations stemming from the country papers.

The first working group discussed women’s rights to land and inheritance, which participants agreed were indivisible issues. The main obstacles to realizing these rights stem from women’s experiences with multiple forms of discrimination and social exclusion, in some cases due to an inadequate legal framework and in others due to cultural trends, traditions, and customary practices. Recommendations responded to these issues by identifying a need to strengthen research, documentation and advocacy for legal reforms in those countries where there are inadequate or contradictory laws on women’s rights to land and inheritance. In this regard, there is a need to improve the evidence base by documenting women’s experiences and collecting baseline information. Advocacy and campaigns should not only be carried out at the national level, but also through the UN bodies that have a mandate for monitoring women’s rights.

The second working group focused on land in conflict situations, a major theme specific to the MENA region which is plagued with land conflicts that originate in struggles over natural resources, colonial legacies, civil war, demographic manipulation, institutionalized discrimination, ethnic and tribal disputes, and intense competition between nomadic and settled populations over land and resources. Recommendations called for legal reforms and the prohibition of practices that deny restitution and secure tenure to all people, especially women, subject to dispossession, property destruction and displacement. For the full restitution of land for all displaced persons, civil society’s enhanced capacity, methodological development and production is required in field research, documentation, quantification of damages and losses, analysis, identification of violations as crimes, cooperation with the media, networking, and campaigns. Recognizing these needs, for its part, HIC-HLRN is refining the Loss Matrix methodology for quantifying costs and losses arising from housing and land rights violations generally, in order to harmonize with the Special Rapporteur’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement. Moreover, it is committed to completing a manual for addressing such housing and land rights violations that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity with a view to both prosecution and reparations, incorporating the quantification methods.

Finally, the third working group on agrarian reform and privatization identified the need for more civic engagement in initiatives against hunger, document experiences of landless peasant social movements, establish a specialized database for land that includes civil society information, opinions and studies, and give voice to excluded social groups to demand their human rights. The working group affirmed ongoing efforts of HIC-HLRN and Members to develop new FAO “Voluntary Guidelines on responsible governance of tenure of land and other natural resources,” special initiatives against hunger such as the Right to Food and Nutrition WATCH Consortium, which FIAN is coordinating, and an eventual guide based on agrarian-reform experiences in select countries.

At the forum’s closing session, male and female participants volunteered to form a Steering Committee to follow-up communications, review the Forum’s output and consult on future activities in order to achieve the agreed objectives leading up to the next Land Forum in 2010. In the meantime, HIC-HLRN has launched a “Landpedia” to stimulate debate and information exchange on the human rights dimensions of land with a focus on the MENA region.

The MENA Land Forum 2009 report is available at:

http://www.hic-mena.org/documents/Land%20Forum%20in%20MENA%20Report%20-%20Final%20EN.pdf (English)

http://www.hic-mena.org/documents/WUF%20Short%20Report%20Ar.pdf (Arabic)