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Land and Human Rights

Land is not a mere commodity, but an essential element for the realization of many human rights

Land is a cross-cutting issue that impacts directly on the enjoyment of a number of human rights. For many people, land is a source of livelihood, and is central to economic rights. Land is also often linked to peoples’ identities, and so is tied to social and cultural rights.  
Disputes over land are frequently the cause of violent conflict and place obstacles to restoring sustainable peace. In short, the human rights aspects of land affect a range of issues including poverty reduction and development, peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, disaster prevention and recovery, urban and rural planning, to name but a few. Emerging global issues, such as food insecurity, climate change and rapid urbanization, have also refocused attention on how land is being used, controlled and managed by States and private actors.

An increasing number of people are forcibly evicted or displaced from their land to make way for large-scale development or business projects, such as dams, mines, oil and gas installations or ports. In many countries the shift to large-scale farming has also led to forced evictions, displacements and local food insecurity, which in turn has contributed to an increase in rural to urban migration and consequently further pressure on access to urban land and housing. A considerable portion of this displacement is carried out in a manner that violates the human rights of the affected communities, thus further aggravating their already precarious situation.

Urban development projects have led to socioeconomic polarization in cities owing to escalating costs of land and housing and depletion of low-income housing. Measures taken to protect the environment are also at times in conflict with the interests and human rights of populations that depend on land for subsistence and survival.

Failure to effectively prevent and mitigate environmental degradation and the negative impact of climate change could drastically reduce access to land, especially for marginalized groups.

Land remains a crucial element in conflict and post-conflict contexts. When conflict ends, the restitution of housing, land and property rights for returning refugees and internally displaced persons constitutes a fundamental part of peacebuilding.

The international framework

Land and human rights publications and reports

Cover : Land and Human Rights: Standards and ApplicationsLand and Human Rights, Standards and Application
This basic legal reference publication provides a concise and user-friendly guide on key international legal standards, including international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law. It is based on research into the relevant international and regional legal instruments, and the interpretation and application of these standards by the United Nations human rights mechanisms, as well as the jurisprudence of international and regional human rights bodies. Available in: English

Cover : Land and Human Rights: Annotated Compilation of CaseLand and Human Rights: Annotated Compilation of Case Law
This compilation aims to provide clarification on the normative linkages between human rights and land through the lens of jurisprudence. It contains an annotated collection of case law relevant to the various aspects of land and human rights, including indigenous or tribal peoples’ rights, non-discrimination and equality, and relating to, explicit human rights standards. Available in: English

Cover of the Report E/2014/86Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on land and human rights(E/2014/86)
In 2014, the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report to the ECOSOC on land and human rights and in particular on land management, States’ obligations and other actors’ responsibilities. Available in: English | French | Spanish | Chinese | Russian | Arabic

Women and land

Women face a wide range of issues when it comes to access, use and control over land and its productive resources. In many countries, the lack of secure tenure, control and ownership of land, and discrimination in inheritance, are a few causes that negatively impacts women's livelihoods, food security, economic independence and physical security.

Realizing Women's Rights to land in PDFRealizing Women’s Rights to Land and Other Productive Resources
This UN-Women and OHCHR publication provides guidance for lawmakers and policymakers, as well as civil society organizations and other stakeholders, to support the adoption and effective implementation of laws, policies and programmes to respect, protect and fulfill women’s rights to land and other productive resources. Available in: English

For more on this topic, see our page on Women and land, property and housing

Forced eviction and displacement from land

Forced evictions constitute gross violations of a range of internationally recognized human rights, including the human rights to adequate housing, food, water, health, education, work, security of the person, freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and freedom of movement. Forced evictions are often linked to the absence of legally secure land tenure.  For more on this topic, please see our page on Forced Evictions.

Land and conflict

Land is a central element in conflict and post-conflict situations. Deliberate destruction and unlawful acquisition of land, land-related resources as well as land records are often results and drivers of today’s armed conflicts. In the post-conflict phase, the restitution of housing, land and property for returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a fundamental part of reconstruction and peace-building.
For more on this topic, please see the OHCHR report: “Early warning of violence and conflict: land and human rights in South East Asia.

Land and governance

Governance of land is central to the protection and promotion of human rights. In 2012, the Committee on World Food Security endorsed the “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security(external link). This intergovernmental negotiated text provides guidance to improve the governance of tenure of land with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.

For more on this topic, including voluntary guidelines and related material on gender, indigenous people, please see FAO’s information resources page.

Forced evictions


Indigenous communities in Cambodia claim land rights