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Land grabbing in Cambodia

Every day one or two people walk through the door of Khut Nary’s office in the north-west region of Cambodia, looking for legal advice.

72-year-old Kim Heng (far right), with other members of the Koy Veng community. © Scarlet George “Some of them want a divorce,” he says laughing, “so we tell them where they can get help. But mostly their problem is land ownership and they know that is a human rights problem and that is why they come to us.”

Nary and three colleagues are in the Battambang Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In a country where most people grow what they eat and sell their small surplus in order to be able to buy the other necessities of life, the right to work a plot of land is fundamental. However, due to the history of conflict, approximately 90 per cent of the Cambodian population does not hold title deeds to the land they live and work on.

“Collective ownership of land during the Khmer Rouge and communist eras was replaced by the land law of 2001,” explains Nary. “This law is helpful to the poor as it recognizes that most people are owners even though they don’t have official papers to prove it.”

Problems, and human rights violations, arise when the law is not put into practice. An hour from Battambang, land disputes have driven out most of the families of Koy Veng village. The few that remain are frightened and confused by the complex legal net into which they have been drawn. Their story is being repeated in land grabbing disputes around the country, says Nary.

“They came here in the late 90’s and were given land which they cleared and planted with rice and built their houses on,” he explains.

Then, beginning in 2007, a number of former senior military officers declared that the land belonged to them and that the villagers must leave. Bulldozers and tractors were used to destroy rice plants and fill in the community waterhole. Feeling intimidated and frightened, families began to leave, taking up the offer of poorer quality forested land some distance away. Of the 213 families affected, only 50 remain, mostly because they have nowhere else to go. Now the courts are being used to heighten the pressure on them.

Kim Heng, who is 72 years old, is charged along with two others with attempted killing. Theft, fraud and infringement of private property charges have been made against others. In all, 34 villagers are charged with criminal acts linked to the land dispute.

“When the court summonses arrive they get very frightened,” says Nary.

Heng and the two others were summoned to appear before the court for questioning on the attempted killing charge. The case was postponed to give them time to find a lawyer through local non-governmental organizations. Others are already appealing prosecutions on charges of rice theft for which they were fined the equivalent of US$10,000, a sum of money they could not possibly raise.

“The court always takes the side of the powerful people who use the court to divide us,” says Heng, “[and] the military see the people as the enemy.”

A year ago the people of Koy Veng spent ten days walking to the capital, Phnom Penh, to complain to authorities. They were told their complaints would be addressed. But nothing, says the community, has changed.

Asked if they were willing to have their story featured on the OHCHR website, the men who had gathered around the large table to explain their situation agreed enthusiastically.

“Please go ahead and share our suffering on the internet,” said Heng.

The UN Human Rights office in Cambodia provides information to people about their rights under the land law. While staff cannot represent people in court, they do follow-up with judges and prosecutors and their cases are also documented in reports that are submitted to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The head of the office, Christophe Peschoux, says his job is to raise the issues with senior officials and to encourage and enable professionals in the legal system, judges and lawyers, to properly implement the land law.

“We work through dialogue and cooperation” says Peschoux. “Through cooperation we develop a working relationship with government based on trust aimed at supporting Government efforts to look for and implement solutions.”

As well as monitoring the implementation of laws, such as the land law of 2001, the UN Human Rights Office in Cambodia also helps to strengthen the many institutions that are necessary for the protection of human rights including government ministries and the police. Expert staff also help to make new laws conform to international standards. Human rights advocates are supported by the Office and the government is assisted in meeting its reporting requirements under international conventions.

21 July 2009