In Search of Justice and a Home

Chan Vichet remembers vividly the night when the bulldozers came, and the shock on his two young children’s faces when they were left helpless in the street to watch their homes being destroyed.

Dey Krohorm community leader Chan Vichet (second left) chairs a press conference days before the January eviction, calling for a negotiated settlement - © Bridges Across Borders South East “We tried to protect our homes. ‘No violence, not to destroy houses’, we shouted,” Vichet, 32, tells the story of his community’s four-year-long plight against eviction and their ongoing battle for fair compensation.

Like many of his neighbours, Vichet had been living in Dey Krohorm in the centre of Phnom Penh since the early 1990s. Yet their property rights under the 2001 Land Law of Cambodia were never determined. Nevertheless, the government selected the Dey Krohorm site for an on-site upgrading project, which would improve people’s tenure security. It thus came as a surprise when in 2005, an agreement was drawn up with a private developer to relocate the community to a remote site 20 kilometers away from Phnom Penh.

“We didn’t know anything about it.” The community protested peacefully against the agreement but to no avail. Instead, “the most active community representatives were charged; they used the courts as a tool to frighten us,” says Vichet, who still faces a long list of criminal charges such as incitement, defamation and destruction of property.

Bulldozers and military police with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons came in the middle of the night in January this year. “Those families refused to leave were handcuffed and pulled out of their houses,” Vichet says. His children, 5 and 8, had to stop school and he only managed to bring them back to school last month.

Vichet and his community are not alone in search of justice, fair compensation and a home in Cambodia, where land conflicts and forced evictions are affecting many. It is estimated that over 150,000 people have been evicted in recent years and as many are estimated to be facing eviction across the country.

“There are hundreds of communities across the country whose land is being grabbed with impunity”, says David Pred, Cambodia Country Director of Bridges Cross Borders Southeast Asia, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that worked closely with the Dey Krohorm community.

“This epidemic of land theft in the absence of the rule of law flies in the face of poverty reduction efforts promoted by the government and development partners.”

Laure-Anne Courdesse, who is in charge of the Land and Livelihoods Programme of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (OHCHR-Cambodia), points out that “forced evictions have led to a lot of human suffering, in full violation of both national law and international law.”

“We’re trying to protect people, to advocate for a legal process, peaceful negotiation and fair compensation, and to prevent eviction by force.” She says that the Office also keeps relevant UN human rights mechanisms involved.

Both the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing have called on the government of Cambodia to suspend all evictions until an adequate normative framework is in place. OHCHR-Cambodia, the UN Country Team, international development partners and NGOs also support that call.

OHCHR-Cambodia is working closely with all partners to assist the government develop a better legal framework and ways to improve current practices of evictions.

“We see this protection work as an integral part of technical cooperation. We provide relevant government institutions with advice on how law is implemented and what’s happening on the ground, which those at the senior level are often not aware of,” says Christophe Peschoux, head of OHCHR-Cambodia.

“In doing so, we help Cambodia strengthen its institutions and the rule of law. We not only point out issues, but we look for solutions together, and help in their implementation. Rather than being part of the problem, we seek to be part of the solution. This is what I call critical but constructive engagement,” he says.

17 November 2009