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Introduction of the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Document E/2014/86) By Mr. Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, New York, 17 November 2014 

Economic and Social Council

Coordination and Management Meeting
New York, 17-18 November 2014

  Agenda item 17(g):  Human rights

Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Given the growing importance of land issues, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is developing its work around land and human rights. This report is the first in a series of documents that OHCHR will provide to the international community to contribute to development and humanitarian work related to land from a human rights perspective.

Today, land issues, including land management and security of tenure, have become areas of growing concern in both the developing and developed countries. The global rush for land and natural resources has impacted the fundamental rights of individuals and communities.  Concerns about food security, climate change, unsustainable use of natural resources, and rapid urbanization have brought renewed attention to how land is being used, controlled and managed.

We are currently witnessing a huge shift in the global access to land and other natural resources. Population growth, desertification, the loss of arable lands due to degradation, and production of “cash crops” or biofuels, have led to intensifying competition for agricultural land. This in turn has aggravated insecurity amongst people who depend on land for their survival and livelihoods, and produced  situations of landlessness in several cases. 

Although reliable and comprehensive data is difficult to obtain, the last two decades have seen large-scale acquisitions of agricultural land by national and foreign investors. Millions of hectares of land have been sold or leased to private enterprises or handed over through agreements between national governments. These acquisitions have predominantly affected developing countries, though not confined to any one region. Innumerable people and communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been affected.

The report I am presenting today considers land management and land tenure through the lens of the human rights normative framework. It describes the human rights standards and obligations that all Member States have to comply with and highlights the responsibilities of businesses and private enterprises.

Distinguished delegates,

In a world of regional and protracted conflicts, it is inescapable that we analyze the key causes of these conflicts. Almost invariably, the underlying reasons behind conflicts are embedded in violations of economic, social and cultural rights. Land related issues are often at the core.  

Armed conflicts often cause displacement of people and the destruction of land and land-related resources and facilities, such as water sources, housing, livestock and crops.

Environmental pressures can lead to conflict between those who depend on land for subsistence and others who may want to use natural resources for various purposes, including for profit. The failure to prevent and mitigate environmental degradation further limits access to land, especially for people living in arid and semi-arid areas or regions prone to flooding or erosion caused by rising sea levels.

It is for these reasons that the present report also highlights applicable international humanitarian law and other international sources of law.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

Each year, millions of people worldwide are affected by development-related land displacement and evictions such as the construction of hydroelectric dams, roads, mines and oil and gas installations or luxury resorts for tourism. In urban areas, evictions, expropriation and displacement from land have continued in relation to city “beautification”, urban renewal or major sports events. While many of these land-related projects are intended to benefit people, the lack of genuine consultation with affected communities and the manner in which they are carried out has led to discontent, hardships and protests.

The mismanagement of urban planning is often responsible for the price rise of land, the socioeconomic polarization and urban gentrification processes.  People are pushed to the outskirts of cities in informal settlements and slums, and in precarious housing and living conditions.

Social structures that foster gender discrimination and deeply entrenched power differentials hinder women’s access to, control over and use of land and other productive resources. In turn, the lack of access and control over land has consequences for their right to equality and to an adequate standard of living.

In many of the situations that I described, individuals, communities, lawyers and human rights defenders fighting against displacement, evictions or corrupt practices are often targeted and even criminalized.  

Distinguished delegates,

The promotion and protection of the human rights in the context of land laws and policies constitute a fundamental basis for solutions to global challenges. A human rights-based approach to land management and land tenure is essential to the prevention and resolution of conflicts arising from discrimination in access to food and livelihood, climate change and other related challenges of the 21st Century.

I hope that this report will contribute to broader discussions, including at the UN level, on the need to integrate human rights in the analyses, decisions and processes related to land.

Thank you for your attention.