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Cambodia: Land Titling Campaign Open to Abuse

Without Transparency and Accountability, Scheme Allows Corruption, Land Grabs

(New York) – A land measuring and titling campaign launched and financed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lacks transparency and accountability and could leave thousands dispossessed from their land. On June 11, Hun Sen announced that the campaign would be suspended until after national elections on July 28. Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia’s donors to insist that the program be reformed into a professional and apolitical process, or cancelled.

“It is good news that the land titling campaign has been suspended until after the elections, but this demonstrates just how political the effort has been from the outset,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While some have benefitted from the campaign, in other cases the scheme has amounted to a land grab by powerful interests with no legal protections or recourse for those who lose out in the process. The campaign is being conducted in a secretive and bullying manner in which independent organizations are prevented from monitoring what is happening and local residents are threatened if they complain.”

Hun Sen has claimed that the measuring and titling campaign was aimed to benefit people living without proper legal authorization and documentation on state land designated for private use and granted to companies as economic or forestry concessions.According to Hun Sen, his titling program would provide ownership documents to 478,928 families in relation to 1.8 million hectares of land.

However, in practice the titling program is subject to domination by wealthy and powerful interests who have diverted it to increase their land-holdings and leverage over affected populations, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, the scheme has been set up by Hun Sen so that those victimized by the program often have no effective recourse and may suffer adverse consequences if they attempt to protest.

Campaign employs “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth”
Human Rights Watch carried out research over a two-month period into the efficacy of the land measuring campaign by the “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth,” which takes its name from an honorary title Hun Sen has taken. The research focused on Koh Kong and Kampong Speu, two provinces with some of Cambodia’s most severe land-grabbing by powerful political and economic forces.

The campaign has been in operation since June 28, 2012. In some places where measurement and titling have taken place, such as certain parts of Sre Ambel district of Koh Kong province and Thporng district of Kampong Speu province, residents report that the Samdech Techo Youth units who worked in their villages were polite, solicitous of their views, and stood with them and against powerful local interests to ensure they were eligible for ownership titles of land that they had long occupied.

However, in other locations, the situation was very different. For example, in Phnom Sruoch district of Kampong Speu province (the name of the village is withheld to protect the villagers from retaliation), villagers thrown off land that they or their parents and grandparents had continuously farmed since the 1940s alleged that their attempts to prove this to the Samdech Techo Youth unit operating in their area was rudely rebuffed with threats by the unit leader. One villager told Human Rights Watch, “We spoke with the student chief, who said if we made trouble, he would summon the competent authorities to ‘throw you in irons and send you to prison.’ We said we just wanted a solution, and he said we couldn’t have a solution for land that was in dispute.”

Members of this community provided credible accounts, backed by documents and reports of local Cambodian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), that the land in question had been illegally taken from them by Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) power-holders at the commune and village level and by an officer of the Cambodian army’s national armor unit. Human Rights Watch observed that the Samdech Techo Youth unit in question was bivouacked on the grounds of the commune office.

In an indigenous minority community in Thporng district of Kampong Speu, one distraught villager told Human Rights Watch that community members were urged to accept Samdech Techo Youth measuring for individual ownership titles. They agreed, only to realize after the fact that they had thereby given up claims on other land that they considered community territory. “The students said we had to accept what they were ordered to do by the provincial cadastral officials who are acting on written orders from the ministries in Phnom Penh,” the villager said. “If not, there could be trouble, and we would get nothing.”

In Koh Kong province, members of a community in Mondulseima district who had a longstanding claim to land originally allocated to them by national Cambodian military authorities told Human Rights Watch that although the Samdech Techo Youth unit had properly measured the land, the same unit had also measured off adjacent plots of land which, to their knowledge, no one previously had made a claim on. This community and many local residents believed this was part of a process in which CPP-related political and financial interests were taking advantage of the titling campaign to grab even more land than the vast tracks already in their possession. “This land is being measured so that it can be titled to the authorities, the rich, or their proxies,” said a community leader. The Samdech Techo Youth unit implicated in these alleged irregularities was being hosted by the Mondulseima district authorities and a Koh Kong provincial military subregion unit.

Corruption risks in extralegal process
In another case, a farmer from Koh Kong district of Koh Kong province told Human Rights Watch that he went to the local CPP authorities to obtain the paperwork necessary in order to have his land measured by the Samdech Techo Youth, but was refused because he was deemed to be a supporter of the political opposition and because he refused to pay a bribe. He said he was threatened with detention if he made trouble and that he had no recourse to higher CPP authorities because they were related to those directly governing in his area. “If you are a CPP person or pay money, then the local authorities make sure your land gets measured quickly and properly,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise, you will have problems.”

Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the risk of corruption in a non-transparent and extralegal process. One dissident CPP Koh Kong official spoke on the basis of anonymity to Human Rights Watch about what he called “measuring for money.” He explained this meant that those with money were going to the land office and other authorities guiding the Samdech Techo Youth and paying to ensure measurement of land to which they were scheming to obtain titles. He asserted that he had tried to criticize this corruption within the CPP, but had been ignored.

“It’s not only opposition people who got ignored or pressured to change sides, but the really poor whom the authorities are pressuring to give them money,” the dissident CPP member said. “Those that do can then get money or gifts back from the students in ceremonies that get shown on TV, and now the local authorities have set this up into a system.”

Cambodia’s economy has relied on the granting of enormous economic land concessions to foreign and domestic companies. Many of the companies and individuals are high-ranking CPP officials, members of the country’s armed forces and police, and financiers of the party’s current campaign for national parliamentary elections. In many cases Cambodian companies and individuals act in partnership with foreign entities, including from China and Vietnam.

An estimated 700,000 Cambodians have been adversely impacted by these and other such concessions, including numerous communities originally residing in the concession areas or along their periphery who have been forcibly evicted, sometimes violently, from land they had long legally occupied and relied upon for a subsistence livelihood.

One of the most notorious cases involves the Boeng Kak area of Phnom Penh. The capital’s authorities, supported by military and police, have driven residents off Boeng Kak land to which they had a legitimate ownership claim and without just compensation to clear the way for a business venture by a Chinese firm and a Cambodian company owned by a close associate of Hun Sen. In 2011 the World Bank, which had been supporting land titling in Cambodia, suspended funding for new projects in Cambodia because of the government’s failure to comply with the Bank’s safeguard policies in Boeng Kak which, amongst other things, require proper consultation and compensation for households that are resettled. The government excluded Boeng Kak residents from the titling program and a resettlement policy framework which had been designed to comply with the Bank’s safeguard policies.

One week after the Bank’s suspension of new lending became public, the government issued a decree granting title to 800 families over 12.44 hectares of residential land in the Boeng Kak area. But over 90 families were excluded from this decree and it does nothing for the 3,500 other families who have accepted inadequate compensation under extreme pressure. Despite recent government promises that it would finally provide Boeng Kak residents with a just solution, it has instead reacted with security force violence against protesters demanding that it fulfill this undertaking.
“For a large number of Cambodians, their only source of subsistence is the land they live on and farm,” Adams said. “So how this process is carried out can literally be a matter of life or death.”

Human Rights Watch called on donor countries, the World Bank, and the United Nations to insist that the Samdech Techo land titling process be thoroughly revised to ensure adequate public consultation, a transparent process open to independent monitoring and evaluation, adequate compensation for those who are denied title in favor of concession holders or others, and an independent complaint process. Otherwise, it should not be resumed after elections.  The World Bank should also not lift its suspension on new lending to Cambodia until all Boeng Kak residents receive the land titles or compensation to which they are entitled.

“Sadly, while the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights has sounded the alarm, donors appear to be shrinking from demanding basic transparency and accountability for a program that has such major impact,” Adams said. “Instead of blithely accepting a fundamentally flawed process, or even appearing to endorse it, donors should demand that it be scrapped or be monitored and carried out in full accord with international standards and best practices.”

Background on the Land Crisis and the Samdech Techo Youth Campaign
While Hun Sen maintained in a speech on April 26, 2013, that 1.5 million hectares have been granted as economic land concessions (ELCs),one NGO assessment suggests this figure conceals an additional 1.1 million hectares of other de jure and de facto land grants to companies and individuals as part of a process that has often been veiled with much secrecy.

Rising popular protest and resistance to such land-grabbing led to arrests during 2012 of more than 200 land activists and related human rights defenders. International donors threatened to withhold increased funding for a longstanding national titling program unless it was extended to fairly include areas of land conflicts. On May 7, 2012, Hun Sen issued a four-point military-style “Order 01BB” (officially mistranslated as a “directive”).
The order contained four points:

  • Temporarily suspending the awarding of ELCs;
  • Calling for a focus on the implementation of the “leopard skin” policy aimed at avoiding adverse effects on social land and popular living standards;
  • Calling for revocation of ELCs operated by companies that were failing to develop them or grabbing land from the people or communities; and
  • Providing an exemption from the ELC moratorium for concessions already granted in principle, even if all the necessary legal processes to finalize them had not yet been carried out.

This latter loophole allowed the granting of perhaps 15 hitherto unknown concessions claimed to fit the criteria, although a lack of transparency makes it hard to know how many were granted.

The “leopard-skin” metaphor in the May 7 text was a military one, referring to a counter-insurgency strategy according to which a large number of small areas were to be seized from insurgent opponents and then expanded until these adversaries were defeated. As in a military campaign, everyone was taken by surprise.

On June 14, 2012, Hun Sen instructed that at least 10 percent of every land concession should be carved out to provide legal possession to people in the area.

Hun Sen engaged in no community consultations before issuing his order.

Background on the “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth”
Hun Sen explained that the plan was to recruit youth volunteers to demarcate land, working alongside government cadastral officials. Using the quasi-royal title Hun Sen has adopted for himself, these youths have been styled the “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth.” They have been recruited from pro-CPP circles at universities and among the pro-CPP “Pagoda Boys,” an organization celebrating the origin of Hun Sen’s political career as a youngster in a Buddhist monastery and with a history of vigilante-style activities against opposition parties and independent civil society activism.

From the beginning, Hun Sen made it clear that the program was intended to neutralize efforts by independent NGOs and the political opposition to offer solutions to land disputes. He told rural people to wait quietly for his program to benefit them. He specified that if they acted in such a manner as to create a situation of dispute, they would not get titles, so they should aim urgently to achieve local accommodations with concessionaires and government authorities in order to allow measuring and tilting to go forward.

Bypassing normal government channels, the Samdech Techo Youth measuring campaign is not a government project, but rather an operation which is financed by “Uncle” Hun Sen personally and the CPP, with supplementary funding from private domestic and international firms associated with the party. It is coordinated by his son, army Col. Hun Manit, who for this purpose was named Deputy Secretary-General of the National Authority for Resolution of Land Disputes, concurrently with his other positions as deputy chief of Hun Sen’s cabinet, deputy chief of national Defense Ministry Intelligence, and a CPP leader in charge of party “grassroots strengthening” for election purposes in certain parts of Cambodia.

The Samdech Techo Youth conduct their work dressed in military uniforms sometimes bearing government armed forces insignia and are transported in government military vehicles. According to public government reports, the Samdech Techo Youth are hosted almost everywhere they work and provisioned by local CPP governing and military authorities and CPP business interests.

Their work receives massive and constant laudatory coverage in reporting by CPP-controlled broadcast, digital and print media, which overwhelming dominate the public sphere in Cambodia. Their positively spun stories appear intended to win votes for the CPP in the national elections of July 28, 2013.

According to official statistics, by late April 2013 the Samdech Techo Youth had measured one million hectares of land to the potential benefit of 350,000 families.By early May 229,000 land ownership titles had reportedly been distributed at ceremonies. On these occasions, cash and other gifts were also handed out, while CPP officials urged recipients to vote for the party in the national elections.

A Partisan initiative with no outside monitoring or evaluation
Officials in the localities visited by Human Rights Watch privately say the party and local businesses often direct or otherwise control the targets and schedules of the Samdech Techo Youth.

At the same time, Hun Sen has insisted on the exclusion of anyone other than his Samdech Techo Youth, authorized Cambodian officials, and organizations deemed to have a genuine willingness to cooperate with his policies from involvement in the land titling program. He further specified that no measurement or titles would be provided in cases of land with regard to which non-CPP political parties or what he characterized as opposition NGOs made interventions. Those cases, he declared, would be frozen out from his solution mechanism.

In practice, independent organizations and media have been given no opportunity to monitor the process.

Cambodian NGO investigators in the provinces report to Human Rights Watch that they continue to be systematically blocked from monitoring the land titling campaign. Villagers in these areas have told Human Rights Watch that they fear CPP retaliation if they are identified as talking to “outsiders.”

Abuses in the Land Titling Campaign
Journalists have managed to publish a few critical stories about the land titling campaign. For example, according to an early April 2013 media report from Rolea P’ier district of Kampong Chhnang province, Samdech Techo Youth, apparently acting under the direction of local government authorities, measured land in favor of a powerful businessman – effectively overturning a court ruling saying the measured plots belonged to villagers in the district. Challenged about the matter, a Samdech Techo Youth leader said the final decision about how to proceed would be up to a superior level of authority. Another early April story reported that in Veal Veng district of Posat province, local authorities overruled the results of Samdech Techo Youth measurements, saying titles could not be issued because the land measured was state land. An early May 2013 newspaper article about this same district reported that the Youth had measured land for a major company with a huge concession, families of police officers and other well-connected households, but not for poor local residents.

In certain places, NGOs have also been able to pierce the secrecy protecting the campaign. They have now clearly established that in the particular situation of indigenous minorities in upland northeastern province of Rattanakiri, the campaign has involved pressure by local authorities to accept Samdech Techo Youth measuring for private titles instead of insisting on obtaining communal titles designed to protect these communities’ economic and cultural rights. The result has been that many minority villagers have lost out on possibilities for obtaining larger holdings, the land lost instead becoming available to be grabbed by agro-industrial firms.

However, instead of engaging in a serious dialogue about these matters, the government has dismissed such fact-finding out of hand, denouncing it as politically-motivated and intended to enflame public opinion against it. Both NGO watchdogs and independent journalists continue to be deterred or otherwise prevented from engaging in monitoring giving the titling campaign the huge and comprehensive attention it is due.

Scrap or Reform the Land Titling Campaign
The land measuring and titling campaign needs to be reformed in line with international best practices. If the government will not do this, it should be discontinued.

The reforms should require:

  • Adequate public consultation;
  • A transparent process open to independent monitoring and evaluation;
  • Adequate compensation for those who are denied title in favor of concession holders or others; and
  • An independent complaint process.

To implement “the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger,” the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2012 issued a set of “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security”. The guidelines specify that the relevant political authorities should engage and seek, “[T]he support of those who, having legitimate tenure rights, could be affected by decisions, prior to decisions being taken, and responding to their contributions; taking into consideration existing power imbalances between different parties and ensuring active, free, effective, meaningful and informed participation of individuals and groups in associated decision-making processes.”The authorities should act “to enhance the transparency” and thus improve the functioning of such processes, including by promoting the involvement in them of “organizations of farmers and small-scale producers, of fishers, and of forest users; pastoralists; indigenous peoples and other communities; civil society, private sector, academia; and all persons concerned with tenure governance as well as to promote the cooperation between the actors mentioned.”

The guidelines add that, “In so doing, States should respect and protect the civil and political rights of defenders of human rights, including the human rights of peasants, indigenous peoples, fishers, pastoralists and rural workers, and should observe their human rights obligations when dealing with individuals and associations acting in defence of land, fisheries and forests.” They should also encourage “mechanisms for monitoring and analysis of tenure governance in order to develop evidence-based programmes and secure on-going improvements” in land tenure programs. This is necessary in order “to prevent corruption through transparent processes and decision-making,” that beneficiaries are “selected through open processes” in which there is no political or other discrimination, and in order to promote social equality. The guidelines recommend that to achieve all this, the authorities should “set up multi-stakeholder platforms and frameworks at local, national and regional levels” to monitor and evaluate the implementation of land tenure policies and programs,” including with technical support from international bodies.

More generally, the guidelines declare that “States should recognize that policies and laws on tenure rights operate in the broader political, legal, social, cultural, religious, economic and environmental context,” and that when major changes are made with regard to tenure rights, they “should seek to develop national consensus.”

A UN Human Rights Council resolution, adopted on September 27, 2012, similarly recognized “the importance of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, as well as the importance of civil society, to good governance, including through transparency and accountability, which is indispensable for building peaceful, prosperous and democratic societies.” It stressed the contribution that civil society should be able to make in this regard “to addressing and resolving challenges and issues that are important to society.”

The UN’s independent Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion has highlighted the particular importance of these rights for the functioning of democratic institutions, including via freedom to report on matters related to corruption, environmental issues, public protests, and human rights violations.

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