A year after canceling a $24.3 million World Bank land titling project accused of denying thousands of Cambodians their property rights, the government says it is issuing titles faster than ever.
But human rights groups say the way the government issues those titles, and the standards the program’s erstwhile donors hold it to, remain flawed and that the problems identified in the canceled program will not fix themselves.
“We can’t leave the situation as it is,” said Hang Chhaya, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy and a board member of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee. “Something needs to be done quickly.”
Thousands of the capital’s residents are still waiting on the Bank to decide whether it bears any of the blame for alleged abuses. An independent inspection team is expected to finish its investigation of its canceled titling project next month.
Begun in 2002, the Land Management and Administration Project was designed to help the government secure the land tenure of a million untitled Cambodians.
Though that numerical target was exceeded, residents and rights groups accused the government of breaking the project’s rules by deliberately ignoring whole communities tied up in land disputes.
On behalf of some 4,000 untitled families around Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake facing eviction at the hands of a CPP senator’s development firm, rights groups filed a complaint with the Bank in September last year for allegedly failing to intervene as villagers’ rights were abused.
The government brought the project to a premature end two days later, claiming talks with the Bank on how to run the project had broken down.
A year on, some look back on LMAP as “a terrible mistake.”
“It’s a terrible legacy because it was not able to achieve its goals…. It created so much heartache and trouble for landowners,” Mr Chhaya said.
“The project [design] is good, but the implementation had a lack of supervision, so it negatively affected Cambodian people,” said Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force. “What [NGOs] found is that just the rich and powerful get the land, and the poor they fail.”
New government regulations have done little to reassure them.
Since ending LMAP, the government approved new rules for the resettlement of untitled urban communities settled illegally on state land. But critics, including the UN’s local human rights office, fault the rules for failing to spell out that they can be carried out in line with the country’s Land Law.
The law grants residents who can prove uncontested occupancy for at least five years prior to 2001 the right to request land titles. The Land Management Ministry insists that authorities will stick to the law in applying the new rules. But by leaving the law out of the rules, local authorities may become “confused,” Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN human rights office, said in June.
That month, NGO Forum reported that only a fifth of the 216 land disputes brewing across the country by the end of 2009—many of them involving communities still seeking titles—had reached the government for resolution. And only half of those were ever actually resolved, it said.
Nonn Pheany, the Land Management Ministry’s spokeswoman, said critics were wrong to accuse the government of ignoring the title rights of settlements on contested land.
“I have no idea where they get this from,” she said. “The government’s position is to give land titles to all people who have legal rights.”
She said the pace at which the government was issuing land titles had in fact picked up since LMAP ended. Of the 2 million titles it has issued since the project started in 2002, according to Ms Pheany, nearly half have come during the past year.
As for Boeng Kak lake, Ms Pheany said LMAP had nothing to do with the dispute.
Human rights workers say that Boeng Kak is just the sort of community that needed the project most.
According to Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, some 20,000 Cambodians stand to lose their homes around the lake precisely because the World Bank let the government pass them over.
The Bank’s independent inspection panel agreed to investigate the charge in mid-April. An investigation team paid a brief visit to the country the following month, and lakeside residents who met with the team said the panel planned to finish its report sometime in October. It could be another six months before the Bank reviews the report and makes it public.
The Bank’s offices in Washington and Phnom Penh have both declined to discuss the investigation while it is in progress.
The Bank also declined to say what steps it might take if the inspection panel finds it culpable for LMAP’s failures.
Bridges Across Borders’ David Pred hopes any mea culpa comes with some aid for those the project wronged, as it did in Albania. After admitting it erred in preparing and supervising a home demolition project there in 2007, the Bank provided direct legal assistance to the affected residents and left the door open for additional aid.
But Mr Pred said the a review of LMAP’s legacy should not end with the World Bank, and called on other foreign donors helping to fund the government’s land program to follow suit.
Only two weeks ago, the German Embassy reiterated its support for the government’s land program and pledged another $5.1 million in technical assistance for 2011 through 2012. In an Aug 26 statement, the embassy said support would be “contingent” on improvements in the program’s human rights record, but officials were not available this week to elaborate.
Mr Pred said the government had fallen short of Germany’s goals for land reform already.
“In deciding to continue its engagement in the land sector, it would have been prudent if Germany had at least publicly acknowledged these shortcomings and set out concrete steps for the [government] to remedy them,” he said.
“Without specific human rights benchmarks, and a commitment to actually withdrawing support if certain red lines are crossed, then I’m afraid this risks becoming nothing more than window dressing.”