Housing rights group Bridges Across Borders and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have expressed concerns over the government’s recently approved rules to address so-called illegal urban settlements, saying the measures could strip urban poor families of their land rights.
The government “circular,” approved by the Council of Ministers and signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month, sets out the rules that local authorities must now employ in deciding whether to relocate urban settlements deemed illegal by authorities or to let them stay.
“There is a serious concern that households with lawful possession rights will be caught in the net of the circular and stripped of their right to claim ownership,” David Pred, executive director of housing rights group Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, said of the new rules.
Under the new rules, the process begins with local authorities working with community representatives and non-government groups to locate and count the number of “temporary settlements” in each area, take a census of each household in those settlements, and decide whether the settlements are located on state public land, state private land, or individual land.
For settlements deemed illegal by the authorities, they will then have to chose one of three options: on-site upgrades of their homes; relocation from sites deemed unfit for upgrades; or, according to the circular in English, a “resolution as any other policy for the actual conditions.” The actual definition of that last option could not be ascertained from officials yesterday.
The rules also require that new and existing relocation sites alike be fashioned with basic services such as water and health care services “in advance.”
Housing rights groups that signed off last year on a list of complaints they had with a previous draft of the rules for dealing with so-called illegal settlements, including the Community Legal Education Center and the Housing Rights Task Force, were hesitant to comment on the circular because they were still reviewing the version the Council of Ministers passed on May 28.
Mr Pred, of Bridges across Borders, said the government could overcome the shortfalls in the new rules if it applied the rules in line with Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law. One of the main fears among housing rights groups, however, has been that the circular on the new rules makes no mention of the Land Law.
Mr Pred said he feared the rules could now create a “parallel framework” for dealing with urban settlements the government considers illegal, one that ignores the Land Law’s provisions for assessing land rights on a household-by-household basis.
“Households subject to the circular are thus denied any opportunity to object to the classification of the land they occupy as state land and access dispute resolution mechanisms,” he said.
After months of deliberation with Cambodia’s foreign aid donors and NGOs, the Council of Ministers approved the rules May 28. Mr Hun Sen signed off three days later, putting the rules into immediate effect.
In December, the country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christophe Peschoux, also questioned whether the circular would take account of the possession rights-recognized under the land law-that residents gain after occupying a site for enough years.
Mr Peschoux wrote by e-mail yesterday that those concerns still remain.
“We welcome the intention behind the circular to improve the situation of illegal settlements and provide some minimum standards for relocation. Yet we remain concerned about the fate of those urban poor who have possession rights under the Land Law,” he said.
“The preamble of the circular clearly states that the circular is intended to apply only to illegal settlers,” Mr Peschoux said.
“However, explicit references to the Land Law and relevant sub-decrees (such as the sub-decree on state land management), which would have made it clear that those households with possession rights will not be affected by relocations due to the circular’s implementation, are lacking. This omission might create confusion in the implementation of the circular.”
Mr Peschoux said he hoped the government would guide authorities toward using the circular in line with existing laws to protect families with legal claims from arbitrary eviction.
Nonn Theany, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management, said yesterday that the circular would be implanted according to the Land Law.
“This circular focuses only on illegal temporary construction on state land,” she said. “[NGOs] should not be worried about it. We have to find a new location for [people] before eviction if the land will be used for development or construction.”
Ms Theany also assured that the government would assess land clams one household at a time, as the land law requires.
“The government does not kill its people as the NGOs have worried,” she said. “We do not move the people out without compensation or ship them from the city to drop them on the outskirts.”
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)