The U.N.’s expert on housing rights has cited the World Bank’s failure to help thousands of families evicted from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood as a prime example of why the bank needs to make human rights a focus of its land sector programs worldwide.
At the heart of the criticism is an internal investigation of the World Bank’s $24.3 million land titling project in Cambodia, which concluded in 2010. According to the investigation, the World Bank-funded project had failed the people of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak, where more than 3,000 families were evicted illegally by the government after they were denied land titles that should have been provided to them under the bank project.
Following the investigation of the Boeng Kak evictions by the World Bank’s own inspection panel, the bank said it would suspend all new loans to the government until the Boeng Kak families and the authorities reached “an agreement” in terms of appropriate compensation.
In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, Raquel Rolnik, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on adequate housing, made several recommendations to the World Bank and cited its land titling debacle in Cambodia as why it ought to put human rights front and center in any land sector program.
“The special rapporteur considers this case [Boeng Kak] a clear illustration of the urgent need for the bank to adopt a human rights approach to its land sector development operations,” Ms. Rolnik said.
Noting the experience at Boeng Kak, Ms. Rolnik said: “Land sector programs that seek to formalize land rights can have unintended adverse consequences on some groups by weakening their pre-existing tenure status and thereby increasing their vulnerability to forced evictions.”
The World Bank’s own institutional safeguards are supposed to prevent those affected by its projects from ending up any worse off than they started. But the World Bank’s Boeng Kak investigation concluded that its land-titling project in Cambodia had fallen short.
“Design flaws in the project led to the arbitrary exclusion of lands from the titling process and…this denied residents, especially the poor and vulnerable, the opportunity to claim and formalize their pre-existing rights through the adjudication process under [the project],” the inspection panel found.
Asked about Ms. Rolnik’s report and what it had to say about the bank’s responsibility toward the Boeng Kak evictees, the World Bank’s communications officer Bou Saroeun said his organization “remains deeply concerned about conflicts over land issues in Cambodia.”
“Such conflicts need to be resolved fairly and peacefully, which is critical to Cambodia’s sustained economic and social development. We hope to continue working with government and development partners in this area and look forward to hearing how we can move forward.”
It remains unclear whether the World Bank is preparing, as reported, to lift the freeze on new loans to the government that was imposed in the wake of the Boeng Kak investigation.
More than 700 Boeng Kak families who were evicted and relocated outside Phnom Penh are now asking the government to supplement the compensation they received for their removal—compensation they say was accepted only under duress. About 80 of their representatives rallied in front Phnom Penh City Hall on Wednesday—the day Ms. Rolnik presented her report to the U.N. in Geneva.
Chea Sarim, who left her Boeng Kak home five years ago, now lives with her family in a rented apartment on the city’s outskirts.
“I can’t buy land and a house with the $8,500 in compensation,” she said of the money that was given to when she left Boeng Kak.
“All my kids have had to quit school because we are so far from everything.”
City officials declined to comment on the new demands from Boeng Kak evictees.
(Additional reporting by Kaing Menghun)