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Press Statement Release By Human Rights Watch on Cambodia

  • Human Watch

(New York, August 1, 2006) – The Cambodian government has been forcibly evicting thousands of poor urban dwellers from prime real estate in Phnom Penh and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen should immediately call a moratorium on massive forced evictions until it adopts a comprehensive national housing and resettlement policy in accordance with its national and international human rights obligations.

In the coming days, two low-income communities – totaling 1,600 families or 6,000 people – face eviction in Phnom Penh. This week, the authorities have threatened 150 families with eviction from a plot of land known as “Group 78,” located in central Phnom Penh near the Bassac River. By mid-August, the government is expected to begin evicting another 1,400 families living nearby in Village 15, where the 7NG Company has been awarded the land they occupy.

According to municipal officials, residents evicted from Group 78 will be trucked to an isolated and barren relocation site on the outskirts of the city. The relocation site lacks basic infrastructure, sanitation facilities or potable water, and is prone to flooding. Schools, medical facilities, markets and jobs are not available in this undeveloped area, located more than 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

“Despite Hun Sen's pledges to tackle poverty and provide land titles to 100 urban poor communities a year, these recent evictions suggest a contrary policy,” said Sara Colm, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The epidemic of forced evictions by the government often involves the unnecessary use of force and has devastating consequences for the livelihoods of the poor.”

During a forced eviction last month, armed riot police wielding electric batons injured several villagers attempting to passively resist the move.

The eviction process at Group 78 came up suddenly, with no notification, consultation or explanation given to the community. Their first eviction notice, issued on June 22, stated that the community had to move “in order to contribute to the beauty and development of Phnom Penh.” The most recent eviction notice, dated July 24, stated that the city needed the land as a tourist site because it drains well and is near the river and government ministries. Residents have also been told that the city wants to build a road on their land.

The majority of the families have lived in Group 78 since the early 1980s, establishing the right under Cambodian law (see below) to possess and occupy the land. Some have been issued documents by local authorities showing they have lived there since the 1980s. Most of the families have rejected the government's offer of US$500 and a plot of land, far from the city, measuring five by 12 meters, given that their property – located on prime real estate – would sell for considerably more (as much as $550 per square meter at current market rates).

During the last three months, more than 1,500 families have been forcibly evicted from their neighborhoods in Phnom Penh on the grounds that the land is owned by private companies or is needed for public projects. Many of the residents have lived in the settlements for more than a decade.

The recent evictions bear striking similarities. Riot police armed with guns, shock batons, tear gas and shields cordon off the eviction sites before dawn to bar human rights monitors, U.N. observers and journalists. In many cases, police use or threaten unnecessary or excessive force to remove residents and tear down their homes. Affected communities are not adequately informed or consulted about the pending evictions, nor are they provided due process or adequate legal assistance. Compensation, if offered, is far below the market value of the properties that communities are vacating. Resettlement sites, typically located in remote, undeveloped areas far from the city center, rarely provide basic government services.

On July 2, more than 200 policemen with guns, tear gas, shock batons and shields forcibly evicted 168 families living near Monivong Hospital in Phnom Penh. Three people were injured as a result of the excessive use of police force, including a pregnant woman shocked with an electric baton. The government’s grounds for the eviction were that the land was state property. However, it is known that the government has given a private company, Royal Group, the right to use the land.

In June, 700 armed police and military police evicted more than 1,000 > families living in a shantytown at Sambok Chap (Village 14) near the Bassac River. Eight villagers were arrested in the pre-dawn operation, and three of them remain in detention. Journalists and human rights workers were prevented from observing the arrests and eviction. One of those detained was a villager who permitted a worker from a nongovernmental organization to watch what was happening from his house.

Residents were dumped at a relocation site 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh, where the 1,000 families were resettled on one hectare of land that was uninhabitable. It lacked running water, sanitation facilities, houses and electricity. Using plastic sheets, bamboo and cardboard, the relocated families erected simple dwellings to shield them from the monsoon rains. A private company, Suor Srun Enterprises, initiated the eviction proceedings in May, but neither the municipality nor the company have produced any documentation of the company's title to the land. The governor of Phnom Penh has said that Sambok Chap “pollutes our city's beauty.”

“The government is allowing a handful of powerful and well-connected individuals to line their own pockets while trampling the human rights of thousands of poor people,” Colm said. “The agenda seems to be to rid the city of the poor while handing over prime real estate to the rich and powerful."

Because the government and courts at present have shown themselves to be incapable of offering a fair, transparent, uncorrupt and nonviolent process to implement evictions, Human Rights Watch called for a government moratorium on massive forced evictions. The government should develop a procedure for evictions that is in conformity with U.N. human rights standards. This procedure would provide that, prior to any evictions, all feasible alternatives are explored in consultation with affected persons, with a view to avoiding, or at least minimizing, the use of force. Those facing eviction orders must have legal remedies available. Human rights and U.N. monitors and journalists must not be prevented from monitoring relocations.

In accordance with international human rights standards, law enforcement officials may only use force during relocations when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty. In addition, the government should implement clear procedures for the resettlement of evictees and ensure market value compensation for anyone who has a legal claim to ownership under Cambodia's land law. Relocation sites should have adequate basic services and allow the possibility for the relocated persons to earn a living and for children to go to school.

The ongoing forced evictions in Cambodia are in violation of national and international law, in particular the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides that Cambodia is legally obligated to respect, protect and fulfill the right to > adequate housing.

Other relevant laws and standards include:

* Cambodia's 2001 Land Law prohibits deprivation of ownership without due process, and grants the right to apply for a land ownership title to someone who has had uncontested possession of private property in a nonviolent, continuous, open, obvious > and good-faith manner for five years.

* Article 44 of the Cambodian Constitution states that the government can only deprive someone of property for “public interest” purposes and requires that the government pay victims fair and just compensation in advance.

* The government's “Strategy of Land Policy Framework” states that the government should avoid forced evictions if at all possible; if people are being evicted for public interest purposes, the government must pursue a policy of compensation and relocation.

* The U.N. Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines on Development-Based Displacement urges governments to conduct social impact assessments and make arrangements for fair compensation and adequate resettlement conditions in advance of any eviction.

Human Rights Watch noted that the problem is not limited to Phnom Penh. Publicly known cases of communities facing forced evictions in the provinces include: Battambang (271 families); Sihanoukville (271 families); Kandal (200 families); Kompong Speu (134 families); Koh Kong (128 families); Kampong Cham (99 families); Siem Reap (56 families); Kampot (52 families); Kompong Thom (16 families); and Kompong Chhnang (4 families).