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Cambodian Land Deals Raise Human Rights Concerns

Cambodian protesters from Boueng Kak lake march with a banner displaying the thumb prints of fellow land owners who have been evicted from their homes, as they demand compensation, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 4, 2012.

Cambodian protesters from Boeung Kak lake march with a banner displaying the thumbprints of fellow land owners who have been evicted from their homes, as they demand compensation, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 4, 2012.

A United Nations-appointed rights watchdog is calling on Cambodia to bridge the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Surya Subedi, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, says the government must do more to ensure that marginalized groups are not suffering from its practice of granting land concessions to developers.

Unfair practices

During a visit to Cambodia that focused on how land grants are issued to private developers, Subedi looked into allegations of rights groups who say the practice is unfair to tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes with little or no compensation.

“So there seems to be a lack of transparency, due process and the communities affected have not been offered any alternatives," Subedi explained. "They have been told that so and so company will come and start bulldozing the land with a view to clearing the way for agribusiness activities or some other activities on the land. But these people who have been farming that land for generations--what are they going to do, what is their livelihoods going to be?”

Activists say the problem is exemplified in the plight of a Phnom Penh community called Borei Keila.

In 2004, the government designated the area as a social land concession to a local company. The deal was contingent on the developer building on-site housing for more than 1,700 families living in the area at the time. But the company reneged on the deal, and by the start of 2012, rights groups say almost one-quarter of the families were homeless.

Subedi visited the community this week. He says he was shocked by what he saw. “Indeed quite appalling conditions they have been living in. Some of them seem to have been living on top of a dump site," he said. "Basically a rubbish heap. I visited them, it was just the condition--unacceptable. I thought it was not only a human rights matter, but also a humanitarian matter.”

Economic and land concessions

Subedi says economic and other land concessions can be a positive tool for growth in what is still one of the least developed countries in the region. But he says the government must ensure there is a public debate on how such policies are enacted.

“My concern is more to do with the procedure, rather than the need -- whether the country should grant economic land concessions or not. If it is a well thought-out policy, if the legal framework is a sound one, then the country can benefit from economic land concessions. When I say the country, even the rural poor, the indigenous communities will benefit. People can benefit. We can create a win-win situation.”

This week, the government announced it would temporarily stop issuing new land concessions, though it has done little to publicly explain how the process will be improved. Subedi sees the moratorium as a positive step; the government must now show that it is serious about reforms, he says. "But it remains to be seen whether the law will be implemented appropriately. In Cambodia there are quite good laws in a number of areas, but the implementation has been a problem," he added. "I hope this particular regulation will be implemented thoroughly and properly."

Subedi says he will meet with government officials to express his concerns. His trip concludes on Friday.