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Premier’s Land Titling Program Failing, Human Rights Watch Says

Land dispute protesters hit by water canon as they tried to block a main street in Phnom Penh, May 29, 2013.
Land dispute protesters hit by water canon as they tried to block a main street in Phnom Penh, May 29, 2013.

WASHINGTON DC - A land titling program sponsored by Prime Minister Hun Sen is not being conducted with transparency and accountability, while land disputes continue to displace many Cambodians, Human Rights Watch says.

Without reform, the group said in a statement Wednesday, the program, undertaken by a youth brigade called the Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteers, named for honorifics Hun Sen has taken, should be scrapped.

The program, initiated by Hun Sen, seeks to measure and title land for Cambodians who currently live without proper documentation. Hun Sen has said his program will provide 1.8 million hectares of land to nearly half a million families.

But following a two-month study of the program, Human Rights Watch said it is skewed toward “wealthy and powerful interests,” with no effective recourse for those harmed by it.

Human Rights Watch called on donors like the World Bank and the United Nations to revise the land titling process, “to ensure adequate public consultation, a transparent process open to independent monitoring and evaluation, adequate compensation for those who are denied title in favor of concession holders or others, and an independent complaint process.”

“Sadly, while the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights has sounded the alarm, donors appear to be shrinking from demanding basic transparency and accountability for a program that has such major impact,” Brad Adams, head of the group’s Asia division, told VOA Khmer by phone. “Instead of blithely accepting a fundamentally flawed process, or even appearing to endorse it, donors should demand that it be scrapped or be monitored and carried out in full accord with international standards and best practices,” he said.

Cambodia’s economy has come to rely on the grants of “enormous” concessions to large companies with ties to officials in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the armed forces, Human Rights Watch said.

“An estimated 700,000 Cambodians have been adversely impacted by these and other such concessions, including numerous communities originally residing in the concession areas or along their periphery who have been forcibly evicted, sometimes violently, from land they had long legally occupied and relied upon for a subsistence livelihood,” the group said.

Human Rights Watch also said the titling program was being used as a political instrument by the ruling party.

“By early May 229,000 land ownership titles had reportedly been distributed at ceremonies,” Human Rights Watch said. “On these occasions, cash and other gifts were also handed out, while CPP officials urged recipients to vote for the party in the national elections.”

Hun Sen said in a speech earlier this week the youth brigade would suspend its work ahead of the July 28 elections, because “other parties may sue us.”

But Human Rights Watch said if the program cannot be fixed, it should not resume after the elections.

“The land measuring and titling campaign needs to be reformed in line with international best practices,” the group said. “If the government will not do this, it should be discontinued.”