UN-HABITAT has teamed up with leading agencies to help displaced people and refugees returning home assert their rights to housing and property lost during conflict through the publication of a new Handbook aimed at putting right a major gap in global humanitarian response systems.
The Handbook on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons was produced in partnership with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Internal Displacement Division (IDD), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (NRC/IDMC).
“From Rwanda to Bosnia, Sudan to Kosovo, or Liberia to Sri Lanka, the critical importance of ensuring the realisation of refugees’ and internally displaced persons’ right to housing and
property restitution has become increasingly recognised,” says a joint foreword to the Handbook signed by the heads of the agencies.
“While important steps have been taken in a wide range of post-conflict settings, those with responsibility for housing and property restitution issues, whether they are government officials, staff of international agencies and NGOs or members of local civil society groups, often lack practical guidance on how to best go about addressing what are often vastly complex and potentially controversial and divisive issues,” the foreword said.
Housing and property restitution is one of the key factors in stabilizing human settlements and promoting sustainable growth after conflicts. Restitution, inter alia, is one of the key tools available to mitigate post-crisis dispute – or even conflict – over housing, land and property as displaced populations return.
In many cases, the prospect of trustworthy restitution mechanisms, can remove uncertainties and barriers to sustainable returns. From a human settlements perspective, removing constraints over ownership or rights of occupancy to housing and property is an integral element of the process from emergency to recovery. The earlier tenure problems are resolved in connection with conflicts, the earlier returning families can in some manner capitalize on their assets and overcome the need for emergency support. Early action also creates opportunities for strategic economic and social planning required to ensure sustainable reconstruction and development programming.
Defining mutually acceptable mechanisms for land and property restitution rights is crucial for peace building and post-conflict reintegration of refugees and displaced persons. Not least the rights of women, widows and orphans must be clearly emphasized and promoted in the humanitarian and early recovery responses.
However, asserting housing and property rights continues to be an area suffering significant gaps in the current humanitarian response. Due to their complexity, housing and property needs and resolution mechanisms, whether relating to the formal statutory legal systems or informal customary practices, are not well understood by humanitarian practitioners at large. The problems are therefore often ignored or at best dealt with on a case-by-case approach rather than being a result of a credible situation assessment followed by effective action plans.
The Principles on housing and property restitution for refugees and displaced persons endorsed by the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in August 2005 provide valuable guidance on international standards governing the implementation of housing, land and property restitution programmes and mechanisms.
The agencies developed the Handbook to make the Principles available to a broader range of humanitarian practitioners.
The Handbook will contribute to efforts to strengthen the protection of restitution rights for refugees and displaced persons. It is meant as a practical tool for practitioners to understand these rights and to support a fast-track diagnosis of needs. It also provides guidance on the role of the international community and international organizations in facilitating restitution processes and asserting the rights of refugees and displaced persons in this respect.
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a Geneva-based “Protection Cluster” recently established a Focal Point Group on “Housing, Land and Property Rights and Issues” led by UN-HABITAT. This Group can provide guidance to country operations on housing, land and property restitution in complex emergencies and following natural disasters.