Land rights and peacebuilding: challenges and responses

Middle East North Africa, East Africa,
McGill University
Syria Afghanistan, Ukraine,
  • Rectifying land rights in war-torn settings are among the most daunting challenges of peacebuilding. War-torn land tenure situations are unique settings in their combination of a weakened and chaotic formal (statutory) system, vigorous but very fluid informal tenure activity, along with the presence of political demands regarding land, and international actors that have a large interest and influence in the success of any improvement or recovery. While this combination carries risks, it also represents real opportunity for practical and policy reform in the formal and customary land tenure sectors of countries recovering from armed conflict. In this regard the statutory tenure reorganization and reform efforts supported by the UN need to assess how the development of informal tenure institutions, problems, and processes are proceeding ‘on the ground,’ so as to draw legitimacy from these processes into reformulating national tenure structure, policy, law, and enforcement; thereby contributing to durable peace. This has the advantage of working ‘with the grain,’ and building on what has already been learned, disseminated, and accepted within the informal tenure system as the formal legal system is being reformed and implemented—as opposed to expecting people to disengage from binding customary obligations involving land when improved formal laws are finally enacted and enforced. Without this purposeful connection, tenure institutions at different levels risk evolving in different directions, with considerable difficulty and volatility later on for any attempts to reconnect them. With such a connection however, new policy can support what people are already doing, and engage in on-going issues of disputing, resettlement, restitution, proof of claim, and the role of land and property in economic development. In post-crisis settings, new laws have the opportunity to address land and property issues in the context of what people are already doing ‘on the ground’, with a view to moving from the fluidity of crisis situations to a more solidified and peaceful social and legal environment as an outcome. Positive examples exist, and several of them are presented in this paper. The article discusses the primary challenges regarding land rights in war-torn settings and then includes both practical and policy options for overcoming them. The paper draws on the author’s land tenure experience in 15 war-torn countries.
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