Homeowners in Moscow’s Rechnik district likely did not expect to wake up to bulldozers on the morning of January 21, 2010. Thrown out of their homes by armed police, families could only watch as their houses were demolished. Under the direction of Moscow’s then-mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, famous—or infamous—for his embrace of fast-paced, high-priced development, municipal authorities decided to invalidate land permits issued during the Soviet era and reject residents’ de facto titles to what has since become valuable land and to the houses they had built on it. Had they built illegally? What is the state’s responsibility to citizens in this process? What, if any, were the underlying interests at stake in this demonstration of force? With similar situations played out all over the globe, state actions to take away people’s land or expel them from their homes tell us volumes about a government’s commitment to transparency, democracy, and other elements of good governance; they lay bare the true human rights record of a place.
The Open Society Foundations’ Human Rights Data Initiative, a joint project of the Human Rights and Governance Program and the Information Program, has begun a year-long study of housing and property expropriations. The study will track how the issue is connected to a range of internationally recognized human rights, and explore how human rights and accountability organizations approach the problem of the abuse of states’ claim to eminent domain. Though states are empowered to use eminent domain for the public good, abuse of this authority is widespread. What we’ve found is that violations of the “positive right” to housing are only one part of the issue. The process of state infringement on land ownership illuminates a host of other problems, including the state’s failure to uphold the rule of law, provide equal protection to all citizens, tackle corruption, and engage in economic development that is respectful of ethnic minorities and the urban poor. Invariably we also find citizens shut out of decisions regarding their surroundings, the shape of their city, and preservation of its cultural heritage. Land and housing policy is a revelator that tells us about the reality and depth of commitment to open society values in a given country.
In a broad survey of the work of the Open Society Foundations, we’ve seen that the threat to where they live is many people’s first encounter with the potential harm of predatory state interests. Human rights and transparency organizations report incidences with alarming frequency: Azeri families living in central Baku find themselves stripped of their property and forced from their homes to make way for a glittering stadium for the Eurovision Song Contest. In Equatorial Guinea, where a small ruling clique of families reaps huge profits while over 60 percent survive on less than $1 per day, citizens were evicted with inadequate or nonexistent compensation in the name of an “urban renewal” and public utility development, that has given birth to hotels, offices and luxury housing that few will ever access. Similar dubious state claims to promoting “public good” were raised in the case of Roma settlements on municipal land in Bulgaria. Tolerated by the state for decades, communities found themselves threatened with eviction when the land was privatized without offer of alternative housing. That case was finally settled at the European Court of Human Rights in a decision that cited state responsibility to assess the necessity of the action, as well as the effects of interference an eviction will have on the right to private and family life as deciding factors against the government of Bulgaria. Activists in Brazil have documented the effect of evictions on an estimated thirty thousand people in the run-up to the “mega events” of the World Cup 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio—mass evictions carried out without sufficient compensation, forewarning, or community consultation. In many of these cases, when citizens raised their voices through the channels of protest open to them, they were answered by the state with resistance, violence, and restriction of their liberties.
If forcible removal is one end of the spectrum of violations, at the other, state bureaucratic policies can be less blatant but just as insidious. Though bureaucratic reform toward openness in land policy can be a good thing, when states institute open records and land-ownership reform to counteract corruption in legal titling of land, the process can be turned on its head. Take India, for example, where individuals began taking advantage of records opened in an effort to help the rural poor take out loans or apply for government benefits. Because they had better technical skills and access to information, wealthier residents could create what open data expert Michael Gurstein called “unequal contests around land titles,” exploiting mistakes and gaps to their own advantage. In Georgia, the buying and selling of land has been drastically simplified in the past several years, including through the establishment of electronic land records—a major step forward in limiting corruption—but curious exceptions to the speed and ease of that process have appeared when such slowdowns are in the state interest, and when dozens of citizens at a time “donate” their land in a valuable tourist zone to the state.
Land and housing rights excite communities in ways that many other rights issues do not. Housing procedures are often the most widely felt of the harms done by a chaotic or captured state, where high-level corrupt political and economic exchange between government and a small number of firms is pervasive. The combination of abusive practice and non-transparent procedures can create citizen outrage, and introduce them to their fundamental rights and the challenges and exhilaration of citizen action. As acts of state policy, evictions and eminent domain can affect large numbers of citizens from different classes and social strata, and all of them experience the lack of rule of law, and the need for information and the right to free expression to pull the levers of citizen governance.
The issue also marries disparate communities and inspires conversations about history and preservation, rights and due process, economic growth and the tangibles and intangibles of livability, livelihood, and public good. Expropriation of land and housing filters through many of the key issues of the Open Society Foundations—from corruption and poor governance, to lack of access to information, use and abuse of force, lack of independence of the judiciary, and intolerance of dissent. Open Society Foundations’ own work to mitigate the impacts of the national foreclosure crisis on low-income communities and communities of color in the U.S. highlights how the lack of transparent and accountable financial markets can lead to widespread displacement and wealth-stripping among vulnerable populations.
State policies on housing and the use of eminent domain not only energize individuals, but can also have a galvanizing effect on civil society organizations. NGOs focused on a key population are often motivated by housing and property dilemmas to develop full-context arguments on human rights, development, transparency, and citizen access to decision-making. In doing so, these organizations find new partners and new channels for activism, policy work and redress of abusive practices. At the same time, they face new challenges. Given the large amounts of money at stake, documenting procurement contracts and development deals can be very dangerous and difficult.
And finally, the expansion of access to information and technology enrich the potential for development to be conducted in ways that reflect open society values. As instruments of development, international financial institutions and technology can affect the direction of state policy on questions of housing and land. International financial institutions already exert a good deal of influence over the direction of development projects that they sponsor. Because of their leverage, IFI can either be a springboard for state abuse or a catalyst for a more transparent and equitable approach, negotiating rights-respecting plans and ensuring an open process. Technology can be used to increase efficiency and fairness by bringing game-changing data to light, or obscure processes and privilege those who already have access to knowledge and broadband.
As the Human Rights Data Initiative examines this theme, we are focusing on three key questions:
- What is the shape of the use and abuse of eminent domain and other tools of the state with respect to property? What is it used for, whom does it affect, and how?
- In projects where citizens, organizations, or other interests have successfully countered a demonstrably bad decision in this space, what has been the deciding factor: did access to more data tip the scales? Did evocative documentary photographs motivate new actors? Was it sharp statistical analysis, or targeted campaigning?
- How can campaigners leverage this issue to engage with citizens on open information and governance, and effect better policymaking around development?
The World Urban Forum 6, which will be held in Naples this September, will focus attention on how rapid urbanization threatens to exacerbate global inequalities and explore what institutions will be necessary to build cities that are both prosperous and inclusive. The Forum will provide an ideal opportunity to explore some of the issues of housing stability and human rights raised here. While profound economic and population changes sweep the globe, states exert the tools of governance to promote development and economic growth. Civil and political liberties can get set aside in the push toward development, but a human rights approach does not need to be in fundamental contradiction with progress and modernization.
How can we do this better? We need more data: as the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy points out, governments do not produce systematic information on the use of eminent domain, and legal research does not tell us about other dimensions of this government practice. We need to help transparency and human rights organizations to work together to ensure that people’s civil and political rights are protected during the process of urban development, with particular attention to the rights essential to expression of dissent and participation in decision making processes. And we need to know from international lenders and experts what the key elements of development planning are that can preserve people’s human rights, and insist on their inclusion in negotiated agreements regarding sponsored economic development projects. It will be essential for lenders to share that information with civil society groups and bring such groups into the process as allies. States must seek to make honest transactions between public need, livelihood, and individual rights, and this transaction should be observed for the opportunity it represents to scratch the surface of commitments to civil and political liberties.