Property and Return Migration

My most recent research has been on post-conflict return migration, specifically the question of who comes back to their homes and community after violence forces them to leave.  When I started the project  I was solely focused on land issues.  I wanted to know whether property restitution mattered in people’s decisions to return home.  The deeper I got into research on the topic (in Liberia, Uganda and Kosovo) the more I realized that property restitution was only one piece of a very complicated decision –making process that has as much to do with household needs and characteristics, length of displacement and opportunities elsewhere, as with property restitution.

Customary Law

Many places around the world allocate land on the basis of customary law –  a system of rules in which people typically have a claim to land rights because they are members of a group.  For example, because I am Acholi and my family is from northern Uganda, I am a member of a particular lineage with a right to the land that lineage ‘owns’ in northern Uganda.  The specific land I can claim will be determined by lineage or community leaders.  My property right comes from my identity rather than from a deed or title.  In most cases customary law is not written and property rights are not formalized (although that is increasingly changing).

Customary Land Tenure after Conflict

The average length of time people are displaced as a result of violent conflict is 17 years (a depressing statistic!).  Lots of things change in 17 years including the composition of households as family members are born, die, emigrate, etc.   Community leaders also change and new leaders do not necessarily know or remember who lived where or had claim to what land.

Laura Meitzner Yoder and I address some of the challenges of return migration to areas with customary land in the most recent issue of Development and Change.    While I have research experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, Laura has worked and studied land in Timor-Leste.  We combined our expertise to address the role of customary land in post-conflict migration.  We address the different ways in which post-conflict return can happen (synchronized or punctuated) and also the disconnect between the rights one can claim under customary law (a right to some part of the lineage land) and the rights guaranteed in international public policy on return migration (a right to a specific piece of land or home from which one was displaced).

Customary law creates a different context for property restitution in post-conflict settings.  It can be more flexible than formalized land holding, but it is highly dependent on the leaders who interpret and enforce it.

World Humanitarian Summit

I had the pleasure of attending the World Humanitarian Summit in May on behalf of Bread for the World.  While I attend a lot of academic meetings, this certainly was a lot different from the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.  First, there was art – visual and performing art woven into the conference.  That was an unexpected pleasure and very well done.  Second, I walked past both Angela Merkel and Sean Penn in the hallway, enough said.  Third, there were all sorts of small ways in which the experiences of individuals in need of humanitarian assistance were incorporated into the conference from the lunches that were based on the rations given to refugees in different countries to the emphasis on the terrible choices that people have to make in humanitarian emergencies.  Sometimes this became a little extreme; at the innovation fair I had some people talking to me in detail (which I will not share because it is gross) about why the body bags they had just started to make were better than the standard UN body bags.

 

Hunger and Faith-based Organizations

There were several high points for me.  One was hearing a rousing speech by Irish president Michael Higgens on ending hunger by 2030.  He emphasized the fact that food security – three nutritious meals a day – underpins efforts to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Another high point was participation in the faith-based organizations meetings which were very focused on getting the UN to take faith based organizations seriously as humanitarian actors.  This is particularly important since local faith-based organizations are usually on the ground before a crisis, endure through it, and stay afterwards.   The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities has compiled five research briefs documenting the evidence related to the positive role that faith-based organizations play in humanitarian emergencies.  You can find them here.  The outcome document – Charter for Faith-Based Humanitarian Action is also available and very interesting reading.

Advocating for Justice

 

Some friends of mine recently published a wonderful book entitled Advocating for Justice.  I was an outside reviewer for the text and got to speak at the book launch last week.

 

9780801097652

I thought I would post here my three favorite things about the book.

  • We not me

There are quite a lot of books on Christian advocacy which follow the narrative arc of individual transformation in which the author was ignorant of a particular subject (religious freedom, AIDS, trafficking), has an experience which reveals the subject matter, and is then transformed and becomes an activist on the particular subject.  This is not that book.  This book focuses on advocacy as appropriately embedded in Christian communities – something that we all do together – in  local churches, para church organization and denominations so that advocacy can become a form of discipleship.  By embedding it in community we can get to the place where the church is a witness to the state and to society.

 

  • Theological grounding of advocacy

I loved the focus in the book on the trinity as a model for us in our advocacy for others.    This is not just a call for us to act on behalf of the suffering; this is an advocacy in which we try and conform to the image of God.  Advocacy not as a technique but as a theology -something Christians do to faithfully image Christ in the world.    At one point the authors argue that God is the subject of our advocacy.  I read that as saying that advocacy is a form of worship not of charity, though charity is not discounted.  Those with a theological bent are going to love the way this argument is made in the text.

 

  • Politics as multilayered

The reader is compelled to look beyond the suffering of particular individuals and the problems that exist in localities to think about the structures that enable suffering to occur.   I am a political scientist and I appreciate the fact that local and national political structures are not neutral, but form and enable behaviors which can cause harm.  These structures need to be challenged and the church can do that if we think differently about the church.

This is a book which motivates us to give voice to the concerns of others, but also reveals a different imagination as to why we should do so, and why we should do so together as Christians in community.

Kosovo and Border Demarcation

In March an international commission released its report on the border demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro and declared it to be accurate and consistent with the findings of the Kosovo Cadastral Agency. Kosovo opposition parties Vetëvendosje and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo objected to the findings, decrying the documentation flawed and process rigged.  They believe that the border lies elsewhere.  This would all just be entertaining political theater if the stakes were not so high.

The border demarcation issue has been one of the justifications for the violent anti-government demonstrations that have plagued Kosovo in the first part of 2016 and the nearly 6 month interruption in the functioning of the government.  In other countries, this sort of post-succession border demarcation conflict has erupted into war.  In 1998 Ethiopia and Eritrea began a two-year border war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths over a tiny triangle of land with a single small town.

At issue in Kosovo is whether the boundary with Montenegro is nearer the foot of the mountains dividing the two countries, or higher up along the ridgeline.  Multiple experts have been tasked with the verification of the border, and they agree that the border between Montenegro and Kosovo appropriately follows the municipal boundaries set by the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution.  With Kosovo’s independence in 2008, these municipal boundaries have now become a national border and need to be recognized as such.

The outcome of this conflict is more significant than the value of the land.  Border demarcation is a condition for a visa liberalization agreement with the EU; an agreement that would allow Kosovo’s citizens to travel more freely outside the country for medical care, education and business.

Kosovo’s citizens deserve both visa liberalization and a functioning government.  While the opposition has been busy organizing demonstrations and setting off tear gas in the assembly to prevent votes, the economy of the country stagnates and 40,000 young people each year finish their studies with little chance of finding meaningful work.  Not surprisingly, illegal migration from Kosovo to other parts of Europe has been a problem as young people look for work they cannot find at home.  Visa liberalization and the opportunity to join the EU at some point in the future are beacons of hope for this country challenged by a post-war economy and the transition from a socialist Yugoslav regime.

Nationalist sentiment propelled Kosovo’s ten-year pacifist struggle for autonomy and its short war for independence.  The idea of territorial loss, when the land itself has been hard fought for, is a difficult idea for a new state to stomach.  This is part of the reason why Ethiopia and Eritrea were willing to spend millions of dollars and the lives of their countrymen on an insignificant piece of scrubland.  The border demarcation issue in Kosovo has become so volatile because independence came at a high price.

As the opposition parties return to the assembly, they would do well to remember that a country is made up of people as well as territory.