The Cambodian authorities conducted forced evictions of those unwilling to leave the confiscated land. In this way many lost their source of livelihood. The situation was further compounded by decreasing food security as a result of polluted waters and subsequent decline in fish stocks caused by activities carried out by some of the new companies.
Those affected by the land grabs took their anger to the streets. Nevertheless, the Government of Cambodia did not take the concerns seriously and met peaceful demonstrations with violent crackdowns. In 2014, citizens took the case to the International Criminal Court, claiming the government did not fulfil its obligations to protect its citizens and denounced the land grabs as crimes against humanity.
After decades of communism and armed conflict, Cambodia switched from a planned economy to a free market economy in the 1990s. As part of its development policy, the government has been leasing large-scale land concessions to private companies while disregarding the rights of the local population. As a result, there has been a surge in land disputes between communities that have lost their land and the state or private companies, usually with little or no compensation. Civil protest are violently repressed (ADHOC 2013, LICADHO 2014a), and the Cambodian government is blamed for non-compliance with its fundamental rights obligations such as the respect for freedom of expression, abolition of torture, and the conditions of detention in prisons (FIDH, ADHOC, LICADHO 2015).
Ambiguity of Cambodian land law
Due to Cambodia’s integration in the global market, both foreign and domestic investments flooded the country and land value increased rapidly (Prachvuthy, 2011). The government started promoting Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), which grant long-term land leases to private businesses, with the aim of stimulating the economy and creating jobs. However, customary legal principles regarding land ownership were not integrated in the new legal land framework. Under traditional law, all land was the king’s property. People could however possess land by using it continuously. French colonists introduced the concept of private land ownership, but customary law remained in some areas, thus both systems coexisted for some decades even after independence in 1953. At the end of the 1970s, the communist regime of the Khmers Rouges abolished private ownership and destroyed all landownership records. Property rights were progressively re-established in the 1990s, but the government failed to introduce the new legal system in rural areas where customary law still prevails. Thus large parts of Cambodia’s land remain unregistered although people have been living there for decades and sometimes generations (Sekiguchi and Hatsukano, 2013). This legal ambiguity created numerous land disputes between citizens, but especially between citizens and the state when allocating land concessions. The Cambodian government indeed confiscated at least 20% of Cambodian’s land (The Diplomat, 2014), as villagers were unable to prove landownership according to current law. This circumstance benefits private companies which develop industrial farming, rubber industries, illegal fishing or illegal-logging of precious wood (see Forest Conflicts in Cambodia). Moreover, operation of business enterprises led to the pollution of water and declining stock of fisheries which increases food insecurity.
80% of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas and, thus, strongly relies on agriculture as a means of subsistence. Land loss and the destruction of livelihoods lead to social and economic marginalization, which have affected at least half a million Cambodians since 2000 (LICADHO, 2014b). Forced evictions are common and there is often a great lack of public consultation or information provided to families. Civil discontent has been growing throughout land communities and peaceful protests have been ongoing since the beginning of the land grabbings. However, those protests have been violently repressed by the government, which often arrests demonstrators and sometimes even shoot at them (LICADHO, 2015). Activists and journalists receive death threats (see: Forest Conflicts in Cambodia) and are at risk of being arrested on trumped-up criminal charges.
Despite the growing number of land disputes brought to court, a politicized judiciary and the collusion between businesses and politics have hindered a fair handling of cases. Public protest is harshly quashed, and the state as well as private companies benefit from the legal gap between customary and modern land law.
International legal action
However, in October 2014, Cambodian citizens supported by London-based international lawyers filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, calling systematic and violent land seizure of villagers’ land a “crime against humanity” (Financial Times, 2014). The accusation is directed against Cambodia’s “ruling elite”, e.g. politicians, businessmen and military officers. The Court still needs to agree to consider the case, but if it happens to rule in favor of the plaintiff, it would set a legal precedent for all victims of land grabbing in the world (The Diplomat, 2014). The government denied the validity of the claim, blaming the opposition of trying to destabilize the regime (Financial Times, 2014). Besides the potential impact on domestic and international human rights policies, the complaint sends a strong message to multinationals that benefit from land grabbing. It is not the first case filed by Cambodians at an international level.
Increasing pressure on multinationals
In a parallel case brought to the High Court in London in 2013, villagers accused the U.K. company Tate & Lyle (previously T& L Sugars) of land grabbing. Activists seem to have succeeded in raising awareness given that other multinationals such as Coca Cola have launched a “zero tolerance” initiative regarding land grabbing (Financial Times, 2014).
Land-grabbing is a worldwide issue but Cambodia is one of the most salient cases. International law may play an important role in the conflict resolution strategy, along with international pressure on multinationals and the Cambodian government.