Cambodians claim land grabs are crime against humanity
(Reuters) Cambodians evicted from their homes to make way for a development protest in Phnom Penh
Multinationals caught up in allegations of land-grabbing could face fresh legal problems under a claim launched by 10 Cambodians at the International Criminal Court.
A petition to be filed at The Hague on Tuesday against a group of politicians, security chiefs and business magnates in the southeast Asian country raises the stakes for land disputes by arguing that systematic illegal seizures can be a crime against humanity.
While the claim needs to clear legal hurdles before it becomes a full-blown ICC case, the argument behind it has a potential impact on sectors such as resources and commodities, where companies are increasingly becoming embroiled in disputes over land rights .
“The message this case sends to companies is that they need to do their due diligence much more carefully,” said Richard Rogers, a partner in Global Diligence, the London-based law firm bringing the ICC claim. “While western companies are unlikely to be aiders or abettors of the actual crime, a land-grab situation they benefit from could develop from a human rights violation to something much more serious – a crime against humanity.”
The ICC petition dovetails with attempts by people from poor countries to pursue multinationals for damages over profits they have allegedly reaped from improperly seized property.
In a separate Cambodia damages case brought to the High Court in London last year, 200 villagers allege a sugar business formerly owned by the UK’s Tate & Lyle sourced cane from a plantation run by a Thai company on land grabbed by government agents, including military police.
T& L Sugars, the former Tate & Lyle business, was bought by ASR Group of the US in 2010, and is fighting the allegations. It says it bought two consignments of cane in 2011 and 2012 after performing third-party due diligence on the Thai company, while it says the dispute over the land rights is a matter for a separate court case in Cambodia between villagers and the government.
“In our view, there is no basis for the villagers’ claims against us,” T& L Sugars said. “However, we will continue to do everything we can to help the relevant parties involved resolve this between themselves.”
The ICC, established through an inter-governmental treaty, can impose penalties ranging from imprisonment to fines and asset forfeitures.
Amid growing pressure from activists, other multinationals have launched efforts to demonstrate what Coca-Cola last year called a “zero tolerance” approach to land-grabbing. Coke pledged to disclose names of top sugar suppliers and to carry out social, environmental and human rights audits in source countries.
The new Cambodia claim to the ICC accuses the country’s ruling elite of a “widespread and systematic attack” on the rights of the civilian population, including land-grabbing “on a truly massive scale”. The allegations are made in a so-called “communication” to the ICC prosecutors’ office, which will then have to decide if the matter merits first a preliminary examination and then a full investigation.
Cambodia is rife with land disputes, many of them rooted in the government’s relations with a group of tycoons who critics say have been given unwarranted gifts of territory to acquire timber and other resources and set up commodity plantations. Licadho, a human rights group, says at least half a million people have been affected by land grabs since 2000.
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, said the administration of Hun Sen, the prime minister of almost 30 years, had last year set up a system to examine land-grabbing allegations and was already reviewing 1,700 cases. He dismissed the ICC case as part of an effort by activists and opposition politicians to “discredit the government”, which was re-elected in a disputed poll last year.
“I don’t think there is enough evidence for the ICC to take this case,” Mr Phay Siphan said.