Reclaiming Home: Looking at land rights, conflict and justice
Syria, Iraq and Libya are three countries locked in intractable conflicts that have caused enormous loss of life and destruction, and while attention is centred on armed groups, fighting and political alliances, war raises issues that are often overlooked.
A key issue in need of scholarly and policy focused treatment is property rights and its connection to peace and state building. Reclaiming Home: The struggle for socially just housing, land and property rights in Syria, Iraq and Libya, edited by Hannes Baumann, is a study that aims to get us thinking about the connection between land rights, conflict and justice.
A surprisingly easy read the volume goes beyond documenting violations of property rights, it offers insight into how loss of property impacts the way those involved in conflict think and the history of property rights.
A wide range of case studies are considered, like the Assad regime, the Turkish assault on northern Syria and the position of the Yazidis in Iraq.
Leila Vignal's chapter on locating dispossession in Syria peaked my particular interest as someone who has followed the Syrian conflict closely.
An under-appreciated aspect of the fighting is that destruction of property and infrastructure in Syria is not the byproduct of fighting between rebel and pro-regime forces, but is actually the thing being declared war on.
Quoting Bashar al-Assad's 2017 interview, "We have lost the best of our young people… but in return we have gained a healthier and more harmonious society." Leila sees this as indicative of how Assad thinks about the mass displacement and killing his forces have perpetrated, it also reveals some of the logic behind the destruction of property and infrastructure.
In other words, in order to fight off both the uprising and rebellion, removing huge swaths of society was necessary and the best way to achieve this was to declare war on the very architecture and landscape itself.
|In order to fight off both the uprising and rebellion, removing huge swaths of society was necessary and the best way to achieve this was to declare war on the very architecture and landscape itself|
Ownership of land has always been an issue in places like Syria, Iraq and Libya, as these countries have both formal and informal settlements.
Over the years, governments have insisted on officially approved documentation, title and deeds for property ownership, however the rate of urban growth has made it difficult for the state to keep control of the rate of development.
Rather than slowing down city expansion they have tolerated the existence of informal settlements or properties that have been set up, built or sold, without full official paperwork.
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These settlements go back generations and so residence could have been living on a piece of land for decades, giving people a sense of heritage and emotional attachment to their properties.
In places like Syria, legal loopholes allowed these houses to exist, but after the war started important changes were made to property right laws. There not only needed to be documented proof of your right to own the piece of land your house is on in the local ministry, but you also had to have copies of these documents too.
While this might seem trivial, a lot of people do not have these documents and it is used by the regime to expel or remove residence. A number of chapters explore what this has meant for millions of Syrians and how it will affect the prospect of peace.
Taking property and land ownership rights seriously is difficult to do for afar as media attention tends to focus on clashes, fighting and violence. But housing is a critical human rights issue, it is essential for peace and state building, and the volume offers useful introductory insight into the topic.
A few drawbacks of the study is the lack of balance, as most of the essays are focused on Syria, with only one chapter on Iraq and Libya respectably.
Understanding how property and land rights across different parts of Iraq and the challenge to it posed by militias, would have really added some much needed insight.
That said, the study did highlight some important transnational issues, and for me it should be regarded as introductory into this field of study, as more work still needs to be done. Nevertheless, it is an excellent contribution to the approach on human rights, peace building and conflict ending work.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.