Article

Weaponization of the Land and Property Rights system in the Syrian civil war: facilitating restitution?

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Abstract

The Syrian civil war has seen the weaponization of its land and property rights system by the primary combatant groups in the country. The government is the most robust in its use of the tenure system to locate, target, destroy, confiscate, cleanse and gain revenue by way of the institutions and attributes comprising the system. Based on fieldwork with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, this article describes seven ways the Syrian government is currently using the land and property rights system in its military-on-civilian engagements. While the objective of such use is presumably to permanently prevail over opposition civilian constituencies, the article describes how this actually creates evidence usable for effective restitution of lands and properties subsequent to the war.

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... The problems with land documents within the statutory tenure system in Syria are renown. Even prior to the loss, destruction and falsification of HLP documentation during the conflict (Clutterbuck, 2018;Unruh, 2016), there has been over recent decades a widespread practice in rural Syria of not updating formal land records and registries in matters of inheritance or transfer; with the result being that the land market is largely informal and lacking in registration (IBP, 2013). This means that the land documents which do exist, frequently only have the name of a long dead grandfather still listed as the current owner-and yet there appear to be very few problems associated with this. ...
... Such a reliance on customary tenure is likely encouraged by the history of incoherent land policies, land manipulations, unjust application of laws and exceedingly convoluted bureaucracies. These have pushed rural Syrians to use customary and other informal means to securing land rights in ways that evade, hides from, resists or confronts the state and its problematic legal maneuvers (Harastani and Hanna, 2019;Alrwishdi and Hamilton, 2018;Unruh, 2016). Tenure systems that are able to evade, resist and challenge the state exist in numerous countries around the world and can evolve quickly, invoking a variety of customary, indigenous, religious, ideological and grievance forms of legitimacy (e.g., Cohen, 1993). ...
... This will now be made worse given the significant departure of technical personnel who have fled the war and will likely not return to their previous positions, along with the low capacity of the statutory judicial system to adjudicate land problems (Aita et al., 2017). Then there is the use of the formal tenure system and particularly its documentation, as a weapon in the conflict to determine the location of opposition pockets through the alignment of certain lineage names with specific areas (Unruh, 2016). Such a use drives distrust and suspicion of the statutory system, which in turn drives local rural communities who once did engage the statutory system toward forms of more locally legitimate and accountable customary, Islamic or hybridized tenure systems that are not able to be accessed, controlled or used by government (Unruh, 2016). ...
Article
The impending close to the war in Syria brings to the fore the prospect of approximately 13 million forcibly displaced people considering returns to places of origin in the country. However the reattachment of people to their housing, land and property (HLP) faces a daunting set of challenges—the prospect of demographic change, the application of expropriation laws, confiscations and political agendas. Greatly aggravating these challenges is the reality that there will now not be an internationally supervised and financed HLP restitution process applying accepted international conventions of transitional justice, rule of law and human rights as is the norm after wars. Instead, forms of land tenure resilience will become a primary influence in facilitating restitution and strengthening tenure security. With a focus on rural Syria, this article examines three forms of tenurial resilience which are likely to play a large role in the stabilization and recovery of the country, and explores opportunities for supporting these.
... Similarly, the procession of land and other property in their homeland is one of the main decisive factors for refugee's choice to return (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2017;Xchange, 2018). Besides, the possession of documents attesting ownership of HLP is equally as important (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2017;Unruh, 2016). The situation of livelihood and essential services, such as health care, food, water, firewood is also crucial for their intention to return (UNHCR, 2018b). ...
... Next, loss of HLP, access to HLP and loss of HLP documents are vital issues for forcibly displaced people (NRC, 2016;UNHCR, 2018d). HLP is often weaponized during the conflicts by damaging housing and properties, confiscating lands and deliberately destroying HLP records (Unruh, 2016). Most of the Rohingya's entire villages were razed to the ground during the conflict (Selth, 2018). ...
... This can be due to refugees' lack of confidence in appropriate restitution of their HLPs after return, and that they will have inhabitable housing and access to livelihood. These findings are in accordance with what researchers found in Syria (UNHCR, 2018b;Unruh, 2016), Somalia (UNHCR, 2014a), Sierra Leone (United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2010), Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq and Palestine. ...
Article
Voluntary repatriation has the utmost importance in the contemporary understanding of refugee protection. Voluntary repatriation in safety and with dignity is considered to be the most desirable and durable solutions for refugees. However, voluntary repatriation represents increasingly daunting challenges to the refugees, the governments of both home and host countries, and implementing partners. The repatriation planning of Rohingya refugees is widely criticized as being profoundly premature and dangerous. Most of the refugees are set to return to destroyed villages where food and shelter are inadequate, ecosystem services overstretched, livelihood opportunities marginal and the physical environment unfit for human habitation. Investigating the view and perspectives of the refugees on the factors that influence their intention to return can inform the implementing actors to secure those conditions and ensure a durable solution. Here, we identify the conditions that influence the decisions by Rohingya refugees in protracted displacement regarding return to Myanmar. This research also addresses the dual challenges of repatriation and sustainable post-conflict reconstruction, and, more specifically, provides a framework on how to integrate ecosystem services in the repatriation process.
... Jon Unruh notes that, within each religious and ethnic group there are those who support the regime and those who oppose it. As a result, the policies undertaken by Assad, on the whole, do not blindly target ethnic or religious groups, but instead constituencies within them [18], p. 3. ...
... Ironically, the Syrian state recognized this problem before the civil war began and started a process of digitizing property records in 2010. The uprising in 2011 interrupted the digitization process, only a limited number of documents were digitized, meaning that most documents exist only in their physical forms in land registries [18], p. 6. If refugees do not have copies of those documents when fleeing their homes, their ability to reclaim their property depends on the survival of these documents in the registries. ...
... Jon Unruh refers to state property seizures as the 'weaponization' of housing, land, and property. He notes a systematic process of property confiscation by the state through the destruction of property records and administrative infrastructure, targeting opposition supporters and areas of the country for property confiscation, redistributing confiscated property to regime supporters, sometimes by issuing false documentation, confiscation of civil and property documents from refugees as they cross border checkpoints, and creating laws to expropriate property [18], p. 2. In the next section of this article we will focus on the role of legislation in property expropriation. ...
Article
Full-text available
After eight years of civil war, parts of Syria are now free from conflict. In recognition of the return to peace, the government officially welcomes back all who fled the country to escape violence. Yet, a pattern of property expropriation supported by the government during the war limits the ability of some to return and reclaim their homes and businesses. We argue here that intentional changes to law and policy regarding property rights during the war has led to asset losses for members of groups opposed to the government and created a barrier to property restitution and the return of these groups. We examine legal documents and secondary sources identifying government actions and their impact, noting the proliferation of laws that systematically erode the property rights of people who lack proximity, legal status, and regime allies. As the results of these laws manifest after the war, a disproportionate number of Syrians who opposed the government will find themselves without the houses, land, and property they held before the war began.
... The conflict soon turned into a struggle of international powers with the main actors divided into two poles: The Assad Regime, regionally supported by Shiite Hezbollah and Iran, with the backing of both China and Russia. On the other hand, the mainly Sunni opposition is regionally supported by Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition countries, backed by the U.S. and their allies in Europe (Unruh, 2016). ...
... The similarities that can be drawn from these two civil wars are the seemingly sectarian nature of the conflict, but the underlying reality of the global fight for power and natural resources (Unruh, 2016;Wehrey et al., 2010). Another notable aspect is the historical "tug of war" where Lebanon's political stability constantly seems to be influenced, under one form or the other, by the Syrian presence. ...
Thesis
The Levantine basin’s complex identity has been carved by the sea, which, as history has shown, facilitated the flow of knowledge and cultures between civilisations, but later eased the expansion of political interests’ based conflicts. Inversely, Lebanon’s sea has been shaped by this identity, where throughout the years, construction and destruction left their toll on its marine and coastal environments. To this day, remnants of its wars persist through fragile ecosystems and political systems. A city of particular interest is Tripoli, whose complicated connection to its Syrian neighbour has left it marginalized and torn by recurring conflicts. However, as Tripoli’s port is preparing to handle a share of Syria’s post war reconstruction traffic, several questions arise. Is politically unstable Tripoli ready for this highly anticipated economic development? In fact, its coastal city, El Mina, is a microcosm of maritime potential, combining the country’s biggest fishermen community with its second largest commercial port and its only offshore islands. Therefore, can Maritime Spatial Planning support this fragile situation? To answer these questions, MSP and peacebuilding planning strategies were compared and combined in a joint conceptual framework, which was then applied on three proposed political scenarios based on the region’s historic overview.
... Control over HLP has played a central role in the Syrian conflict -including the initial uprising (Loveluck and Habib 2017) -producing acute complications for the prospect of return for the over 11 million dislocated people (OCHA 2016). The HLP restitution effort needed for this population is thought to be large-scale, costly and require a significant timeframe (NRC 2016;Unruh 2016a). ...
... This technique seeks to corroborate that certain assertions and evidence regarding land and property rights are true or likely to be true -such as the address or general area of origin of the claimant. The technique can be compromised however if one of the belligerent parties in a war realizes the usefulness of such databases for this purpose and destroys themwhich is the case for Syria (Unruh 2016a). However, this technique can be upgraded to get around the destruction of such domestic non-party databases, and amplify its corroborative ability. ...
Article
Full-text available
The large-scale restitution of housing, land and property (HLP) for those dislocated due to armed conflict has significant repercussions for the prospect of return, recovery and durable peace. Failure to adequately engage in restitution and other remedies for displaced populations has demonstrated that the grievances generated usually do not abate, but instead grow, including over generations, to produce subsequent problems, including armed conflict. While advances in transitional justice have supported the development of mass claims processes for HLP in war- affected countries, the current magnitude and complexity of forced dislocation is beyond the ability of conventional techniques to manage in an effective and timely way. This article argues that the current approach for handling massive numbers of HLP claims in postwar scenarios needs a critical upgrade; and describes what such an upgrade could comprise with a set of advanced techniques. These techniques focus on the issues of time, the size and complexity of the problem, new spatial technologies, and the now much greater agency possessed by displaced populations made possible by mobile digital technologies.
... While such documentation may be an opportunity to reclaim HLP after a war, it also offers a very large opportunity for fraud, falsification, confiscation, and sales that are coerced or under duress. The existence of such documentary evidence can be a reason that state archives and HLP offices are often one of the first targets in wars (Unruh 2016). For customary tenure, a 'memory cadaster' is held by members of the local community, lineage or tribe who retain knowledge of who lived where prior to a war (Batson 2008;Unruh et al 2017). ...
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The ongoing use of landscape-based conflict commodities — diamonds and other minerals, timber, wildlife, etc. — to finance wars continues to evolve. The success with which such commodities can be transacted to support militaries, militias and insurgencies has led belligerents to innovate with additional commodities. Housing, land and property (HLP) rights within war zones have belatedly joined the list of conflict commodities that are subject to transaction, and to such an extent as to warrant significant concern. However, the use of ‘conflict HLP rights’ has not yet been operationally described in the way that other conflict commodities have been. This is a necessary first step towards deriving and designing countermeasures. This article makes a preliminary attempt to delineate the exploitation of conflict HLP rights by examining how they are transacted to support belligerent groups in three conflicts: Darfur, Colombia and Syria.
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