Cambodian land grabs are 'crime against humanity', lawyers tell ICC

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Violent, systematic seizures of small farmers’ land in Cambodia by members of the political elite constitute a crime against humanity, rights lawyers said on Tuesday in a claim before the International Criminal Court.

Politicians, businessmen and security forces have committed crimes including murder, forcible transfer of populations, illegal imprisonment, persecution, and other inhumane acts in order to enrich themselves and preserve their power, the legal communication alleges.

“Land-related human rights violations have reached shocking levels,” Richard J Rogers, the lawyer who submitted the claim, said in a news release. “An ICC intervention will force the Cambodian government to reconsider its approach to land grabbing and suppression of dissidents.”

It should take the ICC three to six months to decide whether to begin a preliminary examination, Rogers said in an email interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A full investigation would take longer.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said the complaint was a partisan ploy by a local opposition party. “The motivation is to polarize,” Siphan said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lawyers were hired by supporters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, he said. “They are just trying to make our government look bad. They invented fake numbers of people being affected by land grabbing and eviction.”

The legal claim placed before the ICC alleges that since 2000, 770,000 people or 6 percent of Cambodia’s population have been affected by land grabbing, including 145,000 people forced out of the capital, Phnom Penh.

The case offers the ICC, based in The Hague, “a rare opportunity to confirm the crucial role of international criminal law in protecting peacetime populations from mass forcible transfer,” said Rogers, a partner at the London-based firm Global Diligence LLP.

At least four million hectares of land, 22 percent of Cambodia’s land area, have been confiscated, with indigenous peoples particularly targeted, the International Federation for Human Rights based in Paris, a group working with Rogers’ lawsuit, reported.

The Cambodian government’s actions “amount to crimes against humanity” when taken cumulatively, the rights group said.

There have been a few cases of corrupt local officials being involved in land grabs, Siphan said, and the individuals involved have been prosecuted after formal complaints from residents.

Cambodia ratified the ICC Statute in March 2002, giving the Court jurisdiction over alleged crimes against humanity or genocide committed on Cambodia’s territory since July 2002.

Many of the evicted residents were removed to make way for sugar or rubber plantations, or logging operations, Rogers said.

Some of the projects involved joint ventures between Cambodia’s ruling elite, and international investors, mostly from Thailand, China and Vietnam, Rogers said.

Displaced Cambodians were not available for interviews, lawyers managing the case said.

Once pushed off their land, Cambodians face appalling conditions in resettlement camps where food insecurity and disease are rife, complainants said.