Do Large-scale Land Acquisitions Violate International Law?

In April, farmers and organizations commemorated International Peasants’ Day by rallying against land grabbing. FIAN, one of the preeminent right-to-food groups, announced that land grabbing breaches international human rights law, a claim that’s been made by other organizations as well. Is this true?

Our answer may depend in part on how we define land grabbing, a loaded term that implies something illicit. If someone is grabbing land from someone else, there are probably rights issues at stake, end of story. So let’s look instead at that neutral phrase used by international financial institutions:  large-scale land acquisitions. Large-scale land acquisitions are purchases or long-term leases of large tracts of land. Do these violate international human rights law?

In theory, and absent all complicating factors, mere purchases or long-term leases of land do not inherently violate human rights laws. Property rights are generally protected under international law, and those rights usually include the ability to sell or lease your property if you want to do so.

But theory is just that, and reality much grimmer. The actual practice of large-scale land acquisitions is a different story. Not all large-scale land acquisitions are the same, but many documented cases do violate international human rights law in practice. This can happen in a number of ways. Let’s look briefly at a few of the most likely abuses.

First, large-scale land acquisitions can lead to violations of land rights, including forced evictions. There is no international human right to land, but a prohibition against forced evictions is grounded in a number of human rights, in particular the international human right to adequate housing. The right to adequate housing is protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The former Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing developed guidelines on evictions and displacement, outlining when displacement is acceptable under international human rights law and what governments most do before, during, and after evictions occur. Generally, evictions cannot occur unless “undertaken solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare”; they must be reasonable and proportional, and accompanied by full and fair compensation and rehabilitation.

International law also provides special protections for the land rights of indigenous people. ILO Convention No. 169 (1989) prohibits their forced removal, requiring their “free and informed consent.” (Of course, as with most laws, narrow exceptions exist.) Thus, for both indigenous groups and non-indigenous groups, large-scale land acquisitions that displace people without their consent – regardless of whether the displaced persons have title to the land or not – violate international law unless they fall into the small area of exceptions.

Second, large-scale land acquisitions can lead to violations of the right to food, which is also protected under the ICESCR. The right to food is realized when people are able to grow sufficient food or to earn a livelihood to purchase it. Governments must not interfere with existing access to productive resources, such as land, on which people depend, and must protect against third parties’ attempts to do so. If a large-scale land acquisition pushes people off the land and thereby destroys their ability to grow or purchase sufficient food, this constitutes a human rights violation. Very narrow exceptions may arise, but in those cases, governments must follow certain protocols, including the provision of appropriate compensation.

Third, large-scale land acquisitions can lead to violations of the right to self-determination and the right to development. The right to self-determination is protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the ICESCR. It is the right of all peoples to freely dispose of natural wealth and resources, and to guard their means of subsistence. Similarly, the right to development, codified in the Declaration on the right to development, is closely linked to the rights to self-determination. The right to developments calls for people’s active participation in development. Large-scale land acquisitions that deprive people of resources and their means of subsistence without their permission would violate these rights.

So, although purchasing or leasing land — even large tracts of land — is not a problem in theory, large-scale land acquisitions can in practice lead to a number of violations of international human rights law. Moreover, the human rights abuses discussed above can all occur before actual production on land commences. There is also potential for abuses once land is put into production. Large-scale land acquisitions are often made for the purpose of setting up plantations:  and as has been documented around the world, there are a number of human rights violations that can occur against hired agricultural workers.

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