Social Justice Quests in the Process of Development-induced Displacement

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“For millions of people around the world—development has cost them their homes, their livelihoods, their health, and even their very lives.”

                             – W. Courtland Robinson


The term development-induced displacement (DID) by itself mirrors two contradictory notions, which rightly represent the dilemma associated with this form of involuntary displacement. On the one hand, “development” has a positive connotation, as it represents the social and economic advancement of a given society, and on the other hand, displacement entails the involuntary removal of people from their homes or residences, which comes with various socio-economic risks. DID, whether or not it is followed by planned resettlement, refers to the involuntary displacement of persons from their homes or habitual residence in order to make a room for development projects. With the proliferation of large scale development projects, particularly in developing and highly populated countries, DID has emerged as one of the prominent causes of internal displacement affecting an estimated number of 15 million people every year (see Heather Randell, 2017).

DID has various risks and impacts, which extends from inherent socio-economic problems to grave human rights violations, on displaced persons. This is especially true when the resettlement programs fail short of equitable standards and adequate procedural guarantees are not accorded. The acquisition of land and eviction that DID entails subject those affected to homelessness, landlessness, loss or decrease of income, and social disintegration, among others. These further create unfavourable living conditions, food insecurity, and increase morbidity and mortality rates. These consequences of DID often extend to a long period resulting in chronic impoverishment of those affected. Overall, as Michael Cernea puts it, “being forcibly ousted from one’s land and habitat by a dam, reservoir or highway is not only immediately disruptive and painful, it is also fraught with serious long term risks of becoming poorer than before displacement, more vulnerable economically, and disintegrated socially” (see Michael Cernea, in Tim Allen (ed), 1996). Having this background in mind, this article seeks to elucidate the social justice concerns DID gives rise to.

The concerns of social justice in the process of DID

Social justice, as coined by John Rawls and further dissected by contemporary works, constitutes two major principles, i.e. equality and distributive justice. Equality, “the principle of equal liberty” in Rawls’ terms, demands the provision of equal rights and liberties for everyone. The second principle, namely “the difference principle”, envisages that social and economic inequalities are acceptable only if they are “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons” and “attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity” (see John Rawls, 1971). This is closely linked with distributive justice, which stresses on equal participation of all persons/peoples in economic and social opportunities and benefits thereof. Social justice is also closely connected with modern days conception of human rights as principles of equality, non-discrimination, and protection of vulnerable groups, which are widely recognized in human rights instruments, clearly attest. In light of this, DID and the socio-economic risks that come with it raise numerous social justice concerns.

To begin with, the costs of development are often borne by the underprivileged portions of the population. This is also not different when it comes to the involuntary displacement caused by development projects, which disproportionately affects the most marginalized groups. For instance, indigenous peoples constitute 40% of the total number of people displaced due to development projects in India between 1951 to 1991, despite the fact that they only make up only 8 percent of the population (see Jason Stanley, 2004).

Moreover, ironically, “those who enjoy the benefits of development [that caused displacement] may not be those who bear the risks” (see Hari Mathur, 1995). One does not have to look further than hydroelectric dam projects to understand this. These projects are often undertaken in rural areas with no electricity and their proceeds (the electric power generated) do not reach the people displaced by the very project. Thus, the social and economic inequality created as the result of these practices further affects disadvantaged groups rather than benefiting them. This clearly goes against the distributive justice yearnings of social justice.

DID also perpetuates already existing vulnerabilities creating further disadvantages and marginalization. In other words, certain groups of people, such as indigenous peoples, women, children, the elderly and disabled people, are more severely affected by the consequences of DID. For indigenous peoples, for instance, land is more than a resource; it has spiritual value and their way of life is highly connected to it. This is the principal reason why indigenous peoples are endowed with special rights to land under international human rights law, which includes protection against relocation without their free and full consent save for limited exceptions. Hence, physical displacement from their ancestral land carries more weight and highly disrupts their way of life.

Furthermore, in some cases, structural or systemic discriminations are manifested in the process of DID and resettlement, which is prejudicial to certain groups. For instance, gender-based discrimination in property ownership and management, particularly land, creates discriminatory practices in the provision of remedies following displacement. A study conducted on Tehri dam in India, which displaced approximately more than 12,000 families, pointed out gender bias in the process of resettlement, which reinforced the lack of women’s property ownership. These practices clearly compromise the principles of equality and non-discrimination embodied in social justice.

The way forward: putting humans at the centre of development

In some cases, displacement might be inevitable and it can be justified based on the demands of public interest. This can be deduced from the limitation clauses of the relevant human rights instruments, particularly those providing for the right to housing, the right to property and protection from “arbitrary or unlawful interference with [one’s] privacy, family, home or correspondence”, which are some of the rights commonly encroached upon by DID. The right to adequate housing, recognized under Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) comprises, inter alia, protection from forced eviction and other interferences to the enjoyment of the right. Forced eviction, which is defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) under General Comment No.7 as the involuntary removal of persons/people from their homes and/or land without the provision of legal or other protections, amounts to prima facie violation of the right to housing. Hence, it is prohibited under international human rights law. However, as the definition itself indicates and further reiterated by the Committee, not all evictions fall under the category of forced eviction. The prohibition does not extend to eviction carried out in compliance with domestic laws and international human rights norms, even if it is involuntary (see General Comment No.7, par.3). This entails that, first, eviction has to be justified by resort to the ‘general welfare’ requirement and, second, adequate safeguards have to be provided at all stages of eviction. This can be inferred from the cumulative reading of the general limitation clause under Article 4 of the ICESCR and the provision on the right to adequate housing as well as the relevant authoritative interpretations of the Committee. Similarly, protection from interference with one’s home recognized under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also leaves a room within which such interference can be justified if it is provided by law, complies with the general objectives of the Covenant and is reasonable (see General Comment No.16, par.3&4). The right to property, which is guaranteed under Article 17 of the UDHR and other human rights frameworks, is not an absolute right either. States can acquire private property for public purposes in accordance with the law and human rights norms. Overall, eviction and land acquisition that cause DID can be justified in exceptional cases, if there is an overriding public interest or general welfare to be protected and if those measures comply with the stringent prerequisites of international human rights law. It has to be noted here that the exception is even narrower and the conditions are more stringent when it comes to indigenous peoples.

Hence, the main issues here are whether or not ‘development’ can be used as a legitimate aim for the purpose of the general welfare requirement and what safeguards should be put in place if the displacement is justified. Although what general welfare constitutes is not clearly stated under the instruments mentioned above, Limburg Principles on the Implementation of the ICESCR and the literature on the subject suggest that it pertains to the economic and social “well-being of the people as a whole” (see Amrei Muller, 2009). Thus, development projects that are aimed at economic and social development may satisfy the general welfare requirement depending on the circumstances of the case. Nevertheless, even if DID and the eviction and expropriation it constitutes are justified based on international human rights norms, the obligations of states do not stop there. States are required to provide adequate procedural and substantive safeguards, which includes, inter alia, meaningful consultation before displacement and commensurate compensation and rehabilitation during and after displacement (see General Comment No.7 and the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement). Moreover, the remedies provided for displaced people should not be limited to short-term remedies, such as compensation, but also involve long-term remedies and assistance to re-establish their livelihood.    

Overall, most of the consequences and risks associated with DID are attributable to lack of adequate safeguards at all stages of displacement, i.e. before, during and after, rather than the fact of displacement itself. Even if it seldom happens, there are some positive experiences where DID actually improved the socio-economic wellbeing of those affected, in terms of the level of income and provision of public services. In those cases, displacement is followed by adequate resettlement and rehabilitation measures. For instance, studies have shown that the livelihoods of the people displaced by the Arena Hydroelectric Project in Costa Rica and the Yacreta Hydroelectric project in Argentina have improved after displacement (see William L. Partridge, 1994). What these cases have in common is procedural fairness, including the meaningful participation of those affected from the inception of the development project to the resettlement process, and durable remedies based on the specific needs of the people concerned. These positive experiences attest that with proper procedural and substantive safeguards, briefly mentioned above, most of the socio-economic risks associated with DID can be mitigated, if not avoided.

As one of the pillars of the right to development indicates, “the human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.” This should be the guiding principle in the process of DID and resettlement as well. In other words, people that are affected by DID should be given a chance to participate in the development project in question and to benefit from the proceeds thereof. The utilitarian approach of procuring the greater good for the greater number alone does not cut it here. Hence, development programs need to aspire beyond a mere economic growth or maximization of goods and services and address the social justice concerns of the people involved, particularly of those bearing the costs of development. Needless to say that development should not worsen the lives of people, if not make it better. In the words of Amartya Sen:

 “development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms, it is argued here, is constitutive of development.”

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Muluneh Bayabil,( former student of you at AAU, School of Law) says

November 19, 2019

Hi, Romi, Very interesting perspective. Glad to see you at this juncture and wish you for a successful completion of your PhD program.

You may reach me via the below mail for further exchange of views.