Seminar – Launch of the DERAILED report

By Felicity James

On 13 February 2012, Oxfam Australia and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law hosted a seminar in Melbourne to launch “DERAILED: A Study on the Resettlement Process and Impacts of the Rehabilitation of the Cambodian Railway”, a report by Bridges Across Borders Cambodia. James Ensor, Policy Director at Oxfam Australia, moderated the event.

The DERAILED report concerns a project partially funded by AusAID and the Asian Development Bank to restore 650 kilometres of Cambodia’s railway system. The railway will be operated by a joint venture between Australian company Toll Holdings and Cambodian company Royal Group.

The project has been criticised for adversely impacting thousands of Cambodian families who have been forcibly evicted from their homes by the railway. This resettlement process is managed by the Cambodian Government. The DERAILED report presents findings on this component of the project.

The DERAILED report “is a lot more damning than we had ever hoped it would be”.

The presentation from Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, followed by a diverse panel of speakers, shed much-needed light on the compliance of this project with human rights law and the ADB’s own safeguard policies. The speakers also offered constructive recommendations for improving the current approach to development projects. The importance of devoting resources to monitoring and enforcement of safeguard policies on the ground was a recurring theme.

David Pred, the Executive Director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, spoke candidly about the context for the DERAILED report, saying it “is a lot more damning than we had ever hoped it would be”. While acknowledging the role of development institutions over the past two decades in developing safeguard policies on involuntary resettlement; legal and regulatory frameworks; and institutional capacity building, he said the worldwide resettlement record is “shameful” and characterised by “insufficient financing, poor planning and inadequate implementation”.

… “it should be seen as an opportunity to directly lift people out of poverty and ensure that they are among the prime beneficiaries of the project” …

With palpable disappointment, David explained that the Cambodian railway project had the potential to be a model for good involuntary resettlement practice “in a country desperately in need of better models”, but has instead been an “unmitigated development disaster”.

The critical message from David’s presentation – also in the preface to the DERAILED report – was that when resettlement is unavoidable, “it should be seen as an opportunity to directly lift people out of poverty and ensure that they are among the prime beneficiaries of the project”. There have been development success stories, including in Cambodia, and their key features include genuine consultation with affected communities and an approach to resettlement as a development opportunity, he said.  Perhaps a future seminar could examine these development successes in more detail.

Natalie Bugalksi, human rights lawyer and co-author of the DERAILED report, spoke about her findings of “significant and ongoing non-compliance” with key human rights obligations and the ADB’s own involuntary resettlement safeguard policies. If these human rights and policy requirements had been complied with, “we would be likely to see those facing resettlement lifted out of poverty rather than being thrust deeper into impoverishment as a result of resettlement”, she said.

Natalie provided a clear picture of the direct impacts of the railway project on at least 4000 families who have been forced to relocate from their homes because they fall within the 3.5 metre designated corridor of the railway.

Despite the fact that over 20 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women in Cambodia are illiterate … information was provided in the form of written booklets …

For instance, families in Phnom Penh have often been relocated 25 kilometres from their original site without basic services such as water, sanitation, access to schools or a means to generate income. Income restoration projects have been delayed and are often ineffective, Natalie said, with lessons on mushroom growing and chicken raising at sites where there is not enough room for people to engage in these activities.

Other instances of non-compliance with the ADB’s safeguard policies included a glaring example of a breach of the ADB policy on access to information. Despite the fact that over 20 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women in Cambodia are illiterate, with a much larger percentage of the population having only primary level education, information was provided in the form of written booklets, the DERAILED report found.

Eang Vuthy, Development Watch Program Manager at Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, offered a Cambodian perspective. He spoke about a case study of a father and his family who had been living by the railway in Poipet since 1987 and were much like “many hundreds of families in the same situation”. The father was forced to thumbprint a post-it note contract for insufficient compensation; relocate his family; obtain a loan to rebuild his house; and eventually “run away” because of government accusations of incitement following his complaints about the project.

Taking a step back from the DERAILED report findings, Matthew Hilton, Chair of Aid/Watch, began the panel discussion with a thought provoking talk on the underlying economic growth rationale behind the involvement of AusAID and the ADB in development projects. He explained why economic growth as a means to achieving poverty reduction is flawed, with the benefits actually “trickling out” of the country rather than benefiting the poor. He also provided examples of countries with high GDP but low social and health indicators.

… repairing the damage caused by violations of safeguard policies retroactively is extremely difficult and costly.

It’s true that Cambodia doesn’t actually have a problem with economic growth – in fact, joint venture partner Royal Group promote Cambodia as “the fastest growing economy in South-East Asia”.

Matthew also discussed the involvement of private companies in development projects and what he viewed as a “privatisation agenda”. He spoke about the need for AusAID to have a process of evaluating whether privatisation is really necessary and whether there are other options available. For instance, “there was never any option of skilling up the Cambodian Railway Department”, he said.

As someone who has been involved in monitoring ADB projects, Jessica Rosien, Advocacy Coordinator at Oxfam Australia, added an important perspective to the panel. Her key message was that repairing the damage caused by violations of safeguard policies retroactively is extremely difficult and costly. A change of approach would be in the interests of all parties, she said.

… comprehensive safeguard policies are meaningless without resources on the ground for monitoring the implementation of the policies …

Jessica drew attention to the safeguard policies on the ADB website and the statement that environmental and social safeguards are a “cornerstone” to their pursuit of poverty reduction. She noted that the ADB safeguard policy on involuntary resettlement was in fact recently revised to require the livelihood situation of affected people to be restored to “at least pre-project levels or better” and people identified as disadvantaged and vulnerable are actually required to be better off as a result of resettlement.

Again, the recurring theme throughout the seminar was that comprehensive safeguard policies are meaningless without resources on the ground for monitoring the implementation of the policies – and an adequate budget for the resettlement process.

Finally, Dr Adam McBeth, Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, provided a useful overview of the scope of extraterritorial human rights and made the argument that AusAID do in fact have extraterritorial human rights obligations.

“Cambodian people appreciate international development assistance, but we want to see it prioritsing the poor and most vulnerable in society”.

Dr McBeth noted that, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, when interpreting Article 2 of the ICCPR, human rights obligations extend to “anyone within the power or effective control of [a] State Party”. In the context of this project, “it is fair to say AusAID has a substantial influence over the [resettlement] process” and is therefore accountable for the aspects of the project within their influence and control, he said. It is “unsustainable” to maintain Australia has no human rights obligations, and they can certainly exist concurrently with those of the Cambodian Government, he said.

 

Questions raised at the end of the seminar highlighted the issues faced by aid agencies when transparency and the will of government is an issue. Given these difficulties, should AusAID simply withdraw from the project? Eang Vuthy gave an emphatic ‘no’. He said that “Cambodian people appreciate international development assistance, but we want to see it prioritsing the poor and most vulnerable in society”.

The event finished with a short film by Bridges Across Borders Cambodia documenting the views of affected Cambodians. The film reflected the findings of the DERAILED report discussed by Natalie Bugalski, and served as an apt reminder of who the prime beneficiaries of the Cambodian railway project should be.

Listen to a Right Now Radio 3CR podcast including highlights from the DERAILED report launch here.

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