States obligated to safeguard equitable access to and use of land – UN committee publishes guidance

Geneva, 25 January, 2023.- The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has issued a guidance note to clarify States’ obligations regarding the access to, use of and control over land, particularly about pressing issues affecting human rights such as eviction of land users, international investment, land-related conflicts, and climate change.

“In many parts of the world, land is not only a resource for producing food, generating income, and developing housing; it also constitutes the basis for social, cultural and religious practices and the enjoyment of the right to take part in cultural life,” the Committee states in its guidance note, formally known as a general comment.

The high demand for land and rapid urbanisation in most parts of the world has significantly impacted the rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In cities, the financialisation of housing markets has fuelled speculation and inflation, affecting the rights to an adequate standard of living and adequate housing of those left behind. In rural areas, the competition for arable land from large-scale development projects and tourism has significantly affected the livelihoods and rights of rural populations. “Land degradation owing to overuse, poor management and unsustainable agricultural practices had caused food insecurity and water degradation and is directly linked to climate change,” the Committee states.

The general comment provides specific advice on legitimate tenure rights. States parties should refrain from evicting users from land on which they depend for their livelihoods and from using forced evictions and demolition of property as punitive measures. The Committee calls on States parties to “introduce and implement national legislation that explicitly prohibits forced evictions and sets out a framework for eviction and resettlement processes to be carried out in line with international human rights law and standards.”

Noting the growing negative impact on individual groups, peasants and indigenous peoples’ access to productive resources as a result of international investments, the general comment urges States parties to “take specific measures to prevent their domestic and international policies and actions, such as trade, investment, energy, agricultural, development and climate change mitigation policies, from interfering, directly or indirectly, with the enjoyment of human rights.”

Structural unequal distribution of land can also be a major root cause of conflicts, which in turn also lead to forced displacements and land dispossession, impacting the most vulnerable. “States should make every effort to prevent land dispossession during internal armed conflicts. If dispossessions do nevertheless occur, States are obliged to establish restitution programmes to guarantee to all internally displaced persons the right to have restored to them any land of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived,” the Committee underlines.

The General Comment reflects the Committee’s concerns about the impact of climate change on access to land. “Rising temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are increasingly affecting access to land,” the Committee explains, adding, “States have an obligation to design climate change adaptation policies at the national level that take into consideration all forms of land use change induced by climate change.”

The full text of the general comment on Land and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is now available online.

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