What started out as a law school research paper ultimately led to the creation of a manual that was presented to senior investigators and prosecutors at the world’s highest criminal court - The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Developed by students at the Allard School of Law, Breaking New Ground is a manual that provides guidance around how to prosecute land grabbers for crimes against humanity and has the potential to help change the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Sasha Vukovic was a third year law student enrolled at the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic (IJHR) at the Allard School of Law. His research paper served as the basis for this manual, the culmination of a year-long project involving two other students and the Clinic’s director and fellow.
In conducting the research for the manual, what was most startling for Sasha was the sheer number of people who have been affected by land grabbing – when large corporations assisted by powerful local elites illegally or unjustly seize large tracts of land resulting in wide-scale human rights violations of locals.
“I came across the situation in Cambodia, in which government-connected business leaders and multinational corporations have been implicated in land grabs that have adversely affected over 800,000 people since the year 2000,” explained Sasha. “In Brazil, for instance, over 200 land and environmental defenders have been killed since 2010, as rural communities are being subjected to violence and displacement by agribusiness companies and local businessmen who often act with state support. In Papua New Guinea, which remains the poorest country in Asia-Pacific despite a wealth of natural resources, nearly one third of land is in the hands of foreign corporations, some of which reportedly include Australian and Canadian logging and mining companies that have been implicated in grave human rights abuses; all the while, the rainforest is being destroyed and indigenous landowners are being unlawfully displaced from the land that has been a source of their livelihood for thousands of years.”
Sasha and Nicole Barrett, Director of the IJHR Clinic, travelled to The Hague earlier this year to present the manual to the ICC. For Sasha, it was an experience of a lifetime.
“As we were escorted through several layers of security, including metal detectors and biometric scanners, into an impressive glass building surrounded by a moat of water, it finally sunk in to me that this was actually happening. It was almost surreal to realize that something that had started as a Clinic research paper had culminated to this moment which could lead to the ICC taking on a real case that would make an actual impact in the world,” said Sasha.
The timing of the manual is particularly significant as the ICC had recently stated that it would consider giving special consideration to Rome Statute crimes (the treaty that established the international criminal court) committed by or resulting in the illegal dispossession of land, exploitation of natural resources, and environmental destruction.
Driven by this new policy direction, Breaking New Ground lays out the steps to prosecute illegal land grabbing as a crime against humanity. The manual examines land seizures in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Myanmar, and Cambodia, as well as the laws surrounding “forcible transfer” and issues related to jurisdiction, defendant selection and corporate liability. The manual also explores the role that various forms of corruption play in illegally seizing land.
“By prosecuting even a few of the most serious instances of the crimes arising from illegal land grabs, the ICC can send a strong message to businesses and governments,” said Professor Barrett. “ICC prosecutions would help deter future violations and potentially bring justice to victims of illegitimate land seizures. Prosecutions would also help expose the bleak reality of so-called ‘economic development’ projects that profoundly harm rather than help local populations, while unjustly enriching government, military and business elites.”
The IJHR Clinic continues to work on related ground-breaking research aimed at shifting the tide of corporate involvement in land grabbing.
“The most profound moment in the project for me was an interview with Khin Zaw Win, an activist and former political prisoner from 1994 to 2005, who eloquently captured the human impact of land grabs in Myanmar with one poignant quote: ‘people were deprived of their incomes, their livelihoods, and their homes…it’s like death, in a very slow fashion.’ It was a very real reminder that beyond the aggregate data, there are individual victims whose lives are at stake,” said Sasha.
About the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic
The Clinic gives upper-year law students the opportunity to work on pressing human rights and global justice concerns through hands-on work on international cases and projects. Students gain experience applying international human rights law, international criminal law and/or international humanitarian law working on specific cases with a range of international justice organizations, including international criminal courts and tribunals, United Nations human rights bodies, and non-governmental organizations.
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