It is not difficult to see why historically land rights have been a flash point and landlessness invariably a cause of social unrest.
Feudal exploitation, the process of colonization and the passing of natural resources to state control, encroachments by private commercial interests and now globalization-these are the main historical factors that have defined contemporary conflicts involving land and land rights. It is perhaps the historical importance of land that has made the question of the rights to land a very broad and complex subject matter.
The Muslim rebellion in the Philippines, the Palestinians’ struggle for the return of their homeland, the Zapatista movement in Mexico and many other conflicts that are very much part of today’s news, involve land. Indeed, issues of access to land and land security continue to have an impact on a very significant part of the world’s population who still depend on land access and security for their subsistence and livelihood.
“For the billions of the world’s rural poor, land security must be seen as a necessary precondition for the realization of other internationally protected human rights.”5 Despite this, land rights issues have rarely been addressed from an international human rights perspective. This is in part due to the fact that land issues are very complex. Land rights do not just pertain to the right of ownership. They also refer to access, use, possession and occupation of land, and security of such use, possession or tenure. Local and national landowning and land use systems vary considerably from country to country and, frequently, within countries.As a result, identifying and reaching agreement on principles and standards that can usefully be applied across borders and systems have proved to be very difficult.