International and Regional Human Rights Law and Land Rights

Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The reference to property rights was altogether dropped in the two human rights Covenants adopted by the United Nations in 1966. In addressing the right to be free from hunger, article 11 of the ICESCR makes only one indirect reference to land when it encourages states parties to develop or reform “agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources.” (See Module 12 on this point.)

The First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights states:

No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

However, these provisions shall not “in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”6

Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to the use and enjoyment of his property. The law may subordinate such use and enjoyment to the interest of society . . . No one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of just compensation, for reasons of public utility or social interest and in the cases and according to the forms of established law.7

Article 14 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights reads:

The right to property shall be guaranteed. It may only be encroached upon in the interest of public need or in the general interest of the community and in accordance with the provisions of appropriate laws.8

Article 21(2) says, “In case of spoliation the dispossessed people shall have the right to the lawful recovery of its property as well as to an adequate compensation.”

United Nations declarations more specific to land include the Declaration on Social Progress, adopted by the General Assembly in 1969, which recognizes the social function of property, including land, and calls for forms of land ownership that ensure equal rights to property for all.9

Of the UN specialized agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have given most attention to land rights concerns, in either binding conventions or nonbinding declarations.At its World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in 1979, the FAO adopted a Declaration of Principles and Programme of Action, referred to as “The Peasants Charter,” a major section of which is concerned with the reorganization of land tenure. It advocates the imposition of land ceilings in countries where substantial reorganization of land tenure and land redistribution to land-less peasants and smallholders is needed as part of a rural development strategy and as a means to redistribution of power. Other sections of the charter are concerned with tenancy reform, regulation of changes in customary tenure and with community control over natural resources.10