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Contextualizing displacement, the right to development

Contextualizing displacement, the right to development

Solomon Tekle (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Law of the University of Gondar. His research interests include development, law and human rights. His recent research project: “Forced Displacement from Land as a Limit for the Realization of the Right to Development in Ethiopia”, looks into the recent displacements in the country, government’s response to problem and how it affects the displaced in terms of realizing their right to development. Solomon presented the findings of his research at the recently held Third International Conference on the Right to Development, organized by the University of Free State from September, 25 to 27, 2019. Brook Abdu of The Reporter sat down with Solomon to discuss development, land, displacement and the right to development in reference to his research findings. Excerpt:

The Reporter: Since the focus of your research is the right to development and forced displacement, let’s discuss the concept of development first. How is development conceived and what does it entail?

Solomon Tekle (PhD): Every issue in a third world country can be related to development. Development means everything, although the term can sometimes be elusive. Countries such as Ethiopia are called underdeveloped; nevertheless, the concept of development entails reducing and eradicating poverty and addressing socio-economic, political and cultural interests. So, it is an all-encompassing concept with so many facets. Basically, it is the improvement to the living standards of the vast majority of the affected communities.

Many Africans live at less than one dollar a day and this living standard has to be improved. Hence, development is a very key concept that we need to own and understand to address the challenges both at continental and country levels.

The context of development in the developing world is quite different from that of the West. From 1700 to 1945, the focus of the Western development thought was on promoting the capitalist mode of economy. The post-1945 development is more important for the African context, as this period has witnessed leaders and citizens of the continent striving for economic, social, and political change. By and large, the concept of development in the Western context today is to increase opportunities; not simply raising people out of poverty. But, it is all about giving more alternatives and choices for people both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Hence, is development fundamentally different from Westernization or industrialization?

For Africans, development is not only about industrialization. Development is not all about economic growth; or about the numbers, digits, and indices. The human element or the betterment peoples’ lives is at the center of development. Industrialization only is not development; it requires improving the living standards of people, addressing poverty, and reducing insecurities.

Let’s proceed to the right to development. What does it entail and how is it articulated in the legal frameworks both at the continental and country level?

Development as a right is an African contribution; or I can say the third world’s contribution to the rest of the global community. It was Keba M'baye, a Senegalese jurist, who coined the term and articulated the concept for the first time back in the 1970s. This conceptual framework of the right to development is related to an appreciation of the past injustices and structural imbalances we Africans experienced during the colonial period and in the time after that. Following the breakdown of colonialism in the 1950s and 60s, the African states, compared to the other continents remained underdeveloped. And in order to economically position Africa with the rest of the world, Africans emphasized this concept – the right to development. The different aspects of development including the ownership of land and other natural resources are at the center of this concept. Two-thirds of African resources were looted during the colonial period; and most African countries were impoverished because of that. Development hence aims to guarantee self-determination and raise people out of poverty and compensate for that impoverishment. It also aims to raise the living standard of the people as well as restore the different cultural traditions that Africans used to enjoy pre and postcolonialism.

While jurists from the North puzzled whether it existed at all, the right to development was subsequently recognized in the African Charter, also called the Banjul Charter, adopted in 1981 and entered into force in 1986. This right is explicitly stipulated under article 22 of the Charter. This article clearly mentions that development is a pervasive right incorporating all peoples’ right to their economic, social and cultural development and their right to the enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind. The article also imposes an enforceable obligation of the states to ensure the enjoyment of peoples’ right to development.

Speaking of the right to development in terms of the global human rights documents, we also have article 1 of the 1986 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Right to Development which defines the meaning of the right to development. Although this document is not binding, it has been mentioned frequently to explain what the right to development implies. The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 also underlines that the right to development is an inalienable human right giving entitlement to all people. It is a universal inalienable human right that has been confirmed into the different UN documents, declarations and programs of action.

And, a number of countries have also recognized this right including Ethiopian in its Federal Constitution. Although not many countries have included it in their Constitution, Ethiopia is one of the few countries in Africa to so. Other African countries have also taken step to incorporate it in to their Constitution: namely the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Malawi, where the right to development is explicitly indicated in their Constitutions. Importantly, the right is also recognized in the African human right jurisprudence including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ogiek Community) v Republic of Kenya (2017) Appl 006/2017, paras 201-217; and Centre for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) & Minority Rights Group International on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council v Kenya (2009) AHRLR 75 (ACHPR 2009), paras 269-298.


The right to development falls in the third generation of rights. The first generation of rights includes civil and political rights and the second generation of rights is economic, social and cultural rights. The third generation is solidarity or collective right into which the right to development falls. While such classification seems fictitious, it remains to be relevant in the overall human rights discourse.

You mentioned the issue of land in your discussion. What kind of role does land play for development, especially in developing countries?

Clearly, it means a lot. We cannot think of development without land. The issue of land can be related to different aspects of development in economic terms. Look at our agricultural products which are mainly sourced from the land. So, we can say that, in the economic as well as social spheres, land plays a significant role. Take, for instance, the social aspects, it raises a number of opportunities to raise the level of standards for the society. Schools are built on land. So, land means everything. You can also take Irreecha, a cultural entity that was very recently celebrated in Finfinne [Addis Ababa] after 150 years. It relates to the issue of land as the question of Addis is about land. Culture and land are inextricably intertwined.

Some 85 percent of the Ethiopian population resides in the rural part of the country and you cannot think of employment, production, culture, and anything without land. Hence, the land is crucial for social, economic, cultural, and political development in Ethiopia and other developing countries as well.

Land has been at the center of political discourse in Ethiopia since the time of Emperor Haileselassie I. We have seen land, coupled with other factors, causing the toppling of governments. Still, there are questions of land in terms of ownership, management, and administration. Does this tell us that throughout the years, the country has failed to comprehensively address the question of land?

Indeed, the question of land ownership, management and administration has not been fully addressed. Without going further, the current administration that came with a brand new prime minister came because of the issue of land. The mass protests in the Oromia and Amhara Regional states that we had witnessed were based on the question of land. The Ethiopian Federal Constitution has institutionalized ethnic federalism on the basis of which border demarcations were made. With these demarcations came several arguments including that the demarcations had not been participatory enough to the concerned ethnic groups in accordance with the requirements of the provisions of the Constitution itself.

The protests that brought about change in the administration of the country and all other political discourses can be related to the question of land. Now, internal displacement has become a major problem in this country which is also mainly related to the question of land; especially relating to minority groups living in predominantly majority occupied territories such as the Amharas or Sidamas or Wolaytas in the Oromia region. Political discourse in our country is therefore related negatively or positively to the question of land.

As you have indicated in your study as well as in your discussion above, land is hugely related to identity in Ethiopia. Has this linkage between land and identity hindered the country from fully addressing the question of land for such a long time?

I want to mention what Andrias Eshete (Prof.) and another writer Alemante said about the constitutional drafting process. When the Federal Constitution was in the drafting and adoption process, the federal system that was designed to be adopted did not look deep into the situation of minorities living within majority groups. If you take a case, for instance, the Oromia region when the region was demarcated, how minority groups in the region are going to be treated was not well debated and discussed during the constitutional making process. And this has a huge impact on the current politics and socio-economic developments of the country. The huge number of internally displaced people that we have seen in the country recently is the result of this; the minority, almost every time, are the main victims. But, this does not mean that the majority won’t be sometimes the victims - as in the case of thousands of Amhara people displaced in the Amhara region itself as a result of the Amhara-Kimant conflict in Gondar.

This has a strong linkage to the issue of the ownership of land. Even if one lawfully owns land in a state where he/she is a minority, they are always under risk because there is no tenure security. They are always displaced because it has created a perception that the others are settlers. Minorities are considered as settlers who are not entitled to own land. This amounts to segregation based on ethnic origin akin to that of a system of racism or apartheid. Hence, the institutionalized ethnic federalism in the country, the lack of proper legal framework to protect ethnic minorities in regional states living with an ethnic majority, and the attachment of land to identity have been a problem to the ownership of land.

When talking about displacement and lack of proper tenure right, we can see that the main victims are the rural farmers, which the incumbent EPRDF claims to be its political support base. Isn’t it contradictory as the rural farmer lack ownership rights?

This is hugely contradictory. Even the Derg, when they came to power, they said they stand for the peasantry and their motto was “Land to the Tiller.” But, the nationalization of land by the 1975 proclamation did not improve the lives of the farmers. Why the Derg and the EPRDF express their allegiance to the farmers is because of the support they wanted to get from this section of the society as the farmers are the large majority.

If the government had been serious about what it has been saying in the media about the farmers, it could have improved the living standard of famers by ensuring land ownership rights. This could have improved the level of production as the farmers invest in their secured land. The farmers are now the victims of evictions and forced displacements because of lack of concretization of the promises into action.

The central theme of your research is internally displaced people (IDPs) and the right to development. Tell me what initiated you to look into this subject?

My interest to write on forced displacement in the context of the right to development arises out of a call from the University of Free State in collaboration with the University of Pretoria as well as the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute. They were organizing a conference on the right to development and the issue of natural resource ownership. So, this was a wonderful opportunity for me to consider the current situation of forced displacement in Ethiopia. As the world knows, Ethiopia is the leading country in terms of the huge number of internally displaced people and I wanted to look into the IDPs in terms of the government’s obligation to ensure the right to development. I wanted to examine whether the government is discharging its obligations to ensuring the enjoyment of the right of peoples’ to development that is provided both in the Constitution and the Banjul Charter. I also wanted to relate how preventing displacement and ensuring enjoyment of land use right may contribute to the realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Vision 2063 of the African Union. So, this I believe will remind the government to seriously see the problem of forced displacement. If the government has the intention to fully respect the right to development in Ethiopia, forced displacement is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.

You have related forced displacement of people to the right to development. Explain this a bit; how does forced internal displacement relate to the right to development?

We can take the case of the Amharas that have been displaced in Chilga and Gondar area; and, the Oromos and Gedeos from the Somali and Southern regional states, respectively. Students have been forced to drop out of school, which is the social aspect of the right to development. The right to development assumes the enjoyment of all other rights. It requires stretching the different kinds of rights including economic rights. Displacement also entails job losses; displacement from one’s land has enormous negative consequences. Land is about whatever is on it, above it and below it. So, for the farmers, it means that they have to leave their farms which are sources of their income, employment, and livelihood. It is also a matter of status. They descend from human to a sub-human situation because of displacement. As I said before, land is also part of culture. So, it means displacement affects the right to development in many of its manifestations. Their various rights are going to be affected because of displacement and they are not going to participate in the affairs of decisions that affect their lives. Hence, the right to development and forced displacement are highly related.

Let’s discuss forced displacement and accountability. Who should be held accountable for forced displacement?

My focus is the right to development and the primary responsibility of ensuring the right to development is that of the states. So, states assume the primary responsibility. Hence, accountability in the context of forced displacement falls upon both the federal and regional governments. Some accountability also falls on non-state actors which instigate violence resulting in displacements. By providing false information, individuals on social media have also contributed to the displacement events. Under articles 27-29 of the African Charter, individuals are accountable for the displacements as they are obliged to ensure the integrity of the state, promote the culture of unity and tolerance. So, individuals can be held responsible.

You have discussed the effects of displacement in relation to the right to development in some detail. What do you suggest as long-lasting solution to the forced displacement problem in the country and who should take the lead?

As the responsibility for ensuring the right to development falls upon the government, the burden to lead and bringing about long-lasting solutions to displacements is upon the same. We assume to have lived under the current constitutional set up for about 25 years; we have seen many challenges, for good and bad, following the adoption of the Federal Constitution. We have to listen to the aspirations of the people in order to improve the situation on the ground. We must have serious and meaningful consultations with the people. We need to see the constitutional framework and study how the majority of people understand and perceive the existing Constitution. Constitutional change should also be considered regarding those provisions provoking disintegration and deny enjoyment of common heritage. Constitutional amendments should take place including the provision of article 39 on the right to cessation, with a prior meaningful engagement of the people. The unity of the country is not emphasized in the Constitution. The way regions are demarcated is not in accordance with the Constitution. So, we need to redesign, debate and gather information from the people to defend our decisions and make genuine legislative and policy interventions. The country is now at a crossroads - whether it will to disintegrated or stand as unified nation while recognizing diversity of its people remains to be seen. So, the issue of land might be one of the reasons for the disintegration of the country. There needs to be priority given to the unity of the country while also appreciating the diversity. This will help us address the conflicts that have erupted and resulted in the displacements. We need to educate the people and create awareness on tolerance and respect for the rights of others. The government also needs to consider approaching the international community for technical and financial support to fully and sustainably address these issues.