Uncharted Territory: Land, Conflict and Humanitarian Action

Briefing papers
November 2009

Land issues, particularly its access, ownership and use, are often central to understanding the dynamics of conflict and post-conflict settings, particularly in contexts of large scale displacement. The issues affect both the choice to return and the prospects for recovery, yet an understanding of these issues is minimal amongst the humanitarian community.

There are, however, signs of increasing aware-ness of the importance of land issues in humanitarian crises. In 2005, the Humanitarian Response Review identified land and property as a major gap in the humanitarian response system, and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) subsequently launched various initiatives aimed at improving prepared-ness and contingency planning around land issues. Guidelines are also being developed by UN-Habitat for the Cluster Working Group on Early Recovery.

This HPG Policy Brief seeks to inform and build upon these various initiatives. Humanitarian action is understood here in its broader form, extending beyond mere relief to include advocacy, protection and attention to livelihoods and early recovery.

The key messages of this policy brief are:


 • Land issues are often an underlying cause or casualty of conflict, especially in protracted crises, and are thus central to understanding how complex emergencies function, and how humanitarian agencies should respond.


• Land and property disputes tend to increase in the post-conflict period, particularly in the context of large-scale returns of displaced populations. If these issues are overlooked, they are likely to threaten the fragile stability of post-conflict transitions.


• Humanitarian agencies have avoided land-related issues, believing them to be too complex, politically sensitive and outside their mandate. Where agencies have engaged, their efforts have been narrowly focused on restitution for the displaced in a return process.


• Engagement needs to be much broader and more nuanced, based on an understanding of the wider dynamics of land-related conflict. Humanitarian organisations can respond to land-related issues in conflict and post-conflict transitions in many ways, including research and monitoring, advocacy, legal aid and oversight.

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