Photo credit: Mark Johmel, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the midst of the 2014 humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic (CAR), Michael Brown was in a hotel lobby desperately calling his many contacts in the United Nations (UN) system to flag the importance of addressing the role of land-related issues in the horrifying conflict that was playing out throughout the country. As an expert on land conflict issues, Michael (a Senior UN Land and Natural Resource Mediator at the time, now a CBI Senior Mediator) was in CAR to support development of a national strategy on reconciliation for the country’s transitional government. Given his experience, he could see that land-related issues needed to be addressed or they would further inflame the crisis and undermine the path toward greater stability. As large segments of the population were displaced by violence, their homes were being destroyed and their land occupied illegally. Throughout the countryside, militias were taking over strategic areas of land to control natural resources, such as diamond, timber, and ivory.

Michael’s phone calls were one symptom of a challenge facing the UN: the need to develop a shared and more strategic approach to working on land issues in countries experiencing armed conflict, as well as those at risk of or seeking to recover from conflict.

This experience dramatizes why the UN recently embarked on a major initiative to develop a new systemwide approach to land and conflict. The UN sought Michael’s support for this initiative, as both an expert on land and conflict issues and a facilitator to help build agreement across the UN.

Land and Conflict

People have fought over land for centuries. Land is an immovable resource of limited quantity, the basis of subsistence for a significant portion of the world’s population, and often associated with highly valued natural resources above or below it. Land is commonly tied to a society’s cultural, national, or religious identity, and competition over control and access is typically related to political or socioeconomic power. Given all of these inter-related factors, land can be a critical flash point for conflict or represent a coveted “prize” in local or national power struggles, as witnessed in CAR and in other civil wars across the globe.  Inadequate attention to land-related matters also greatly impairs post-conflict economic recovery and durable peace.

Given that the linkages between land and conflict are complex and politically sensitive, it should be no surprise that addressing the land-conflict nexus is challenging at the best of times. When 18 UN agencies tried to develop a common approach to land and conflict, they also had to reckon with their own internal differences in mandate and approach, and find a common framework that could unite and guide their efforts to deal with land issues in high-stakes, rapidly changing conflict situations.  

Need for a New Approach

In recent years, member states and leaders within the UN have expressed growing concern about land as a serious trigger of armed conflict or conflict relapse and a bottleneck to development. Population growth, increasing food insecurity, and climate change are increasing competition for a dwindling land base and further driving concern about the role of land and conflict across the developing world. While the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes these challenges, senior UN experts knowledgeable about land have been concerned that the land-conflict nexus was not receiving the attention needed, given myriad other pressures on the UN related to human rights, humanitarian, security, and development crises occurring throughout the world. On a more technical level, UN experts have felt that emerging practice in the fields of conflict management and land administration could help improve the effectiveness and impact of engagement.

As a result, the UN has undertaken a re-think on its engagement around land and conflict. Given the breadth and range of UN mandates and norms at play, a systemwide approach was used that required agreement among 18 different UN agencies whose work touches these issues.

A Systemwide Assessment

To begin the initiative, the UN undertook an extensive interagency assessment and reached out to Michael for his input. The results were published in a report titled, Scoping and Status Study on Land and Conflict: Towards UN System-Wide Engagement at Scale. The study used a participatory approach to promote a shared analysis of the problems, along with agreement on the path forward. The report reviewed the issues and associated challenges and identified areas for improvement. Michael co-authored the report and facilitated key meetings to build and maintain interagency agreement throughout the study. 

New Directions on Land and Conflict

Building on the assessment, Michael helped create consensus within the UN system over the course of the initiative. He led and facilitated key meetings and workshops that built agreement across 18 UN entities on challenging and politically sensitive issues. The meetings took place from 2015 to 2017 at the UN Headquarters in New York and in Washington, D.C. The product of this effort was a UN Secretary General Note, The United Nations and Land and Conflict. In the UN system, a Secretary General (SG) Guidance Note is an important document that guides UN officials on the conduct of their work. It provides a shared vision and approach for all UN staff and can influence the ongoing development of international law and standards. Michael contributed significantly to various drafts of the SG Guidance Note. 

The United Nations and Land and Conflict establishes guiding principles and a forward-looking framework to address the land-conflict nexus. The approach aims to improve the UN’s capacity to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflicts by addressing land issues in a more coherent and systematic way. This document presents practical tools, guidance for coordination among different agencies, and programming recommendations that will help countries and their governments address land matters in ways that will better mitigate conflict and/or promote sustainable post-conflict recovery.

Some key principles and strategies that the report recommends include:

  • Ensure consistent engagement of senior UN leadership on land and conflict matters
  • Ensure coherence for land interventions across the three pillars in the UN’s charter (to maintain international peace and security, to achieve economic and social progress and development, and to promote respect for human rights)
  • Support human rights-based and gender-sensitive approaches
  • Ensure land interventions are strategic, incremental, and timely
  • Incorporate land into key UN assessment and planning processes
  • Develop and use practical tools that address the land-conflict nexus

In countries at risk of armed conflict, the SG Note pushes the UN to develop and implement programs that are specifically designed to address land and conflict concerns, using this framework.

Relevance to Recent and Future CBI Efforts

The relevance of the new UN approach was evident in work CBI recently undertook for United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines. Michael led an assessment of post-conflict land and property issues in the southern Philippines and developed a framework to address claims and disputes in the bombed-out city of Marawi in Muslim Mindanao. The approaches and tools he used – from conflict analysis to the design of a major multi-year project to resolve thousands of land and property claims – all reflect the content of the new SG Guidance Note and highlight its relevance to the challenges in places like the southern Philippines.

More broadly, the new approach should ensure a more coherent and robust response to land matters across the conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict peacebuilding spectrum of UN engagement. CBI plans to continue supporting the UN, national governments, and other actors in working on land-related issues as part of conflict prevention and resolution efforts.

Photo credit: Mark Johmel, CC BY-SA 4.0


Please click here to see more content from CBI Reports: Summer 2019.