Sunday, March 28, 2010

Letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh

25 March 2010

Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh

Prime Minister’s Office

Tejgaon, Dhaka

Subject: Unilateral declaration of land survey in the CHT as well as unilateral call for applications by the Land Commission

The CHT Commission has consistently appreciated the desire of your government to implement the CHT Accord of 1997 and resolve the land disputes of the region in a fair and just manner, in accordance with the provisions of the peace treaty.

Clause Gha-2 of the Accord states that: “After the signing the Agreement between the Government and the Jana Samhati Samiti and implementation thereof and rehabilitation of the tribal refugees and internally displaced tribals, the Government shall, as soon as possible, commence, in consultation with the Regional Council to the constituted under this Agreement, the Land Survey in Chittagong Hill Tracts and finally determine the land-ownership of the tribal people through settling the land-disputes on proper verification and shall record their lands and ensure their rights thereto.”

It is evident that the treaty requires the Land Survey to be held after the implementation of the agreement, particularly the rehabilitation of the Pahari refugees and internally displaced persons and in consultation with the Regional Council. However, without any of these preconditions being met, the Minister for Land has declared that a land survey will be held in the CHT to ‘solve the land disputes of the region’. A similar announcement had been made unilaterally by the incumbent chairman of Land Commission to which the CHT Commission expressed its reservations at an earlier date.

The CHT Commission is disturbed by this unilateral announcement because holding the land survey prior to settling the land disputes is likely to unduly favour the illegal occupiers of Pahari lands by putting their names in the records made by the survey, rather than those of the actual owners of land. Settling the land disputes first, as specified in the Peace Accord, would enable the proper owners to be identified, following which the survey could record their titles and thereby protect the rights of the indigenous peoples of the CHT – as indeed envisaged in the treaty.

Furthermore, in order to resolve land disputes in a fair and just manner, the Land Commission needs to function in the manner specified in the peace agreement (Clause Gha-4). However, the Land Commission Act of 2001 is seriously flawed and inconsistent with the provisions of the peace treaty. These incongruities need to be rectified legally and this may be done by implementing the recommendations of the Regional Council to that effect. Moreover, the Land Commission has not been functioning as a full commission, but has been run by its current Chairman on his own. As a result, many of the other Members of the Land Commission have not been involved in its declarations. The announcement on 17 March 2010 by the Land Commission inviting applications for settling of land disputes with a time limit of 60 days has not been done in consultation with the representatives of the indigenous peoples who are members of the Commission. However, as previous experience of the CHT shows, unilateral decisions without consensus-building, based on undue exercise of power, do not work.

The CHT Commission urges you to ensure that the land survey is held and the Land Commission functions in the manner specified by the peace treaty signed by your government. This also requires that the Land Commission resolves land disputes “in consonance with the law, custom and practice in force in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” as a prerequisite for holding of the land survey (Clause Gha-6-Kha). Without specifying criteria based on customary rights, the indigenous peoples are unlikely to be able to establish their authentic land rights even if the Land Commission functions properly.

We appeal to you to restrain this urge to rush into a land survey which is likely to be manifestly unfair to the indigenous peoples of the CHT while providing a means of legitimizing illegal occupation of Pahari lands. Such an outcome would be exactly the opposite of the objectives and sprit of the CHT Accord of 1997.

On behalf of the CHT Commission

Eric Avebury; Sultana Kamal; Ida Nicolaisen

Co-chairs of the CHT Commission

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