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To settle land disputes by legal action, you must first establish your right to sue. You also need to identify the relevant parties to sue and in what courts your case can be heard. This section provides guidelines for bringing a land dispute before the courts and how best to win your case.
Generally, anyone may take legal action to enforce rights. This includes:
b) Particular groups
Some groups of people may have particular difficulties asserting their rights:
c) Establishing your right to sue: the problem of “standing”
Even if you are affected by a dispute over land, in many cases you can only bring a legal action if you have a sufficiently close connection with the land or the damage or wrong concerned (“standing”in legal terminology). For more details on “standing” and related matters, see: “
– “Who can sue?” Public Interest Litigation: your questions answered [Ref to be added to relevant page when uploaded]
To enforce your rights or make a complaint regarding land rights, you can take legal action against any of the following:
a) Governments including national and local government departments, bodies and ministries
b) Corporations as well as associated or parent corporations *
c) Local agents and representatives
d) Actors behind the direct perpetrators of a wrong, such as:
e) Those who have taken or bought produce from the land. So if, for example, land is seized illegally to grow palm oil, which is then sold to a foreign company, it may be possible to claim against that company in its home country. The local law may provide that the lawful owners or former occupants of the land remain entitled to produce grown on it. The foreign company who buys or takes the produce ought to be aware of the circumstances in which the land was seized
a) Customary forums and elders
b) The Courts, national or local:
The best starting place to bring an action is in the national or local court where the land in question is located. However this may not be possible or practical due to poor access to justice, lack of impartiality, or intimidation.
c) Foreign Courts:
A potentially useful option is to go to court in the home state of the person or corporation (or its parent corporation you are suing, where access to justice may
face fewer practical obstacles such as corruption or intimidation.
d) Regional Courts:
In some cases it may be possible to bring cases in special regional courts such as the East African Court of Human Rights.
e) International Bodies
It may be possible to bring complaints to persons designated for this purpose such as the FAO Ombudsman or to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
f) Extraterritoriality issues generally.
Look for remedies or pressure points in state(s) where a corporation is domiciled or does business.
The national contact point in a company’s home state under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises
For other complaints mechanisms, ombudsmen, etc.,
See also soft law: [link* to relevant section on ‘sources of law’ page]
a) Local administrative procedures
Solving a land-related problem may not require any court action. It may be enough to take steps through a local or national land office or land commission or cadastre to formalise your land rights. You need to consider what steps you can take to register your land or your rights over the land. This may give you more protection or may be a necessary step before you can take further, more effective action.
b) Register or declare protected or common status of land
c) A court order
If you go to court and you are successful, the court may be able to do all or any of the following:
d) Agreement or settlement
The best solution to your dispute may lie in a settlement resolving differences with your opponent before the matter ever gets to court.
Use of land is a complex subject so in any proposed settlement, you need to draw up clear agreements in writing on all important points.
Even if these arguments are not accepted, you should try to ensure your right to participate in future decision-making about the land in question and its occupation or use, including about such issues as:
Cases involving land problems may also involve corruption (bribery or other improper use of influence) or suspicions of corruption.
If this is the case, there may be separate remedies for this corruption and the existence of the corruption may invalidate contracts or concessions under which foreign investors are granted land rights.
See also the following video: “Cambodia – indigenous land rights”
Legal results of proving corruption could include:
Action may be easier in an investor state court than in the host state court:* for example, under the following laws:
Examples of cases brought under these laws:
Prosecutions could possibly be brought in foreign courts (for example, under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the United Kingdom Bribery Act 2010) in relation to land transactions for corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, or conspiracy to commit a criminal act abroad.
For a detailed treatment of this theme, see: Extraterritorial Jurisdiction: lessons for the business and human rights sphere from six regulatory areas (pdf) Jennifer Zerk, 2010, 222 p.[link?]
Prosecutions may result in a conviction and criminal sanctions but criminal investigations may also be effective in finding out facts and information which is not available publicly.
Sometimes, land is acquired in a way that is, or is said to be, lawful under local law (legal term: “doctrine of eminent domain”). You may be able to challenge the acquisition by:
You need accurate evidence about locations and boundaries of the land involved in your litigation.
Gather evidence such as mapping, photos, Googlemaps, drawings and plans. It is important that the maps describe not only the physical features of the land, but also document the land use.
In case of lack of proof of title or rights:
a) Evictions and threats
If you are unlawfully evicted from land or are threatened, it is important that you notify as many relevant people as possible with as much detail and evidence (film, photographs, and recordings ) as is available.
Inform a wide range of people about your cause: local authorities or police, representatives of the person or company responsible or of its parent company, directors, shareholders or insurers, the press, campaigning groups of NGOs and others.
For an illustration of pre-emptive tactics against land seizure, read about Greenpeace’s “Airplot” campaign. (They bought a plot of land slap in the middle of the proposed site of Heathrow’s third runway – to prevent its construction).
b) Protest and resistance: know your rights
What to do if in danger of arrest or assault:
If safe to do so, ask or ascertain the names of police or security personnel involved in actions, and the basis for your arrest or detention.
If it is safe, try and obtain film and/or sound recordings of any arrest or of any actions by security forces which appear to be irregular or unlawful (such as damaging property or making threats).
Take films, recordings and photographs of any protest action.
Use platforms such as Ushahidi.com to upload your information
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