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DS Calls for a new World Restitution Agency – It’s About Time!

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

In a world where every culture, every legal system, every religion, every set of moral principles views stealing as wrong, a crime and something for which people should be punished, there is a lot of stealing taking place. Very often it is not just small possessions or money that is stolen, but people’s homes, lands and properties, the very cornerstones of their lives and livelihoods. However, in terms of remedies or restitution for stolen housing, land and property (HLP), the de facto reality in most of the world is not all that different to cases involving the murder of another human being whereby if one murders one other person they will likely go to prison for life no matter where the crime took place. If they happen to murder 10,000, 25,000 or even 100,000 people in a war or through the practices associated with dictators desperate to maintain power, however, they will be far more likely than not to live out their days in control over their population or in the unlikely event their reign comes to an end or they are otherwise overthrown, they will spend the rest of their days in exile, protected as a former head of state and able to enjoy all the stolen riches they took during their period as dictatorial autocrats.

The recent illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russia on 24 February 2022 reminds us yet again that war always involves not only cruelty, death, injury and brutality, but also forced displacement, the destruction of housing, land and property and the theft of homes and lands, despite the fact that international human rights law not only condemns these practices, but also supports the legal promised of restitution of HLP assets for displaced persons and refugees everywhere.

The recent release of a report by International IDEA in late-2021 worryingly revealed that for the fifth year in a row the number of countries heading towards authoritarianism outnumbered those experiencing growing democratisation.[1]The report identified 98 countries classified as democratic, 20 hybrid governments (countries slipping away from democracy and towards dictatorship), and 47 outright authoritarian regimes. The latter two categories constitute a staggering 70% of the world’s population, some 5.6 billion people.

With so many people today living under the control of authoritarian governments led by dictators not subject to the rule of law and where impunity for past crimes including the theft of HLP assets remains the norm, this is no small matter, and these populations will in virtually all circumstances need to wait until more democratic regimes replace these despotic regimes before any chance emerges that they will be able to get their stolen homes, lands and properties back through the process of restitution. But as the past several decades have borne witness, without an organised push to do so by restitution claimants and their supporters, even new democracies promising a new political dawn do not invariably give back what was stolen in the past, and the list of such countries that have failed to institute restitution is a growing, rather than declining one.

As painful as these realities may be, this is the shape of our modern world, and very much the same applies to the question of stealing people’s homes, lands and properties. The International Criminal Court and other bodies have been established to address mass murder, but the world still has no such body or organisation dedicated to getting HLP assets back to their legitimate owners.

This report addresses this lacuna and proposes that the time has come to establish a new World Restitution Agency, or WRA, to act as a central, global clearinghouse of action on all matters relating to unresolved HLP restitution claims which now measures in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of cases, and amounting to hundreds of billions and more likely trillions of dollars in financial value. The world needs to fill this gap if the rule of law is no mean anything. The world needs to do the right thing.

Establishing a new WRA is feasible, affordable and achievable with sufficient donor support. A new WRA would provide an extremely important service – which is not currently available – to tens of millions of people who remain without an institutional champion supporting them and their unresolved HLP restitution claims.

[1]International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Report 2021 – Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era, November 2021.

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