Ghana’s human rights commission unhappy with demolition exercises

Commissioner Emile Short

The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), on Monday appealed to Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), Tema Metropolitan Assembly (TMA) and all other authorities to exercise the greatest level of circumspection in their efforts to rid the country of illegal structures.

In addition, they should ensure that such exercises were carried out with due regard to international human rights norms and standards.

The appeal was contained in a statement issued in Accra and signed by Mr Justice Emile Francis Short, Commissioner of CHRAJ to express concern about the form and manner recent spate of demolition exercises were carried out in the country.

“Unfortunately, very often, the properties of affected persons are destroyed, their lives are shattered while many are displaced.  As this is an ongoing exercise, the Commission deems it necessary to issue a statement for the guidance of all concerned, “it added.

The Commission urged the Government and relevant institutions to adequately provide acceptable compensation and resettlement packages to victims where state authorities had acquiesced in the construction and occupation of the illegal structures.

It said there was no doubt that the erection of structures on waterways had caused severe flooding resulting in the loss of life and property, and the Commission therefore accepted that such structures must be demolished.

Furthermore, the Commission noted that it was illegal to erect houses without the necessary building permits and that such activities must be halted.

However, most of these demolitions amount to forced evictions under the International Covenant of Economic and Social Rights, which Ghana has ratified and which lay down guidelines for carrying out such exercises.

The guidelines state, among other things, that forced evictions must only occur in exceptional circumstances and provided certain conditions are followed.

The conditions include adequate consultation with the persons affected and the provision of alternative resettlement in a safe and appropriate location.

International human rights law demands that before forced eviction is carried out, States give to persons affected, the opportunity to challenge the eviction or demolition order and to propose alternatives.

It has been reported, for example, that some residents rejected the claim that their properties were erected on waterways; others claimed they had the required building permits while others contended they had not been given adequate notice of the demolition exercise.

The authorities should be mindful of the fact that there are UN and international guidelines for forced evictions even where the persons affected are illegal occupants of the affected properties.

The State and its agents must ensure that no one is arbitrarily deprived of property or possessions as a result of demolition.  Evictions should not result in people being rendered homeless or vulnerable to other human rights violations such as rape, denial of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Authorities undertaking demolition exercises must strive to strike a reasonable balance between putting a stop to the rampant practice of the construction of illegal structures on the one hand and causing unnecessary hardship to the victims, the majority of whom are women and who in many cases are the breadwinners in their households and in the lower income bracket of our society.

In one swoop, the modest earnings of these persons can be wiped out and result in untold hardship for them and their families.  Furthermore, these demolitions compound the already grave problem of homelessness and inadequate housing, particularly for women whose right to housing is already not adequately protected in our society.

There are also worrying reports that demolition exercises are carried out at dawn and sometimes in the absence of those affected who then lose all their personal belongings and other valuable property.

This method of carrying out demolition exercises runs counter to the basic principles spelt out in the UN guidelines on development-based evictions and displacements, which enjoins authorities not to allow evictions as well as demolition exercises to take place in bad weather, at night, and by implication at dawn, during festivals or religious holidays, prior to elections, or during or just prior to school examinations and in circumstances that do not afford the victims the opportunity to recover their properties.

The statement said officials of the AMA and TMA when contacted stated that if the occupants were present they were allowed to collect their belongings before the demolition begins.

“This position is however not satisfactory.  Every precaution should be taken to ensure that belongings are not destroyed, it added.

The Commission therefore, recommended that where for good reason the demolition had to be carried out in the absence of the owners of the properties affected, the authorities must take an inventory of properties in the structures and houses to be demolished and hand them over to their owners as and when they come to claim them.

“The sight of victims scrambling among the wreckage to salvage whatever property they can recover after the demolition exercise is unacceptable, “the statement said.

Under international human rights law, everyone has a right to adequate housing as a component of the right to adequate standard of living.

The right to adequate housing includes, the right to protection against arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and to legal security of tenure.

In the event that eviction as well as demolition exercises become necessary, they should not be carried out to a manner that violates the dignity and fundamental human rights of the victims.

The Commission pointed out that international human rights law demanded that the authorities must thoroughly dialogue with occupants of places earmarked for demolition and give them ample notice before proceeding to demolish their structures.

“TMA and AMA officials claim that two to three months notice is normally given and that they sometimes use information vans, issue press releases and organise news conferences to alert the occupants to be affected by demolition exercises”.

“They further claim that they allow some grace period before these exercises are undertaken.  TMA officials pointed out that the District Assemblies are empowered under the Local Government Act (Act 462) to evict people without giving them prior notice, depending on the degree of danger the structures pose to the people living in that community,” it added.

The Commission was of the view that while two or three months might be sufficient for temporary kiosks, that amount of notice could not be sufficient for persons who had occupied houses for several years.

“Such notice is insufficient to enable the residents find alternative accommodation.  Each case must be treated on an individual basis,” it said.

The Commission said an issue to the fore and which had not been adequately addressed in connection with demolition exercise was the responsibility of public officials who had the duty of monitoring and stopping the construction of illegal structures and who sat unconcerned and allowed the illegal structures to be erected.

On the scale of culpability, these officials by their omission in allowing these illegal structures to be constructed in the first place bear the greatest responsibility.

They have contributed significantly to the problem of illegal structures on waterways or on locations where they should not be and should be held responsible.

When confronted the officials responded that the developers resorted to all manner of means to outwit them including sometimes, marking illegal buildings with the assemblies’ marking without the knowledge of assembly officials to stop them from inspecting the buildings at the foundation stage.

They further alleged that some of the developers worked at night or weekends when no assembly official would see them.

The officials contended that they did not have enough building inspectors to undertake constant monitoring and before they realised, these unapproved structures were raised.

“None of these answers satisfactorily explains why illegal structures are allowed to be constructed and remain standing for years before they are demolished,” the statement said.

Moreover, the utility companies that provide the occupants of these illegal structures with electricity and water without taking steps to find out whether the occupants had valid building permits must take a share of the blame.

The citizen should be entitled to treat the various state authorities as one unit and to assume that they collaborate with one another.

Source: GNA

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