Post-conflict restitution of customary land: Guidelines and trajectories of change




Since the 1990s a body of soft international law and public policy has developed around property restitution after conflict. The Pinheiro Principles and the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) both proffer remedies for property losses experienced due to violent conflict and forced displacement. These international guidelines for remediating harm caused by property loss or damage in conflict at best only partially address losses in customary tenure systems. This article has two goals: first, to delineate where the international guidelines are out of step with the nature of customary tenure; and second, to identify trajectories of change for customary land tenure systems after violent conflict. These two issues are fundamentally linked. The characteristics of post-conflict environments– contested authority structures, displaced and returning populations, and contentious land relations – make customary land vulnerable to expropriation and elevate the threat of asset loss for customary rights holders. This challenges the assumption that people can always return to rural agricultural livelihoods when displaced from customary land; that is only true if those customary land systems function the way they did before the violence. This article draws on a socio-legal analysis of secondary sources and qualitative data gathered by the authors through focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews in rural communities in Burundi, Liberia, and Uganda over the past decade. Because customary land tenure systems are prevalent over much of the territory currently affected by violent conflict in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the absence of specific restitution policies for customary tenure systems is a significant gap in international public policy.

Document Type


Publication Date


Publisher Statement

© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.