University of Texas wordmark
Artwork by Mery Godigna Collet

Image courtesy of Mery Godigna Collet

The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas School of Law is pleased to announce its eighth annual conference, to take place March 1-2, 2012. The conference is free and open to the public. Registration is strongly encouraged.

The human rights movement has long had an ambivalent relationship to the right to property, partly reflected in debates over whether even to include the right in human rights instruments.  On one hand, full recognition of private property rights may cast in stone existing inequalities, standing in the way of attempts to redistribute wealth in the interest of social justice. Private property rights may also hamper attempts to protect wildlife habitat and native ecosystems and may exacerbate the environmental problems caused by the exploitation of natural resources. On the other hand, some marginalized groups and individuals increasingly claim the right to property as the foundation for emancipatory projects, and deploy its guarantees in human rights or constitutional instruments whenever possible. For many social movements throughout the world, the question today is not whether there is or should be a human right to property, but what type of property—individual/collective, formal/customary, public/private—international and domestic rights regimes should facilitate.

Their answers often differ based on historical context.  In countries with recent histories dominated by private, individual property models – many Latin American countries, for example – progressive groups may push away from classic, individual, private, unencumbered property rights, towards collective, communal, inalienable, property rights. Notably, many indigenous and afro-descendant groups in that region argue for communal property rights based on custom or culture. But shantytown dwellers sometimes back the creation of new private rights through formal land titling and registration projects. In contrast, in countries in which state ownership or customary land tenure regimes prevail, debates about property take a different turn. In Africa, women might rely on liberal property-rights law to challenge customary regimes; some rural communities and pastoralists might claim communal rights to property to challenge state control over natural resources, to defend against expropriations or encroachment, or to seek greater autonomy and security in land tenure.

In short, human rights movements or rights advocates coming from countries with classic private property regimes, on the one hand, or state or customary property regimes, on the other, may both seek the advantage of claiming a property right. But movements rooted in one context sometimes find hope in approaches tried and rejected in another, and the promise of rights for some groups can threaten the acquired rights of others.  This multidisciplinary and comparative conference seeks to explore these conflicting trends, in the hope of uncovering hidden assumptions, learning from varied experiences, and exploring which property regimes might best advance the human rights agenda in each context. Conference panels will explore topics such as changing conceptions of property, the role of property rights in dispossession and redistribution, and the implications of private titling.

The event is co-sponsored by The Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration, and Environmental Law, the Department of Government, The Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, the South Asia Institute, the School of Law, and the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, all at the University of Texas, and by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School.