This week on The Decentralists we have a very special guest, Dr. Jon Unruh, Transitional Justice advocate and Associate Professor of Geography at McGill University in Montreal.
Dr. Unruh has over 25 years’ experience in developing and implementing research, policy and practice on war-affected land and property rights in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia - and has published widely on these topics. His specialty is housing, land and property (or HLP) restitution claims in war-affected scenarios. Most recently, he has assisted the UN in HLP restitution programs in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and he’s currently working on a digital media approach for mass HLP restitution claims for refugees and internally dislocated persons in Syria and Iraq.
What Transitional Justice and what role does it play in helping displaced people and refugees?
What is Home Land and Property data? and why is documenting it so critical to refugees and displaced people?
Join us the week for an engaging and illuminating discussion about Transitional Justice and why it is important to healing the wounds of war.
* in this episode we call it Home LIFE and Property data, our apologies but after listening to this episode you might agree with us that HLP is more about life than just land.
The Decentralists - Why Decentralization Matters: A conversation with Transitional Justice analyst Dr. Jon Unruh
Henry: Hey everyone, it's Henry, Mike, and Geoff of the Decentralists; we've got a very special episode for you this week. A Special guest named Dr. Jon Unruh, Transitional Justice Analyst, and Associate Professor of Geography at McGill University in Montreal and he has over 25 years of experience in developing and implementing research, policy, and practice on war-affected land and property rights in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia and he's widely published on these topics. His specialty is housing, land and property, or HLP restitution claims in war-affected scenarios. Most recently he has assisted the UN in HLP restitution programs in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and he's currently working on a digital media approach for mass HLP restitution claims for refugees and internally dislocated persons in Syria and Iraq. Dr. Unruh welcome to the Decentralist.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Thank you, Delighted to be working with you today, it's great to be talking to you about such an exciting project.
Henry: Well, we absolutely agree, so right off the bat, how does a geographer get involved in transitional justice?
Dr. Jon Unruh: Good question. Well, geography is concerned about the wear question special problems and housing land and property are of course all located somewhere and because gravity works, human beings are all located somewhere as well. So, do we have the rights to where we are that together with armed conflict war is always a special endeavour, even when it's not explicitly overland, it takes place in a special way. So when you mix the two then you come up with a royal mess, so you've completely messed up housing, land and property rights due to the conduct of armed conflict.
Geoff: In Canada or United States in nations that have the rule of law. If I'm displaced from my home, somebody else moves there and I come back for some reason, in theory, I could have a court challenge and the court could make a ruling and all that sort of thing. And somewhere like Yemen, where perhaps the rule of law is still influx is this an example of where transitional justice would come into play and how would it work in a context like that?
Dr. Jon Unruh: Good comparison there, so in Canada in the scenario you just presented wouldn't need transitional justice because it's a stable scenarios and its a stable forms of justice can work quite well. You come back to your property, somebody's in it, they have a claim, you have a claim, it goes to court, it gets sorted, your willingness to go to court is important, you trust it, you believe you have a chance at winning and so you engage that process. In Yemen very little of that is true, the court systems if they're functioning are corrupt, you can buy your way in and buy your way out and so it depends on who you are as opposed to the veracity of the claim that you have. And so in a scenario like Yemen, what we do is we want to institute forms of justice that are not suited to a stable scenario because they can be seen in that scenario, sort of heavy handed, imagine governing by decree, well in the Canada you don't want to do that.
You don't want to governed by decree, but in a Yemen decrees have certain advantages, they're very quick, don't need much of a process, they ideally have an end date to them beyond which the decree goes away, but it allows you to do certain things, so that's a tool rather of transitional justice. So the idea is to gather all these kind of quick and dirty if you will tools together for justice, tailored to the problem at hand; in this case, people wanting to go home after a war, apply it to that problem, once the problem solves, then the transitional part of it is important because it then needs to go away so that you can go back to a more stable rule of law form of governance.
Geoff: In Canada, if I get a ruling in my favour and somebody's living in my house, the next step is the bailiff shows up maybe with a police car as well and they're told to get out and all their things are put on the lawn and I move back in, how does the enforcement peace work in a where you're using a transitional justice model?
Dr. Jon Unruh: Good question, so the enforcement happens in a variety of ways often in a transitional justice scenario where you're applying it, the United Nations are there. So United nations come in, they got the blue helmets on, these are actual troops from member state that are pledged to United Nations for things like this for enforcement of various decree. So a lot of what United Nations troops do is to try to get rid of this culture of impunity, which is a culture wide notion of I'm not accountable. I'm not accountable if I engage in all sorts of criminal activities, including taking your house, so there are well trained troops that are moving throughout the countryside and you can map this UN troop contingent and what you see is that they want coverage throughout a country that's engaging in a peace process. And so they do things like take what are called secondary occupants, somebody who's in your house without your permission and they remove them, so that does a couple of things. What the UN wants is for you to get in your head the notion that there's a peace dividend at play in the country.
Mike: There's some reason, there's some benefit to this.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly, so now you're buying in, so you've successfully regained your property, you tell your neighbours you've bought into a piece process multiplied by the number of times that happens. civilian buy into a peace process, which is what you want the wars come and go, they can be defeated militarily, but if the civilian population isn't part of it, doesn't think that this is the best way to go then you've got a real problem, so that's why the UN peacekeeping troops PKF that they're called are spread all over the countryside in the initial stages of a country undergoing this transitional process.
Mike: I had no idea, it's funny, you see it on TV all the time and I had no idea. So Jon, my definition this justice is transitional, so what role does transitional justice play in helping poor and displaced and refugees in this scenario, when they go back into the country. Once they've say, they go to get their property back, what role does it play to ensure that they keep it that way?
Dr. Jon Unruh: Good question, so what are the primary advantages of transitional justice unlike stable country justice is that you tailor the justice, the forms of laws and decree and evidence for claim and all these things, you tailor that to the problem as opposed to the reverse. So the reverse you and I, in Canada we would need to attend to the law, we would need to get a title, we would need to get a deed, we would need to get something that the law requires for us to actually have a claim to our property in a transitional justice scenario; it's reversed. You've got enormous numbers of dislocated persons who maybe don't have titles, they maybe never did, they maybe were destroyed, they've been confiscated, they've been engaged in fraud, the title isn't there and so if the law says, got to have title, and most of the people who want their land back, don't have it you've got a problem. So transitional justice comes in and says, we're going to see what people do have, is it that they have grandma's story of the history of their land, that's their claim, that's their argument, if you will, for the land belonging to them. So, people's lives have all kinds of things that can be used to support an argument to a claim, so transitional justice asks, what do they have? What do they have in their possession?
What can they get? Or we're going to make those things, the legal means by which you get your land back and not the things that they don't have, like the artifacts of a land right system, the titles, the deeds, the registries, all these things. That's fascinating, but you don't want to keep doing that forever because these things are squishy. They're pretty fluid, it's pretty rough around the edges, so once you've satisfied that, and you've achieved, most people actually going home then you need to engage in some sort of what the UN calls upgrading of their claims. So someone goes home, they don't have a title, but they've got their land back. So what the UN can do is they do a very quick and dirty issuing of certificates of occupation or something. It's the best thing going, not title yet, but it's an acknowledgement that you're there, you've got facts on the ground going and you're the current legitimate occupant. And so then the attempt in transitional justice is to upgrade your existence on your property. And your lack of title indeed, upgrade that over time to fully legitimate claim a title indeed or whatever is the primary mechanism for claim. So it's about how to get to a point of stability, then you can revert back to a stable scenario, justice system.
Mike: So, Jon that's incredible but presumably there's two things, so first I want to ask a question or maybe make an observation, we were talking this morning about this project we're working on and one of the things that came out was 80% of the people say in the countryside outside of the cities in Afghanistan are illiterate and that's just maybe a reality now in that type of scenario. I'm assuming that the transitional justice requirement for say repatriating people to Afghanistan, when you determine them, you would have to set the bar at the lowest common denominator, presumably. Like if I'm illiterate and the bar is, you an oral history, then I can give an oral history and that's done, as you mentioned, just as a claim, but what if there's somebody else who's more technologically savvy, not illiterate, able to fake documents or whatever, and they have a competing claim. How do they assess the veracity of something that when I think of legal things, I think of contracts with precise language and interpretations and penalties and all this other stuff. How do you translate that into a scenario where an oral history or photographs or things like this, could trump a claim by somebody who says, well, here's my official document saying I own the place.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Good question, so again, the advantage of traditional justice is that you can tailor it. So the advantage of statutory law in a stable setting is that it's rigid, it doesn't change quickly over time, investors like that, we all like that, we want predictable lives, but in a transitional justice scenario, we're trying to solve a problem. So in the scenario you just suggested where we have a lot of illiteracy and the countryside is vast in such a scenario, there were probably never documents among those that are returning that, that are in illiterate or semi-literate. What they do have though is membership in a tribe, a clan; some group that does claim a large area, their oral history is the key to their membership to that group. So, transitional justice and simply say, group membership to this tribe gets you your land back, these oral histories are of course quite detail, they involve lineages and the names of individuals in those lineages, that's a tough thing to falsify or fabricate as an outsider. Even if you do have a title issued from someone you bought it from. So transitional justice is able to do that, it's able to engage what's called customary law, which is indigenous traditional unwritten law and say, we are going to make this official; the only official way to get your land back in this place is to belong to this tribe.
We know the tribe lived there, we know the boundaries of the tribal claim and so if you've got an oral history that is aligned with what the tribe has you're in, but sometimes it's even easier than that. Sometimes it's language it's ethnicity, it's a tribal elder looking at you and saying, you're in, that's my neighbour. So, the tribe knows who's who and so it can be a very straightforward endeavour in this case to get people sort of readmitted to an area, to their land back, and then readmitted back into customary informal way of doing land rights, which is what they've always done. So the point there is to exclude the outsider who wants to claim often the best land sitting on minerals, oil, next to water, et cetera, exclude them and giving or engage in restitution rather back to the initial claimants, the initial occupant. So it's again, it's quick and dirty, it's rough around the edges, transitional justice is and but what you want is volume, you want very large numbers of people going back as quickly as possible, and you can deal with the rough edges about mistakes, et cetera, through different forms of appeals process.
Geoff: So it seems to me the ideal situation here, even if land titles and these sort of things, isn't robust, the ideal thing would be to have a mechanism to register and log all of these bits of data before people find themselves displaced so that when they come back the record, even though it may not be a record that we might hear in the west might consider a record. It exists prior to them being pushed away to as opposed to trying to create that record in a refugee camp or on an air base or something where I assume it would be much more difficult.
Dr. Jon Unruh: That's right, that's the ideal scenario. During the Columbian war, the Columbian government tried that with quite a bit of success before the current social media before the technology is what it is today. And so what they would do was helicopter into these villages that they thought the war was moving toward and quick and dirty to a who's who, and where do you live and off they go to the next village. Now they've got a record kind of what you're talking about, crude compared to what you're talking about, but it is a pre-notion of claim where no title is. Then they advertise that about the country and what they wanted to do was get the message to the warring parties, those that were going to dislocate and then take away and sell land that regardless of what happened, the government knows who belongs where, and even if you do take land away from them at the end of the war, you don't get to keep it right.
Whoever buys it illicitly doesn't get to keep it because the government has this record, so that effect is what you're talking about. Establish it early before in a preemptive kind of way, often we don't get that so that second way that you mentioned in a refugee camp at an air base, et cetera, is also doable because people often had it in their heads, the bits and pieces of evidence for claim, which you can corroborate with the more physical aspects of claims, so corroboration is important. My grandmother says this have and then who cares? It's hearsay legally it's oral history, but I can align that, I can corroborate that using all sorts of things satellite imagery, weather, accounts, market prices, all kinds of things that reflect data about livelihoods that can be aligned or can corroborate and can create a strong argument for claim. So it is doable in a refugee camp, but ultimately you're right, it's best in a preemptive way.
Mike: And I guess that's where the life part comes in because there's, you can see home and property, right? These are things that are tangible and physical; it's got a value, presumably. So the life part I found we had these discussions documenting your life is a notion that I find fascinating, but I don't. I wonder how many people actually think about it. In this scenario, maybe you can corroborate this with me, Jon, I was reading an article and it was, somebody was talking about refugee camps and they made a statement that, and I don't know if it's true, but they said that technically refugee camps like fenced off areas in Turkey and stuff like this don't actually exist, they're kind of like an artifact, they're a special zone, that's kind of outside of the law. Maybe that's what the transitional law kind of means and so these people don't even have like a life everything's been taken for them. Their house has been taken, their jobs are gone, and their university education is gone. All of these things are gone when they go into this, so, how do you tie in the life part to the home life and property.
Dr. Jon Unruh: In a refugee camp.
Mike: In a refugee camp, outside of a refugee camp? I could see oral histories and things for the purposes of getting property, but what about things like, I'm assuming the life part, the more validation you have of that is the person who owned the bakery across the street. And here's the school teacher for my kids is that kind of like evidentiary stuff that would be taken as even more proof of somebody's, kind of displacement.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly, so that's precisely it. So what you find in scenarios like this is that the things that normally count a lot for a housing, land of property claim, a document, a title deed that collapses in value, because you can destroy it and most importantly, you can easily fraudulently engage that, which is a priority in war. So, if you look at some of the primary targets as wars get going, often, they are the land registries, the housing land and property buildings, holding the documents, they get blown up only after they've been[inaudible of course. So everybody knows that fraud's just rampant and so as a result, the things that make the fraud work, the titles and the deeds and the falsified documents, they collapse as actual pieces of evidence relative to other things that grow in terms of a claim, things that you just mentioned the life part.
And although you may be in a refugee camp, you do have the bits and pieces of your previous life and that's what the focus is. What about your previous life? Can you describe, and that can be corroborated that can make a good argument for a claim and your other comment, do people know what those things are? Unfortunately, the answer is no; however, once you get, them thinking, once you get them talking, they come up with all sorts of things that are amazing use. One example is we're working with Syrian refugees and once we got, them going thinking about this life part that would suffice as evidence for claim, we started talking about this legal concept called intimate knowledge. That means the person with the most intimate knowledge of a piece of land is likely the owner, because they've been living on it, they know it intimately.
Mike: There's a tree over there, there's a well, that type of thing.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Not only that, but was there a tree over there or a well there, so let's take a scenario where the tree's no longer there. Neither has the, well, it's all been blown up. Well, you can get preexisting, Google earth, satellite imagery to see that yes, there was a tree there. Yes. There was a well there, that is corroboration but other things emerged. So I was once talking to this person about what kind of things he might say, he came up with a number of things. One is just simply water pipe turns out rural Syria in order to get water to your house, you got to lay the pipes yourself, you hire some local guy, you attach the pipes to some central thing, you dig a trench, it goes from the trench to your house, it takes a left here or right there up and then it's all buried, who knows where that pipe is and where it takes a left and where it takes a right and where it ends up in your house? Even the house is rubble, it's all still buried. If I went to that location with that individual, we could find the pipes, someone who was falsely trying to claim the land, no clue, so it's those sorts of things. Oh, wow.
Mike: That's fantastic, that water pipe story is fantastic.
Dr. Jon Unruh: And so you know, this wasn't me; this was a serial refugee that came up with this. Once you get, them thinking, they come up with all sorts of innovative things. So the trick is to and I'm thinking in terms of what they have about their life, some of these are fairly interesting. One woman said, well, let's see, I, I know that at the corner market, the price for maze used to be this at this period of time two years ago. So what if I'm able to verify that in some record, in some document, if that can be corroborated by other local market women that puts them in that area, intimate knowledge at that point in time, that increases their claim for land.
Mike: And all of their claims, presumably, if you've got five different women talking about the price and you can and especially, I guess associate them from different areas or different camps that would just make it even more legitimate.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly, so the more people, the stronger each individual's claim is because you've got more people involved and so that corroboration is unfortunately a concept that the people that we're talking about, these are not well educated people, they also are not familiar with. And so this whole game is about a preponderance of evidence; in other words, the most evidence that most bits and pieces you can gather together that corroborate each other, that's what counts. It's not like criminal law, where you have the smoking gun, one single piece of evidence that means you win. Can you do the most corroboration with the most pieces of evidence and have a preponderance of evidence over a counter claimant over an opponent. And importantly, in terms of the things that we're talking about, can you automate all of this and do it massively for very large numbers of people all at once?
Mike: Jon, I have to just jump in here and say that you have basically just articulated in a manner, this entire concept that people bandy about all over the world, self-sovereign identity. We do it exactly, we talk about it and this is why I'm so excited about this project because in effect what these people they've been put into the; I try to describe it, I think about being somebody walking with nothing, but the shirt on my back to a refugee camps, it's one step above death, it's like the worst thing that can happen to somebody and they literally have to start with nothing and because people they could tell you, I could say my name's Michael [inaudible 25:46] and they'd say prove it. And I literally have to do so by doing this, what you're saying is you're giving people, transitional justice in effect is empowering these people in the worst circumstances imaginable to kind of create and rebuild their very existence from whatever they have available. It's like whole in the dark.
Dr. Jon Unruh: So, some call that a form of memory Cadaster, so Cadaster is a map almost every country uses those to see who's there. Imagine a property map boundaries and the whole things et cetera [inaudible 26:32] that's a Cadaster they're electronic these days. But in the scenario you just described where you have nothing what you do have, particularly if you have community members that agree with you is a memory Cadaster, where your land is, you can actually spot it on a piece of satellite imagery. And so we've tried this people have never, before seen a map in their life can actually look at a piece of satellite imagery. And you say, look, there's this river, here's this road, there's your school, show me your house. If you kind of triangulate between these marks, they can do that. Anybody can do that, regardless of educational level, so once you're doing that, then you're starting down this road of claim and a memory Cadaster. I personally think there's a good deal of unexplored overlap between this notion of memory Cadaster and self-identity. So there's good, exciting work to be done on bringing some of these things to together.
Geoff: That's really the great word of the day, I think for all of us, Jon in a recent conversation when you were first briefing us on this the couple of weeks ago. So depending on your definition of recent, you mentioned that Facebook was commonly used with people that had smartphones and had data. They would sometimes use Facebook to document their life and you also made some interesting comments around the reasons that people choose to, again, outside of west, perhaps choose to trust Facebook, where we're all Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg, they consider Facebook a good thing. Could you maybe speak to that a little bit and explain why they use Facebook and why they trust Facebook?
Dr. Jon Unruh: Well, why they use Facebook? And this is off our research in Iraq, why they use Facebook as opposed to something else is because they don't have anything else; that's it. And so there's no choice, kind of a thing going why they trust Facebook is a really good question. I would speculate that from their perception, from their point of view, there is no Mark Zuckerberg. They don't get the attachment there. That's simply the stuff of Western news that they have no access to, but how they see Facebook as though that it has no owner, it doesn't belong to a government from their perspective, it doesn't belong to a company, it's just kind of is everybody has it? And because everybody has it, that gives it a bit of a legitimacy.
So if I know that everybody uses it and has had more or less an experience with it, then for me the trust cost is sort of low in also using it. So if something else were to come along and again, everybody had it right then you might buy into it. Distrust, often needs a target, the Target's a government, the Target's some nefarious player and I distrust that entity and everything that comes from it. So if they were to attach Facebook to some sort of nefarious entity as is, being done in some places, they might have trouble with it or not given that it's, the only thing going. So they found it pretty useful, they're doing some innovative things with it. May we often don't do in the west; I know that Syrian refugees on their way out to the country were of course attempted trying to be captured by Syrian forces.
They found a way to do some sort of pinging scenario in code using Facebook that would warn someone of a checkpoint two kilometres ahead, but they knew that the Syrian government was onto them. And so they would quickly rotate the pinging so that it could just dance all over the place. So you couldn't find the location of the person doing the ping. All sorts of things I don’t know. They come out with these innovative ways. The sea populations may be a little different, because it is parts of it are very computer, computer literate, and they can come up with these things but in terms of Iraq, again, no real, no real alternative.
Dr. Jon Unruh: But this idea of trust because everybody's using it and they don't connect it to a government. In fact, the more that they see that the government doesn't like it or that someone's trying to control it and can't maybe the more trust they have in it, deserved or not. So, those are some curious features that perhaps one can, you know, take note of in building something better, to engage the sort of a claims process with.
Geoff: If we were in these parts of the world, would we be surprised the degree to which people have access to a smartphone where they might not have a lot of the things that we would consider part of life like fresh water or indoor plumbing, but they would have a smartphone of some kind is that the case?
Dr. Jon Unruh: It is. And access is the important word there, it usually isn't individual access. So, it's not like, every adult has a smartphone, himself or herself group, however, and group identity can be much more important than in more individualistic societies like, Western Europe and North America. So, what you find is that in an extended family, which has all, together, they can be in the same refugee camp together. Someone within that large family does, it's a teenager, it's a 30 year old millennial doing a business and so access there is important because that means that even the oldest person knows nothing about, a phone can get it, can get at someone who knows how to work it and can talk to somebody five countries away and engage with the technology.
So, you are finding that you can engage with the technology, you do have access to it, the frequency of actual devices, of course lower, but the group functioning of society actually kind of makes up for that. So I imagine that I have a, a large group when someone in my large group does have a phone and I can talk to that person and say, can we get on your phone and can I do my thing? And you help me since how your phone works and I don't, I may be too old to know, but you're going to help me engage what I need to engage with on your phone. That in fact, is there at a Ph.D. student doing this kind of research in South Sudan, which is sort of an extreme in terms of literacy challenges, education challenges, even there among the refugees and IDPs internally dislocated persons, you do still find that, that there is this access. So, that's quite interesting that you do have this to a degree a pervasive presence of these platforms.
Geoff: Yes. It's fascinating that there are both the devices and of course the mobile networks to connect to, or the Wi-Fi and just the entire infrastructure to support them as well, it's fascinating to think about.
Mike: One of the things that I recall in this kind of when the topic of Facebook came up, when we met a couple of weeks ago, Jon was this idea that they, that one of the drivers and from our early discussion on this podcast, I now understand it. But you said that one of the drivers of people using Facebook was that they wanted other people to know they existed. That's right. They wanted other people to know that they were like, A, still alive, or that they were this doctor or a university professor, or a startup entrepreneur in Damascus before the place went to hell in a hand basket.
Dr. Jon Unruh: So, in that case the notions of privacy, Western notions of privacy can take an odd twist. So we like to have the right to be invisible, to right, to have our information not accessible by the public at large. And certainly not by telecoms, etcetera, in dire circumstances, you can want the reverse; you want the right to be visible. You want the world to know where you are, that you're a person that you have a claim to land and property, that you are countering other claims. And so, this right to be visible can be felt very strongly, among people that are experiencing real serious challenges to their livelihood. So if you're in a refugee camp, you're truly a number you're not visible, there are people that would like you to become more invisible so that they can have your land in a permanent way.
And so, you can find very interesting notions of what privacy is and the desire to be more visible. So, when you're in a refugee camp, you need to do a lot you need to find kin, the people that you find your village with may have scattered. There are another refugee camps can you find them well, you need to be visible for that. Can you make a claim? In order to exercise your basic rights, you need to be visible somewhere somehow. Whereas in the west, you already got your basic rights, you don't give those up just because you want privacy. You still have those, you get both, but in these scenarios, you don't get both, if you're invisible exercising, your rights is a problem. And so that's the kind of interesting twist that we could see take place in these places.
Mike: And so, I would assume that there's a downside to say using something like a Facebook for the purposes of something like a home life and property thing in that it is a public record. So, I've heard stories of people who are refugees, who intentionally will rip up their passports and all of their identity stuff, because they don't want the border guard or whoever it is to have a record of which they are when they left the country or whatever it is. So, I would assume there's certain cases like, I could see the case of wanting to reconnect to people you'd want to have some physical presence. But if what you're trying to do is to use the second purpose, which is to build an HLP claim for future transitional justice restitution. You'd probably want to be able to do that in a kind of, as private and a closed way as possible ideally for the purposes of, preventing somebody's going to Facebook going, he's saying he lives there I'm going to go and put another Facebook page and say, I lived there.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Right. So, there's sort of a when and where question there, if I'm going to tear my passport up, as I approach a checkpoint that's a kind of a when and where I don't want the passport on me, but the moment I'm in a refugee camp, boy, I want that passport.
Mike: That's right.
Dr. Jon Unruh: And so, what you want when you cross that border checkpoint is for your passport to be hidden that's what you'd like. And for you'd like to take it out from it hiding once you are past the passport, don't have that option. In an ideal way yes, you would like your making of a claim to an authority to be private. But what we're seeing is that you don't get that because it's not in place yet. If there was a trusted digital platform that a refugee could engage to say, okay, I'm going to make my claim, I'm going to upload my evidence, including who I am, where I am, what exactly my evidence is and all these other people that will attest to me, I'm going to do that. But wow, that's not the information I want to get back to government, if the government is the enemy, the government court does want it, so they want to know all the information.
Mike: The governments probably want you to keep using Facebook for HLP because then all they need to do is go on to Facebook and they can figure out what's going on.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Sure. It's a targeting mechanism; including targeting for bombing, so the series is good at that. And so, that hidden aspect of it, the privacy aspect of it is very important unfortunately, you don't get it, you just get what you've described, which is that you just get on Facebook and yell this is my land. Someone else yells, no, it's my land no, here's a photo of me, no, here's a map you just yell back and forth. If you're want to see that, run amuck, get on this thing called Wikimapia. Wikimapia is like Wikipedia anybody can say anything, but on a map, if you want to look at this, go into Syria, and poke around in some Syrian villages and people are doing just what you described there, drawn boundaries around places using Google earth, overlaying by this liquor map.
Yes, you can make a claim, you can upload all sorts of things anybody can say anything so they do. So you've got a bunch of people doing that as you could imagine, there's a bunch of people not doing that because they don't want to be sort of found. And so you can imagine that that's a place where the wealthy, the well-positioned the powerful and we're going to make a claim. But if you had some other way to do that would be best and then you make that available to United Nations or to a transitional justice land restitution process after the war, with the authority ideal right now we don't have that.
Henry: And that's exactly what we're working on.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly. So, right now it's a lot of Facebook yelling better than nothing, but a lot of things are better than nothing.
Geoff: Yes. And I guess the other, I hesitate to use the word advantage, but the one thing Facebook does provide is somewhat of an immutable timeline, and this comes back to what I was saying earlier about trying to do this ahead of time. But if you have a series of pictures of your life, their date and time stamped, you might see lemons on the tree while, I guess in these hot places, the lemons go year round so not a good example, but you could kind of see the cycle of the year and this sort of thing, and Facebook even calls it a timeline. So, I would guess that any solution, any technology that is trying to do something similar would want to ensure that you could date and timestamp everything to provide that metadata perhaps in a, in a friendly way than Facebook might provide it, but at least you have that kind of, you have that linear chronology.
Dr. Jon Unruh: That's right. So, ideally you'd need a time stamping ability somehow doesn't need to be purely technological, it can be kind of what you described are the lemons on the trees. So, in your case, there may be, unless it was just harvested when is harvest? Can you give me a date by which you harvested lemons on a tree? You can actually see that from a satellite. I can come down to the day when lemons are there go to the next day satellite and see that they're not there. You said that you harvested them that day and so that's corroboration, so you can see all sorts of things that can get at you at sort of this timestamp. And in fact, there's someone doing a very interesting work on what he calls war contexture, so the mix between architecture and wards.
So what this person does is study rubble and so basically with a satellite, you look down on rubble, he views the skin of buildings, the outside wall of buildings to be a very sensitive record-keeping platform. And so when that's reduced to rubble, you can working with things like, he'll do things like shadows, weather, cloud formations he can come to the conclusion of who did what, when and where just based on the rubble. So, he's got some interesting work out there published a couple of papers. Don't think he's thinking of the application as we might actual evidence for a claim or to create a timestamp or create a timeline. But he's in the process of doing that and automating that so, ideally you would go to rubble and with some sort of laboratory look at the skin of the building, you can see what angle the ammunition came from. You can see kind of what the use of the building was is there a smoke layer in there? So you can do a lot of that can you do this automatically from a distance and over very large areas all at once? So, there's a lot out there that hasn't quite been brought together yet, that would allow you to make a timeline or a timestamp. You don't need a phone to do that or Facebook to do that helps, but there are other ways.
Mike: So, it sounds to me like, where the focus needs to be for something that would work. It sounds, sounds like there's lots of tools out there that exist, as you said, satellite imagery, Google maps, whatever that exists that can be used, say after the fact, to validate, say data points that are collected in an HLP claim. And which is great, but what you need now is a better, non-public say personally trustable way to collect those things, like the story about the lemons and when they were harvested. And the life histories of the people and the photos of the house and the walls, what they looked like before they became rubble and things like that, what you want ideally is some place where, to your analogy, back to the Columbia village story, where the war Lord or the dictator, whoever who's chasing the people around and out of his country doesn't know whether all of them, or none of them has already got an established set of records for what's being done to them by this guy taking them down.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly yes, so if you had...
Mike: Like something hidden that you guys that transitional justice can go, thank you very much for that information. I'm going to now take that and I'm going to go and process a claim against the Assad regime or something like this. If Assad knew that everybody potentially had their own already documented HLP before he started bombing the village, he might think twice.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly. So, there is some speculation that Colombian example that maneuvers that the government did had an effect on the course of the war. So, you can argue this way and that way, and you look at it hindsight, but yes, exactly. So what you want to put is that seed of doubt into the head of the person or the process that that's going to dislocate people, and transact their properties. They put the doubt in their head, but most importantly, you want to put doubt in the head of whoever would give them money for it. So, if people roll into an area, they scare people off, they take their property. Now they're going to sell it whoever they sell it to if they start to think, this isn't going to be permanent then you're out of buyer, there's no buyers for the property you've confiscated.
If you know, there's no buyers, are you going to confiscate to begin with? Or are you just going to do something else? So, that's the logic, in a certain way, there's analysis saya that's what happened to this experiment in Columbia, that they took away any sort of good faith or bad faith purchaser, and hence the money that was driving the confiscation of these lands so that they could be transacted and sold off because when you do that what you want is permanent of the transaction. So I take your land, or I chase you away. I turn around and I sell it wherever I sell it to once permanence, if they don't think that that transaction is permanent at the end of the day it's going to be taken away from them.
They've lost money, right and they've probably lost any improvement they've done to that property, whatever they built on it, etcetera, if you're government and you make that clear, that's going to happen that provides a check on the whole process. So, the two things you mentioned are important first, get it but keep it hidden the details, but generally make it sort of plain that maybe it happened or that it has happened. Exactly who and where and what that's all hidden that's all very secure. And so that would be the trick to get to that position that would be a nice place to be.
Mike: So basically in both of these scenarios, the underlying point, because I remember you mentioned Jon, that these people, the refugees, don't trust anything pretty much and I wouldn't either, frankly, in that scenario. And including like the UN, and yet there's also corresponding on the other side, the people that are not displaced, we're such a solution to exist would not have trust in the legitimacy of a property transaction in Syria when they're buying up the best properties by the river and stuff. If they think, geez, I'm going to, this guy says, well, we're the legitimate authority here now, I can sell any property I want, you can buy that lake front thing for, a hundred thousand dollars or whatever it is. I don't trust it because I don't know whether the blue helmets are going to show up in five years and kicked me out.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly, right.
Mike: So, what do you think it is from a technological perspective? So we've talked about this, what do you think it is from a technological perspective that would enable, this kind of, I'm going to call it like a two-sided coin of trust, something that would be that refugees and displaced people could trust in order to build their claims and something that could also kind of establish this counter trust in these dubious institutions and transactions that happen after a war.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Yes, good question. So, I think that the trust with the refugees would have to be grown; I think you'd have to focus on kind of techniques for gaining it techniques for over time, acquiring it. So, can you target certain leadership actors, religious actors, ethnic actors, etcetera, that are in forms of trusted leadership. What about individual family members that are computer literate that does understand how blockchain works and what security is? They all have family members so can you interact with an educated diaspora of a conflict that's always there that can call home and say, try this, dad, try this cousin, Jill, and move it that way. So there are techniques to kind of grow that over time and so that it isn't instantaneous, but there are ways, there are probably even some technological ways for doing that.
So, if you're unsure about having your data being divulged to one's enemies, then you could probably have an opt-out technological, uh, button that can be pushed that would instantly delete, or just keep on your own device only. And so you can actually do a couple of things that can sort of grow this notion of, of trust. So, one might be just simply awareness raising, so here get your evidence, here's the notion of intimate knowledge. Where are your pipes? Where are your trees load that all on your phone? If you not trust it, hey, just keep it on your phone for now, but do gather it do interview grandma before she passes away so she can give you the whole history of occupation from your land, and it could be corroborate, just keep it on your phone.
If you don't trust the thing, keep it there now you've got it in digital format, cross that bridge later. So, you can go some distance and without having this trust play a large role as a technological technique, just for awareness, raising the importance of gathering and keeping these bits and pieces of your life and having them corroborate each other, etcetera. So, there are ways to do that the other way, what I think you're talking about is can you get the nefarious actors out there to also trust that they're going to have a problem? In fact, you can do that, even if the land never goes back to the refugee. So let's take all the refugees in the Syrian conflict that never go back they still have a claim, a claim for compensation.
And Europe, especially Germany is very keen on amassing all those claims and pursuing those claims against a perhaps unfriendly government. So, you can get pretty coercive at this level, so the Western actors, which are currently very coercive for Syria, all sorts of sanctions there, what they're going to want is for all these claims to be dealt with in terms of compensation, for people who don't want to go back, can't go back. So you still have a property claim, even if you're not going back, that has to be laid to rest somehow, if it isn't two generations later, that's still there. Now, you've got more people, now you've got youngsters who weren't even born when the conflict took place up in arms about their claim. And you don't have to look too far to see where that's happened over and over the Palestinian is conflict is that as an ideal multi-generational claims problem, there that's particularly visceral.
And so, what the restitution, aspect of the UN is in avoiding those growing claims that are never resolved Cyprus and Turkey. The numbers of people involved are enormous now, the initial claims problem kind of small, but it's been allowed to go over generations and grow to solve it today would cost billions back then when it first started, not so much. So you can still pursue a problem, you can make a problem for say the Assad regime in the future. Even if the people never go back, because in order to say, drop sanctions, the Assad regime has to pledge money, land, engage in restitution so that the refugees, it can pursue their claims. So it gets pretty, large-scale pretty quick and the options are interesting at different levels of governance.
Mike: So, I'm guessing Jon, that what we need to do is build something as soon as possible.
Dr. Jon Unruh: That's right. When we've gone to the different United Nations line agencies that we interact with on this problem, so I usually work kind of on the ground doing restitution. So I work with the UN IOM International Organization for Migration or UN Habitat or United Nations, High Commissioner for Refugee, these line agencies that are on the ground and engage in restitution, I start talking about this idea, as they say, great, we want it yesterday. The problem is they don't fund development or research and so, while they're extremely interested, they want a fully functional working thing right now. And so yes, what you've said is exactly correct what we needed it a while ago.
Mike: Right. Because I'm assuming that and I think we're going to end, Jon I can tell you this is version one, we're going to have 2, 3, 4, we're going to have to keep recording podcasts on this because it's such a fascinating topic, but I can imagine that if I'm a refugee and I want to trust something, all I need to do is see it work once. See somebody that I know, or somebody that periphery I'm aware of that put together an HLP claim and got at restitution settlement.
Dr. Jon Unruh: That's exactly it someone you know, that does it.
Mike: Right. And if I'm on the other side, if I'm say the Assad regime or something like this, or the people who are going to buy that property off of the Assad regime, all I need to see is the German government saying here's our daily tally of the value of the restitution claims that have been submitted to us for Syria. And it's like a billion, 2 billion, 3 billion just keeps counting and all of a sudden you're like, man, when this is over, this is going to cost us an arm and leg.
Dr. Jon Unruh: That's right. So the Syrian government is either thinking, this is going to cost us an arm and a leg, or I'm going to have to get people to give their land back.
Mike: That's exactly right.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Or get that land and sell it in order to produce the funding, to pay compensation. In any case, you at the current occupant, the bad faith occupant to start to think, I'm not going to keep this land. So, that's interesting thing to play around with it, the UN does that in terms of its narratives that it promotes more effective scenarios.
Geoff: It's great to hear these stories, because I think so many people just have this notion that UN is a bunch of old men banging their shoes at the general assembly in New York and the Security Council just blocking everything. But to hear all these stories of blue helmets on the ground and making a real difference, I think those kinds of stories just don't get surfaced enough these days.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Yes. I'd agree, the security council in New York, it's what gets the media attention that's what we think the UN is about. Most of it though, is, is actually out in the field, with these UN line agencies that actually do the real work.
Henry: Dr. Unruh, we have to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I found it absolutely amazing I will never watch the news again, without flicking about some of the stuff that you introduced, that was fascinating. And we certainly hope to build a solution that works for them.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Fantastic. Great talking to you guys about it. I think it's a fascinating topic and it certainly needs a lot of work.
Mike: This is a real practical, as I was saying earlier, example of what we've been Henry and Geoff and I have been Jon on about now for, it seems like decades. And it would be if we can get one war to not start because somebody thinks twice before pulling the trigger, it's worth it.
Dr. Jon Unruh: Exactly.
Henry: Well, thank you very much, Jon really appreciate it.
Geoff: Thank you so much, Jon.
Mike: Thanks, Jon.
Dr. Jon Unruh: My pleasure.