Explained: Public Benefit in Syria's Expropriation Law

The Syrian constitution considers private property to be a right and that it cannot be confiscated except through an expropriation law that derives its legitimacy from the concept of "the public benefit." But who determines public benefit? And what happens when properties are expropriated, and public benefit is not achieved?

Article 15 of Syria’s 2012 constitution states: “Private property may not be expropriated except by decree in cases of public benefit, and in return for fair compensation in accordance with the law”. However, some articles of the Syrian Expropriation Law No. 20 of 1983, which still applies, contradict the constitution.

The 1983 law grants all public sector entities the right to expropriate without exception, stating in Article 2: “Ministries, administrations, public institutions, administrative bodies and public sector entities may expropriate real estate — that which has been built upon, and that which has not — whether they are private property, or owned by endowment, or burdened with an endowment right, to implement projects for the public benefit as stipulated in this decree.”

Article 3 of the expropriations law clarified what was meant by public benefit, identifying dozens of reasons. They included building roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, universities, military barracks, places of worship, cultural centres, and sports clubs, as well as oil, gas, water, and electricity facilities. It also included facilities belonging to the ruling Baath Party, as well as affiliated organisations, as for the public benefit.

Article 8 of the Syrian constitution of 1973 states that the Baath Party is the leader of both the state and society. The 2012 constitution removes this article. However, the definition of public benefit, as it is understood regarding Baath Party properties, has not changed since Law No. 20 of 1983 — this is considered to be in violation of the 2012 constitution, which granted a three-year period to settle all prior conflicting legislation.

The 1983 law further expands the definition of public benefit in adding purposes for property acquisition that relate to the military. Article 4 of the law permits the Ministry of Defence to expropriate real estate to construct military housing complexes, as well as housing to sell to military personnel, families of martyrs, and ministry employees.

On the other hand, if an expropriated property loses its public benefit, or if that benefit is never realised in the first place, for any reason, the ownership status of the specified real estate is not terminated. The expropriations law allows public entities to transfer properties to state ownership, should they acquire real estate and fail to use them for projects that have a public benefit. Law No. 20 gives these entities the right to sell expropriated real estate, according to Article 35.

Continued expropriation without real public benefit has opened the door to widespread corruption and collusion between influential figures and public institutions to expropriate certain real estate at low prices, and then abandon them for long periods of time before reinvesting them for purposes not originally intended. In other cases, the involved parties simply sell off the properties.

At the very least, authorities must reconsider some articles of the 1983 expropriation law that have since lost their legitimacy under the new 2012 constitution. Only one public institution at a time should have the right to expropriate real estate. A judicial decision must define the public benefit in each case of expropriation and lay out clear terms for delivering that benefit, stipulating that the property must be returned to the original owners if such projects are not carried out within a specified time period.