A group of dispossessed Zimbabwean farmers is about to take a case for compensation to an international tribunal.

This move could benefit over 4000 of their compatriots who had their land taken by Robert Mugabe’s government.

The case is being taken by the Zimbabwean Dutch Farmers’ Association (ZDFA), in partnership with the UK-based AgricAfrica, on behalf of 11 ex-farmers with Dutch nationality.

“International law is quite clear that, where an individual’s assets are compulsorily purchased by the state, then compensation has to be paid,” AgricAfrica chairman Bob Fernandes told Farmers Weekly.

That quite clearly has not been happening in Zimbabwe.

Over 4000 white commercial farmers have been kicked off their farms since 2000 – often under extremely violent circumstances – with their land and assets either handed over to government supporters or senior militia, or left to lie idle.

Only about 300 white farmers are still in occupation of their farms, though recent reports suggest a further, and possibly final round of dispossessions is under way.

While the Zimbabwe government has been offering some compensation, Mr Fernandes – a former valuer from the capital city Harare – says this amounts to less than 10% of the true value of the farms that were taken.

“With inflation running at over 1000%, a farmer would have to be really desperate to sign up to that.

Unfortunately, some are desperate.”

But he is optimistic that the case being taken by the ZDFA will achieve a better deal for dispossessed farmers.

That case is based on what is known as an Investor Protection Agreement, signed by both the Dutch and Zimbabwean governments and designed to protect the assets of foreign nationals in Zimbabwe.

The question of whether compensation is payable will be considered by three arbitrators under the rules of the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) – a forum linked to the World Bank – in Washington later this year.

Assuming liability is established, the arbitrators will then set the sum of money the ex-farmers are owed.

“If an award for compensation is made and the Zimbabwean government refuses to pay, then the 11 farmers involved would have the right to seize assets belonging to the Zimbabwean government in any one of 139 countries that are signed up to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards,” says Mr Fernandes.

It is also possible that the World Bank would insist on payment of awards in connection with any future loans to Harare.

Mr Fernandez is optimistic that ICSID will find in the Dutch farmers’ favour and believes this will set a precedent for others to stake similar claims.

“But the big unknown is what value will be put on the farms.”

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk