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United Nations International Conference on Palestine Refugees

Notes and Comments from a Refugee Rights Perspective*

In late April, the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (established in 1975), the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the League of Arab States, convened a timely conference, on Palestine refugees at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The conference, attended by UN member states and observers from non-governmental organizations, aimed to review the current situation of Palestinian refugees and to examine the role of the United Nations in finding a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on UN resolutions and international law. 

Refugee repatriation and compensation based on UN Resolution 194 (III) was identified by several Ambassadors to the UN (including Oman speaking on behalf of the Arab group, and South Africa speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement) as a key element of a future durable political solution in the Middle East. "If this problem is not approached with due care and patience, if it is not resolved fairly and in accordance with the norms of international law," stated the UN Committee Vice-Chairman Bruno Rodriquez Parilla, "more Palestinian lives will be ruined, frustration and mistrust will set in again, and the potential for peace and stability in the region will be seriously jeopardized."

Unfortunately, this growing concern for a rights-based solution for Palestinian refugees did not include key players involved in Oslo process, most notably the United States and Israel. Neither country submitted official statements to the conference. The French Ambassador, while leaning heavily on the EU position (see below), and recognizing the importance of international legality and the wishes of the refugees, spoke about the need for political compromise based on "the new political, demographic, and social realities" in the region. According to the Ambassador, such a compromise centered on recognition of the right to repatriation and compensation and the practical limitations of absorption in "the territories", and availability of resources for compensation.

Over the course of three plenary sessions, numerous experts examined the historical and current situation of Palestinian refugees as one of the longest-running humanitarian problems in the world, the role of the United Nations in providing assistance and protection for Palestinian refugees (UN Conciliation Commission/UNCCP, UN Relief and Works Agency/UNRWA, UN High Commissioner for Refugees/UNHCR), and refugees and the current Middle East peace process. Using maps and tables, Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta informed delegates about the practicality of repatriation based on demographic and spatial analysis of areas inside Israel. Laura Reanda (a former UN official) reviewed the current situation of refugee property records gathered by the UNCCP. Terry Rempel (BADIL), analyzed the key factors which led to the failure of the UNCCP to bring about a solution for Palestinian refugees based on UN Resolution 194. 

Susan Akram (Boston University School of Law) presented her re-interpretation of International Refugee Law to show that a legal framework (1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1950 Statute of the UNHCR) is available for direct international protection of Palestinian refugees, including the promotion of a durable solution. Interest in this legal argument, expressed by representatives of the Arab League, UNHCR, and the PLO, as well as calls, among others by Hussein Hassouna (Arab League Observer to the UN), for public access to the UNCCP property records, may open new channels for concerted efforts towards Palestinian refugee protection in the United Nations framework in the future.

Among the expert speakers representing Israeli positions were Uri Avneri (journalist, Israeli Peace Block) and Yossi Katz (Labor, Knesset Member). Although both raised the need for Israel's admission of its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee issue, they upheld the common Israeli argument that any refugee return to homes and properties could be partial only (maximum 100,000) and must be implemented under Israeli supervision (family reunification procedures), in order to safeguard the Jewish character of the state of Israel. The notion of the "Jewish character" of Israel was most eloquently questioned by Osama El-Baz (Political Advisor to the Egyptian President), who noted the importance of distinguishing between the social and cultural aspects, as opposed to maintaining ethnic purity by keeping the Palestinian population to a minimum, which is both illegal and immoral. 

Reviewing the Middle East peace process and Palestinian refugees, As'ad Adul Rahman (PLO Executive Committee/Refugee Department) stated that the lack of a political settlement for the 5 million Palestinian refugees based on Resolution 194 (numerous speakers mistakenly spoke of only 3.6 million refugees, which only represents those registered with UNRWA) would destabilize the entire region, a point emphasized by the Conference Co-Sponsors and other experts. Karin Roxman, speaking on behalf of EU Special Envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Moratinos, presented a position which - while including reference to UN Resolution 194 - placed heavy emphasis on the need for a political solution, which recognized the demographic, economic, and social changes on the ground. Roxman noted that the EU was preparing a paper identifying its interests in the region, a vision for the future and a set of guidelines for possible EU contributions to a future peace settlement.

 In their concluding remarks, the Conference organizers "reaffirmed that the right of return of Palestine refugees to their homes, as stipulated by the General Assembly in its resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, remained a conditio sine qua non for the exercise of the Palestinian people of its inalienable right to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty. They also stated that the provisions of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) and subsequent relevant United Nations resolutions remained valid and must be taken into full consideration in any final settlement of the question of Palestine." The organizers considered the issue of refugee compensation "to be an integral element of, but not a substitute for, their right of return." They also called upon the international community "to contribute to UNRWA's budget regularly in order to meet the anticipated needs of the Agency and intensify support for its activities." 

*This report, prepared by BADIL, is not an official report. The report highlights key themes of the conference, but does not include a complete list of speakers and experts. For official Conference documents see the UN website on Palestine, UNISPAL