Following is the final statement issued by some 65 Palestinian/Arab, and international NGOs upon conclusion of their meeting in the framework of the International United Nations Conference on the Palestine Refugee Question. In their statement, NGOs set principles and guidelines for a concerted effort towards the protection of Palestinian refugee rights, foremost their right to return to their homes and properties and to receive fair compensation.
(Official documents issued in the framework of this Conference are available at the UN website on Palestine, UNISPAL.)
UNESCO Headquarters, Paris
28 April 2000
1. We NGOs thank the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People for convening this Meeting at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on the "role of the NGOs in the promotion of a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem".
2. We NGOs recall that the question of Palestinian refugees - today's longest-running humanitarian problem - remained unresolved. We noted that, on the threshold of the new millennium, more than 3.6 million Palestine refugees, registered with UNRWA, scattered around the Middle East and beyond, continue to live in camps and elsewhere, many away from their homeland, denied their right of return and self-determination, with bleak economic prospects, their freedom of movement restricted, families separated, their hopes and aspirations for the future dependent on the outside world. We stressed that the social and economic conditions of the refugees remain very difficult and require urgent intervention on the part of the international community.
3. We NGOs note that the plight of Palestine refugees is among the permanent status issues being negotiated by the parties. It is emphasized, in this context, that a just solution to the question of Palestine and a lasting peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved without a just and fair solution to the question of Palestine refugees.
4. Further, we NGOs affirm 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, remains a conditio sine qua non for the exercise by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights to self-determination, national independence and sovereignty. This historic relevant resolution, which has been re-affirmed every year by the UN General Assembly, confirms the right of the refugees themselves to a choice of return and restitution of property, and just compensation for those wishing or not wishing to return.
5. We declare that the provisions of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) and subsequent relevant United Nations resolutions remain valid and must be taken into full consideration in any final settlement of the question of Palestine. We call upon the United Nations to continue to protect the natural and inalienable right of Palestinians to return to their homes and act as its guarantor, pending a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine.
6. We NGOs reaffirmed the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to return to their land and property, abandoned as a result of the 1948 and 1967 hostilities. We consider the issue of refugee compensation to be an integral element of, but not a substitute for, their right of return. We recognize the importance of addressing the problem of compensation for the losses sustained by the refugees since 1948 in an adequate and just manner.
7. We NGOs note the assistance provided over decades by the United Nations system to Palestine refugees. We focused, in particular, on the critical role played for over 50 years by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in assisting the refugees through the provision of humanitarian relief and social services. We call upon all Governments, including non-contributing Governments, to contribute to UNRWA's budget regularly and to consider to increase their contributions in order to meet the anticipated needs of the Agency and intensify support for its activities. We NGOs believe that, pending a final settlement, any reduction in the level of financing of UNRWA would inevitably lead to further exacerbation of the living conditions of the refugees. The international community should continue to support the vital activities of UNRWA until the question of Palestine refugees is resolved in accordance with relevant United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy.
8. We especially want to focus NGO international attention on the plight of Palestine refugees living in Lebanon. We firmly reject any attempt to use their fate for issues not related to the Palestine refugee problem. Their circumstances require immediate and sustained attention by the international community, international organizations, governments and NGOs alike. We NGOs also declare that the idea of absorption or expulsion of Palestine refugees and displaced persons by host countries is not acceptable from the political, legal, socio-economic or moral stand points.
9. We NGOs believe that the state of Israel bears moral and political responsibility for creating the Palestine refugee problem. The clearest demonstration Israel can offer to show that it accepts its responsibility for dispossessing Palestinian people of their homes and lands, would be that it publicly acknowledges the inalienable right of return of Palestinian refugees. More than any other state in the world today, Israel should understand what this demand means to a humiliated and suffering people, as the Palestinian have been since partition.
10. We appreciate the work of the Palestinian associations and NGOs to re-affirm that negotiations on the Palestine refugee question can take place only with the active involvement of the refugees themselves. We declare our complete support of the Joint Statement of November 1999 by Organizations and NGOs of Internally Displaced Palestinians and Palestinian refugees in Palestine and Lebanon, and for the political statement on the Final Status Negotiations issued by the Union of Youth Activity Centers/West Bank and Gaza Refugee Camps on 18 May 1999.
11. As NGOs we call for the Palestinian refugees to be brought back into the protection framework offered to all other refugees in the world, namely, separate additional representation, full protection and enforcement.
12. We strongly emphasize that during this period, all of the Palestinian refugees are entitled to the rights of protection recognized for all refugees, especially those defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees ("Refugee Convention") which the UNHCR is empowered to uphold and enforce. The Palestinian refugees also have the right to the social, medical and educational support of UNRWA.
13. We NGOs pledge to utilize our expertise and experience in communication, education, advocacy, and assistance in locally and internationally coordinated efforts on behalf of Palestine refugees. Areas of serious concern that require immediate governmental and non-governmental attention include: increased commitment to UNRWA services; need to ensure both quantity and quality of service coverage; development and empowerment of refugee community structures, especially relating to women; increased capacity of refugee communities to address their own socio-economic needs; full refugee participation in development aid programmes; ensuring that refugee service provision is fully protected in the case of future hand-over of UNRWA services, following the achievement of a just and durable solution; engaging international NGOs in a process of re-examining legal principles underlying the refugee arguments and searching for feasible modalities that allow Palestinian refugees to exercise their right of return and compensation; ensuring that Palestinian refugees are not excluded from the internationally-accepted frameworks that have guided solutions to other refugee populations; promoting refugee representation in political processes regarding their future; and ensuring that the refugees do not pay the price of the international community's failure to implement its own proposed solutions to the refugee problem.
14. As to the plan of action to address these concerns in support of Palestine refugees, we propose the establishment of national committees for the recognition of the right of return in each state represented by the NGOs here today with international coordination to network national information among each of the states. These committees will have to work in close cooperation with the Palestinian associations and NGOs in order to prepare and share the documented arguments on the right of return, and to define the role of NGOs in their work on this issue with governments, political parties, trade unions and others. Special emphasis should be given to the development and enhancement of Palestinian-Israeli NGO collaboration on all issues impacting Palestine refugees. The Israeli peace movement can play an important role in convincing Israeli public opinion and the Israeli Government that the just solution of the refugee problem in no way endangers the State of Israel, but rather will help Israel to achieve peace and reconciliation with its Arab neighbors.
15. Further, we propose an international NGO committee should assist in networking among the national campaigns and dispatch information and results among the various national committees, relevant international organizations and the media.
16. In this way the NGOs active on the Question of Palestine, in close cooperation with the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, can mobilize their members and their individual networks, in pursuit of this initiative on behalf of Palestine refugees which we consider vital to any lasting, humane outcome to the current processes.
17. Fundamentally, we NGOs view the right of return as a matter of the restoration of Palestinian identity, dignity and legitimacy as well as a matter of the proper interpretation and application of international law. We ask the international community to work towards the speedy implementation of General Assembly resolution 194 (III).