A Primer for Policymakers - Book Review of Dumper's The Future for Palestinian Refugees

A Primer for Policymakers - Book Review of Dumper's The Future for Palestinian Refugees

Michael Dumper, The Future for Palestinian Refugees: Toward Equity and Peace (Boulder and London: Lynn Rienner, 2007)

This book offers an introduction to the Palestinian refugee question in a format geared primarily towards policymakers and academics. It covers a broad range of ground and for that reason the book can be a useful tool for activists as well.

 The author is an associate professor in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter and served as lead researcher for consultant studies prepared for the European Union Refugee Task Force in 1999 and 2001. The book takes a comparative approach to the topic, taking examples from other refugee case studies – which are expanded upon at greater length in a previous book from 2006 edited by the same author, called Palestinian Refugee Repatriation: Global Perspectives (London: Routledge 2006) – and asks whether any of the lessons learned or best practices from those experiences can be applied to the Palestinian refugee context. The exercise is a useful one because of the wealth of practice and useful precedents that have built up in the field of refugee protection generally.

 The author’s main premise is that “exceptionalism” has by and large framed the dominant discourse on the Palestinian refugee question, meaning the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely “different” from other cases of refugeehood mainly because of the overriding balance of power in Israel’s favor. In contrast, the book “seeks to contextualize the issue through comparative study and is a deliberate attempt to draw on the experience of the international community in dealing with other refugee situations to see how the insights and lessons learned might be applied to the Palestinian case” (p. 2). The author describes three main aims of the book: (1) to explore “the range of options available to policymakers, the donor community, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists”; (2) to “evaluate the various proposals put forward in both the formal and unofficial, or Track II, arenas of negotiations”; and (3) to “bridge the gap between those often termed ‘realists’ and those rooted in the discourse of human rights and international humanitarian law” (p. 2).

The author does succeed in offering useful introductions to the topics identified in his first and second goals. However, when it comes to the third goal the picture is less clear. The author does deliberately select middle-of-the-ground language throughout the book which attempts to avoid the “twin traps of naiveté and realpolitik” (p. 3, quoting South African politician and international law scholar Qader Asmal). However, given the strong signposts of international law, it is doubtful whether any writer can ultimately avoid taking a position on key issues such as the existence of the right of return and the goals of refugee protection as developed in international law and practice. It turns out the author is somewhat less successful in his effort at “fence-sitting” than he might care to admit.

The beginning chapters of the book are devoted to background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with special attention given to the demographics and living conditions of the Palestinian refugee population. Attention is also paid to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the official mandate that has been laid out for that entity. Early on, in chapter 3, the author notes the international law grounding of the right of return: “[T]he right of refugees to return to their country or home is based upon customary international law, the four Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (p. 58, citing Takkenberg, 1998). Similarly, in chapter 4 the author notes “the very clear terms of UN Resolution 194 calling in 1948 for the refugees to be permitted to return to their homes” (p. 86).

The author’s first and second goals tend to get intermingled throughout the book. In exploring policy options, the author examines case studies from various regions of the world – including Guatemala, East Timor, Cambodia, Bosnia, Cyprus, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Chile and Rwanda. The goal is to identify best practices – options that led to a durable peace. He then draws back and examines the various negotiations towards peace agreements in the Middle East, namely: (1) Camp David 2000 (also known as Camp David II); (2) the Taba Talks in 2001 as summarized in the Moratinos Papers; (3) the Beirut Declaration of 2002; (4) the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan of 2003; and (5) the Geneva Accord of 2003. The idea is to compare the international standards and practice with the standards and practice that have emerged in Middle East peace talks thus far. Not surprisingly, the author concludes that “the proposals put forward in both the official and Track II arenas in the Middle East peace process sadly fail to meet the guidelines developed by UNHCR. A number of key areas are sidestepped, such as international law in reference to refugees and the participation of refugee communities in crafting solutions, while in other areas the proposals are weak and undeveloped” (p. 74).

Chapter 4 discusses the three main durable solutions to refugee flows – repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement. The author discusses repatriation to Israel and what he calls “repatriation” to the new state of Palestine. In discussing repatriation to Israel, the author cites Salman Abu Sitta as the only source for “detailed work carried out on the possibility of actual repatriation” (pp. 98-99). “Abu Sitta’s work does throw into sharp relief the fact that repatriation is prevented not because it is impossible but because of political reasons alone” (p. 99). The author also discusses “repatriation” to Palestine, noting “[t]his is technically not a repatriation, nor a return to their homes, but a move to a new state” (p. 100). The author concludes the chapter by noting that the international trend favoring repatriation as the preferred durable solution “places additional pressure on Israel and its allies to consider repatriation as a possible option” (p. 103). Chapter 6 expands on these themes by introducing two main components of reparations to refugees – restitution and compensation. Restitution is traditionally linked in international law to the right of return. The most well-known articulation of this principle is the “Pinheiro Principles” on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons, adopted in 2005 by the UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Despite this clear formulation of the right of restitution as a corollary to the right of return, Dumper makes the somewhat controversial suggestion in his book that “[w]hat has not been discussed in these debates is that restitution need not imply habitation, that is, refugees can be restituted for their property without a return” (p. 138). This does strike the reader as an attempt at fence-sitting, and a rather gratuitous one at that, since such a position is a minority trend in international law and practice.

Chapter 5 contains a discussion of UNRWA and its possible role as a “lead agency” in implementing possible solutions for the Palestinian refugees. The author concludes that UNRWA, due in large part to its credibility with the Palestinian refugees themselves, could play a useful role in a final settlement. Regardless of which agency is chosen as lead agency, that entity would have to have “a clear mandate that has international backing and that incorporates both protection responsibilities and a service function” (p. 132).

Chapter 7 examines “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation.” The author examines the notion of “transitional justice” – when societies are moving from conflict to peace and how they get there. The author contrasts “retributive justice” (stricter, usually tribunal-based) with “restorative justice” (more focused on reconciliation), examining these concepts in the contexts of South Africa, Northern Ireland, Chile, Rwanda and Guatemala. The author then analyzes the scant attention that this topic has received in the Taba Talks and the Geneva Accords. Interestingly, the author’s conclusion to this chapter has a discussion of what transitional justice might entail in either a “one-state solution” or a “two-state solution.”

Chapter 8 contains the author’s conclusions, including of the centrality of the refugee question to the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also concludes that a final peace agreement will include a range of options for the refugees: “As the study of other refugee situations has shown, the solution to refugee crises is usually a mix of options, not simply one alternative [e.g. repatriation to Israel] or another [e.g. reabsorption into a new state of Palestine]. A broad range of alternatives for the refugees is more often than not a central part of any peace agreement, and this will, similarly, be part of the final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians” (p. 191).

Some general comments about the book might be in order. This book is intended to target policymakers, and it fills a useful void in that regard. There are not many comparable titles available to satisfy that niche. One such competitor for the policymaking crowd would be Palestinian Refugees: Challenges of Repatriation and Development, edited by Rex Brynen and Roula El-Rifai (New York: I.B. Taurus and International Development Research Center 2007). The Brynen and El-Rifai volume contains chapters by various experts on different aspects of reabsorbing Palestinian refugees into a new state of Palestine. Dumper’s book offers a comparative approach that is wholly missing from the Brynen and El-Rifai book. This might account for the stronger rights-based approach of the Dumper book. In contrast, the Dumper book appears to have missed out from the benefit of Scott Leckie’s two recent books, namely: (1) Returning Home: Housing and Property Restitution Rights of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers 2003); and (2) Housing, Land, and Property Restitution Rights of Refugees and Displaced Persons (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press 2007). The first volume is a comparative survey of property restitution programs in various countries, and the second is a compendium of 240 restitution instruments (human rights treaties, UN resolutions, national legislation, regional instruments, etc.) from around the world. Restitution without return does not feature prominently in either of these two volumes, and it leaves the reader wondering where Dumper gets support for his suggestion that it should be considered.

While Dumper’s book does contain an appendix called “Sources for Data for Policy Formulation,” a useful bibliography and an index, it would have been helpful to have the actual texts of the Middle East negotiations reproduced in an appendix at the end of the book.

In summary, Dumper’s book is a useful introduction to the topic of Palestinian refugees, but it leaves the reader wanting something more. Policymakers are an important target audience but there are other actors whose voices are equally, if not more, important to securing the rights of the Palestinian refugees -- those of the refugees themselves. It is the absence of those voices that one feels most keenly upon reading Dumper’s book.