Final Report From BADIL Workshop Series: "Reinterpreting the Status of Palestinian Refugees under International Law"

Responding to the broad concern among Palestinian refugee activists about the weakness of the current international regime for protection and assistance available for Palestinian refugees (UN Resolution 194 and UNRWA), and about the fact that the PLO, in the current negotiations with Israel, will most likely be unable to obtain an agreement on the solution of the Palestinian refugee question which will allow implementation of the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation, property restitution and adequate compensation, BADIL launched a new effort at legal research and public debate. This effort focused on the urgent need for a legal mechanism of rights enforcement, which could effectively strengthen existing Palestinian grass-roots and leadership efforts for the defense of refugee rights in the sensitive period of the final status negotiations with Israel.

BADIL's proposal is based on a reinterpretation of International Refugee Law (1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR Statute) developed since 1996 by Susan Akram (Boston University School of Law) through legal research and litigation. According to this proposal, integration of the Palestinian refugee case into the international protection regime available to other refugee groups in the world is possible and would considerably improve the standing of Palestinian refugees, both with regard to the political negotiations for a durable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict and immediate international protection, i.e. that body of obligations towards an individual which a state normally provides, including the right to work, travel freely, unite with family members, own property, and the whole scope of international human rights guarantees.

In a series of three public workshops conducted in Kalandia Camp/Jerusalem, Camp No. 1/Nablus, and Al-Quds University Law College between March - June 2000, some 150 refugee community activists, Palestinian legal experts, politicians, and members of Palestinian national institutions discussed potential advantages and pitfalls of an initiative aiming to make Palestinian refugees part of the existing international refugee regime. Reasons for the demise of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), which had been set up as a special international body for the protection of Palestinian refugees by UN Resolution 194 (1948), and the 50-year-long exclusion of Palestinian refugees from protection by the 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR were explored. Palestinian doubts and suspicions about the negative political bias of the United Nations and the system of international law enforcement received ample expression. 
Among issues of special public concern were the legal and political implications on refugee rights of a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement that doesn not adequately address refugee rights and claims, as well as prospects of legal petitions for refugee repatriation and restitution in international and regional human rights fora. Representatives of the PLO Refugee Department criticized the proposed legal strategy noting that it might support current ideas about terminating refugee assistance via UNRWA and emphasized that the PLO - and not an international human rights agency - is the representative of the Palestinian people, including refugees.

Workshop speaker Susan Akram clarified that integration of the Palestinian refugee case into the international refugee regime provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR is possible - and most efficient - if the latter is added for protection and rights enforcement, while UNRWA will remain responsible for the provision of international assistance. She emphasized that the UNHCR's role in the political negotiations for a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict would be limited to representation of the specific rights and needs of Palestinian refugees as defined by UN Resolution 194 and international law, especially the principle of refugees' right of choice with regard to the appropriate durable solution. Involvement of an international agency in the political negotiations would thus not compete with, but rather strengthen the aims, demands, and negotiating position of the PLO. 
The workshop series provided evidence of the strong public demand and support for more efficient legal tools which - if properly combined with public mobilization and lobbying - can contribute to protection and promotion of the Palestinian refugees' right of return, restitution and compensation.

(The legal analysis subject of this workshop series is available as BADIL-Information & Discussion Brief, Nos. 1, 2 and 4.)