54th Anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III): The Road Map Remains Relevant More than 50 Years Later

Today marks the 54th anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III) (11 December 1948) affirming the right of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons to return and repossess their homes and property and receive compensation for damages and losses. When members of the United Nations overwhelmingly voted in favor of Resolution 194 more than five decades ago, it not only reflected a truly humanitarian approach towards hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees; it also reflected a well thought out legal approach to the plight of men, women and children, who by no fault of their own, found themselves brutally uprooted from the only place they knew as home.

Resolution 194 did not create new law or rights  it simply reflected existing law and practice. This included the prohibition that people should not be uprooted and expelled from their homeland or arbitrarily deprived of their nationality. It also reflected basic human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly one day prior to the Resolution. Among the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the right of return and the right to property. Two years prior to the mass displacement and expulsion of Palestinian refugees, the United Nations had already affirmed that the main task concerning displaced persons is to encourage and assist in every way their early return to their countries of origin. (ECOSOC Res. 8/1, 1946)

Resolution 194 also reflected the deepest wishes of the refugees themselves. Every day I say tomorrow will be better, and a hundred times I tell myself we will go back home, a young refugee told international relief workers in Gaza in 1949. As you want to live in your house, with your family, so I want to live in mine. In public hearings across the region, American, French and Turkish members (the Trio) of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) took note of the unanimous desire among refugees to return to their homes. The Commission was impressed by expressions of these spokesmen for the return of refugees to their homes to live there in peace with their neighbors.

In keeping with these findings, and consistent with international legal obligations, the United States, the primary member of the UNCCP advised that We should use our best efforts, through the Conciliation Commission and through diplomatic channels, to insure the implementation of the General Assembly resolution of December 11, 1948; We should endeavor to persuade Israel to accept the return of those refugees who so desire, in the interests of justice and as evidence of its desire to establish amicable relations with the Arab world; We should furnish advice and guidance to the governments of the Arab states in the task of absorbing into their economic and social structures those refugees who do not wish to return to Israel. (Policy Paper, Department of State, Palestine Refugees, 15 March 1949)

Today, however, the mere mention of the right of return continues to send shivers up the spines of most international policy makers including most members of the so-called Quartet (US, EU, Russia, and the UN). Those who speak about return, including refugees themselves, are quickly dismissed as dreamers, impractical, and irrelevant. Some international think tanks even go so far as to suggest that in the Palestinian case the basic human right of return is at war with peace. No one bothers to explain what makes Palestinian refugees so different from every other refugee in the world. No one bothers to explain why basic human rights, including return and restitution, do not apply to Palestinian refugees. No one bothers to explain why a Palestinian refugee who expresses a sincere desire to return and live in peace as a citizen of Israel is accused of incitement, as a supporter of violence, or even terrorism.

How ironic that as the international community seeks to bring the Palestinian people into the fold of nations, it also seeks to permanently exclude Palestinian refugees, who comprise the majority of the Palestinian people, from those universal rights accorded to individuals around the world. This it seems is the historic compromise, the price of peace demanded of the Palestinian people. In all fairness, the price is historic  no other refugee group has been so pressured to cede basic rights at both the starting point and end game of negotiations. This so-called compromise for peace, however, cannot even be characterized as the proverbial emperor with no clothes. The real compromise that is demanded is the emperors very soul.

Why? Most international policy makers that avoid, contest, or even deride the right of return in the Palestinian case point to the balance of power. The argument is not without its merits. Israel has used blatant military, legal and administrative power to block the return of Palestinian refugees. Then again, so did Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo. The difference is that in the Balkans the international community did not shy away from challenging the underlying ethnic, national, and religious policies governing the use of power to first expel and then block the return of refugees. This is where the international community and its policy wonks fall silent in the Palestinian case. This is where support for multi-ethnic democracies and respect for human rights becomes nothing more than chimera. Even the occasional article in the Israeli press is more honest. If Israel would joint the EU, recently noted one commentator (Haaretz, 10-12-02), it would have to nullify the Law of Return [] and all of the laws that discriminate favourably toward Jews. [] In doing so, it would all at once become a state of all its citizens  including Palestinian refugees.

In spite of the shameful lack of political support from western powers for human rights and international law as a framework for crafting durable solutions for Palestinian refugees, the road map to a durable peace in Palestine/Israel, adopted by the international community in New York on 11 December 1948 is as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. The conformity of Resolution 194 with the development of international legal principles and state practice over the past five decades lends further weight to its value as a normative framework for durable solutions for Palestinian refugees today. From Africa, to Asia, to Central America, to Europe, the international community has lent its support for more than 50 years to those refugees simply seeking to go home, recognizing that a durable peace is not possible against the unrequited desire and right of refugees to return home. Palestinian refugees deserve no less.

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