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Archived Webcast 30 April 2008 a.m.

Conférence internationale sur les réfugiés de Palestine (Paris, 29-30 avril 2008) - plénière II - Communiqué de presse (30 avril 2008) Français
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Source: Department of Public Information (DPI)
30 April 2008




General Assembly
GA/PAL/1086

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


UNITED NATIONS, PALESTINE REFUGEES DISCUSSED DURING INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

Question of Palestine Refugees Not Insoluble, Participants Told


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)


PARIS, 30 April -- The question of Palestine refugees seemed to have reached a deadlock, but it was not insoluble as specific proposals have already been put forward in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Sylviane de Wangen, a lawyer working for the French Platform of non-governmental organizations for Palestine, told participants in the United National International Conference on Palestine Refugees this morning. 

She said Israel should recognize and make reparation – with the support of the international community – for the injustices committed against the Palestinians.  The Palestinians should be able to establish their State recognized by the international community.  All Palestinians would thus be able to benefit from Palestinian nationality, live in Palestine and carry a Palestinian passport.  Pending the settlement of the refugee problem following the establishment of the State of Palestine, Palestine refugees should enjoy guaranteed rights, similar to those enshrined in the Refugee Convention of 28 July 1951.  Above all, they should have a choice of home country.

The two-day United Nations International Conference on Palestine Refugees was convened at UNESCO Headquarters by the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.  It assessed the present situation of Palestine refugees and examine the role of the United Nations in alleviating their plight. It will also examine efforts at finding an agreed, just and fair solution to the refugee issue as a prerequisite for resolving the question of Palestine and achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

MAZEN MASRI, Lecturer, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, focusing on the role of the United Nations as guarantor of international legitimacy, suggested a different approach.  Drawing parallels between the situation of Palestine refugees and the apartheid in South Africa, he said, “The role of the UN in leading the campaign against apartheid South Africa could be seen as an experience that one could learn from, even as one worth replicating,” suggesting that the Palestinian Rights Committee was well situated to take upon itself a role similar to the one played by the Special Committee against Apartheid, which spearheaded actions relating to the numerous boycotts against South Africa the General Assembly had called for.

While the General Counsel and Ethics Officer in the Department of Legal Affairs of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Lex Takkenberg described that Agency’s activities and current challenges, Rasmi Khadera Almallah, member of the Jordanian Senate, who comes from Irbid refugee camp, described the Agency’s impact on refugees’ lives from a personal perspective.

USAMA HALABI, a lawyer and law researcher from Jerusalem, highlighted the problems of the Palestinian refugees who had been displaced as a result of the 1967 hostilities, many of them for the second time, and also described the current displacements taking place due to Israel’ home demolitions, settlement activities, construction of the Wall, and deportations.

Before the closing of the Conference this afternoon, participants will hear experts speaking on the topic of “International and regional efforts to promote a solution of the Palestine refugee issue”.

Plenary II:  The United Nations and Palestine Refugees

Experts addressed the rights of Palestine refugees in international law and the role of the United Nations as a guarantor of international legitimacy, the role of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in providing relief, social services and development assistance to Palestine refugees, and the rights of the Palestinians displaced as a result of the June 1967 hostilities.

MAZEN MASRI, Lecturer, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, focusing on the role of the United Nations as guarantor of international legitimacy, said return was thought to be the most favourable solution for the refugee problems by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In addition to being the solution that was favoured by the majority of the Palestine refugees, it was also in line with resolution 194 and provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  But after 60 years the Palestine refugees remained in exile, with a significant number of them still living in refugee camps. That was due to a number of reasons, mainly Israel’s refusal to approach the issue from a human rights perspective, and the lack of a political will on the part of key Western powers to exert any pressure on Israel to allow for the return of the refugees.

He said there was a need for a shift in the approach that the United Nations, and the Palestinian Rights Committee in particular, should adopt.  “The role of the UN in leading the campaign against apartheid South Africa could be seen as an experience that one could learn from, even as one worth replicating,” he said.  As early as 1962, the General Assembly had begun adopting resolutions calling on Member States to cut diplomatic relations with South Africa, to close their ports to all south African vessels, to boycott south African goods and to refrain from exporting goods to South Africa.  The Security Council had called for an arms embargo, that had become mandatory in 1977.  A 1968 Assembly resolution called for suspending cultural, education, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime. 

One of the main reasons that those resolutions had been able to effect change on the ground was that they had been accompanied by Member States, and spearheaded by the Special Committee against Apartheid.  On the other hand, almost all of the resolutions on Palestine had been declarative in nature, denouncing certain policies or calling on a party to take some measures.  An approach like the one that had been pursued in dealing with apartheid would give the UN the push that was needed in order to assert its proper role in the upholding of international law.  The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was well situated to take upon itself a role similar to the one played by the Special Committee against Apartheid.  That approach would be more compatible with the role envisaged for the UN as the guarantor of international legitimacy, and would be in line with the principles in its Charter.

LEX TAKKENBERG, General Counsel and Ethics Officer, Department of Legal Affairs, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Jerusalem, giving a short historical overview leading to the establishment of UNRWA, said the Agency operated in five fields: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.  Education was the largest of UNRWA’s programmes.  Nearly half a million children received primary education in 668 schools, which followed the curriculum of the host countries with added courses on human rights and conflict resolution.  UNRWA was the main provider of primary health care for Palestine refugees.  The Agency’s relief and social services ensured that the most vulnerable refugees received attention and care to help them cope.  Refugee homes and infrastructure were built and maintained.  Through UNRWA’s micro-finance programme, refugees in the business sector enjoyed access to flexible credit.  However, with UNRWA funded almost exclusively through voluntary contributions, income had not kept pace with the needs of the Agency.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, conditions threatened the very foundations of Palestinian life in literally every sphere of activity and interaction, he said. In the West bank, violations of Palestinian rights and freedoms occurred on such a scale that the absence of international attention was puzzling. The situation in Gaza continued to make headlines.  The latest reports described the grave fuel situation and the broader humanitarian distress facing the people, as well as the immense challenges for UNRWA operations. The current impasse was having an immeasurably negative impact on the human development of the Gaza population, 80 per cent of whom were refugees.

Prompted by the widespread violations of humanitarian and human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, increased attention was being paid to UNRWA’s role in protecting Palestine refugees, he said.  The Agency safeguarded and advanced the rights of Palestine refugees.  There was protection for which the primary responsibility rested with the host government, or the occupying Power. UNRWA promoted respect for refugees’ rights through monitoring, reporting and intervention.  UNRWA also had a direct responsibility for the delivery of its services in a manner that promoted and respected the rights and security of its beneficiaries and of its staff.

Finally, protection also related to the right of Palestine refugees to a just and durable solution to their plight, which was the responsibility of political actors. UNRWA’s role was limited but the Agency was uniquely placed to highlight the need. The Agency should also help ensure that in the elaboration of a solution to the refugee issue the rights and interests of the refugees were safeguarded, with particular reference to those areas where UNRWA’s long experience with and knowledge of the refugees were relevant.  The lessons of history affirmed that accountability and reparations under international law were key ingredients for reconciliation and the establishment of normal relations between former adversaries. A solution to the refugee issue that was not grounded in relevant principles of international law, refugee representation and free choice would have little chance of finding public acceptance and therefore of being sustainable in the long term.

RASMI KHADER ALMALLAH, Member of the Jordanian Senate, Irbid, said UNRWA provided services to some 4.5 million refugees and was dependent on donor States for its budget.  In view of the demographic growth of the refugee population and the deterioration of social conditions in refugee camps, with growing pockets of poverty, there was an increasing need for the Agency’s services.  Many of the school buildings used by UNRWSA were rented and were unsuitable as teaching locations, 95 per cent of UNRWA schools operated in double shifts. There were between 45 and 50 pupils per class.  As a result of the Agency’s budgetary constraints, the schools still lacked equipment and furniture.

He said the Agency provided primary health care through health centres located within the camps and elsewhere.  Care was provided for hypertension, diabetes, pregnancy and early childhood, general health services were also made available. The centres suffered from a shortage of medical staff and resources, however.  A doctor would attend to no less than 130 to 150 patients a day.  Until 1980, UNRWA had provided food supplies to all refugees.  The Agency had to cut back its services, and now provided only for 5 per cent of the total number of refugees deserving aid.

The Agency was in need of significant material support from donor States if it was to help Palestine refugees to live a life of dignity in their camps.  That would mean redoubling the financial assistance to UNRWA, and changing the current policy by increasing the number of health and education workers and improving their work conditions. “I have myself studied at the Agency’s schools and lived in its camps, and I can tell you that UNRWA and its services have been very beneficial to me personally,” he said, calling on all States and on donor States to continue supporting UNRWA.

He said the Palestine refugees from the Gaza Strip who lived in Jordan were different from other refugees:  they were not granted Jordanian nationally.  There was another category of refugees whose situation should be examined with particular interest, namely those who had lost their Jordanian nationality when the connection between Jordan and the West Bank was severed. He thanked King Abdullah II of Jordan for providing Palestine refugees with different forms of assistance so that they could live a live of dignity in Jordanian territory.

SYLVIANE DE WANGEN, Lawyer, French Platform of NGOs for Palestine, Paris,  said the right of return was a basic human right, even if it was not described as such in the relevant texts.  The State of Israel, however, had refused to allow Palestine refugees to exercise that right.  There were, however, limitations to that right.  The right of return was an individual right, attached to a specific person with his or her minor children, who could decide whether or not to exercise it, but could not transmit it to descendants or a third party. There was also a limitation linked to State sovereignty.  Thus far, the UN had not had the means to force a State to allow an individual to enter its territory if the State in question did not wish to do so.  Prospective returnees would moreover have to agree to live in a country that had changed, with a different language and dominant religion; a country that did not want them there. 

For the Palestinian leadership and most Palestine refugees the right of return was a collective right.  For 60 years, the Palestinian people had constantly called for that collective right, even when they agreed to recognize the State of Israel.  But it had never been possible to exercise that right, because Israel had always opposed it and had violated all relevant international decisions, even though in reality the right of return only covered a limited number of people. 

The Palestinian did not accept the fact that time could invalidate individual rights that had never been exercised, she said.  They did not accept events that had taken place at the expense of so much injustice and suffering. Thus, regardless of the rules of international law, recognition of the right of return had become one of the major political demands of the Palestinians; a demand that the international community was obliged to consider. 

The question seemed to have reached a deadlock, she said, but it was not insoluble.  Specific proposals had already been put forward in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israel should recognize and make reparation – with the support of the international community, for the injustices committed against the Palestinians.  The Palestinians should be able to establish their State recognized by the international community.  All Palestinians would thus be able to benefit from Palestinian nationality, live in Palestine and carry a Palestinian passport.  Pending the settlement of the refugee problem following the establishment of the State of Palestine, Palestine refugees should enjoy guaranteed rights, similar to those enshrined in the Refugee Convention of 1951.  Above all, they should have a choice of home country.

USAMA HALABI, Lawyer and Law Researcher, Jerusalem, said the refugees and displaced persons had been watching day after day the solution for their continuous suffering becoming more of a shining star of hope rather than a promising reality. The term “ Palestine refugees” usually referred to persons who had become displaced in 1948 outside of the area that became the State of Israel, and “displaced persons” to those who had become displaced in 1967 outside the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  An estimated 430,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1967, 193,500 of which for the second time.  According to some Israeli sources, the number was about 200,000.

During Oslo, a quadripartite Continuing Committee including Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, was established, there had been an attempt to reach a common agenda on the displaced persons, but that attempt had failed. The Palestinians insisted on giving consideration to three groups: those Palestinians who were out of the West Bank on the eve of the war; residents of the West Bank or Gaza who were displaced during or in the aftermath of the war; and those who left the territories after the September 1967 census whose residence permits had not been renewed (the so-called late comers) while the Israelis insisted on a much narrower definition. Some possibilities for family reunification were eventually agreed to. In reality, the negotiations were a failure.

He drew attention to the fact that even today there was ongoing Palestinian displacement, caused by Israel through demolitions of houses, deportation, land confiscation and building of settlements, the construction of the separation Wall as well as through the revocation of the right of residency and denial of family reunification.  In 1967, East Jerusalem had been annexed by Israel. East Jerusalem residents did not become Israeli citizens, but rather permanent residents of Israel.  After living outside the country for seven years or obtaining residency elsewhere, the right of residency in East Jerusalem was lost automatically. An “outside” person who married somebody from East Jerusalem would not get residency there.

The right of return was a legally based right, not a dream, he said. Establishing the State of Palestine was a crucial and important factor in any solution.  There was a legal system, politically used by Israel supported by other States, which prevented the accomplishment of the right of return under international law.  He called on the United Nations not only to continue its support for UNRWA, but also to do more to enforce the right of return.


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For information media • not an official record

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