Human Rights Day: Rule of law includes the right of return

Graffiti on the walls of Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. (Photo: Stefan Christoff EI)


The right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes, lands and properties is a universal human right. The 2005 United Nations Principles of Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons reaffirm this right. The willingness of states to promote and facilitate the return of refugees and displaced persons is a key indicator of their respect for the rule of law.

When Palestinian refugees and internally displaced talk about the right of return they are not asking for a special privilege. The Palestinian demand for the right of return is a demand for equal rights and application of the rule of law. Yet today Israel’s citizenship and land laws discriminate in favor of Jews. Moreover, there is no law in Israel which constitutionally protects the right of equality for all; Israel’s mini bill of rights the law on Human Dignity and Freedom (1992) emphasizes the character of Israel as a Jewish state.

As the international community commemorates the 57th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10) and Palestinians commemorate the adoption of Resolution 194(III) (December 11) calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, the political process of seeking a solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more and more governed by unilateral measures devoid of any respect for human rights.

Israel is imposing its own solution on Palestinians through the construction of the separation/apartheid Wall in the West Bank and ‘disengagement’ from the Gaza Strip; measures designed to ensure a Jewish demographic majority and Jewish control of the land. And, as UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard observed in his last report (August 2005) Recent [international] interventions suggest that the Quartet and the road map process … are not premised on the rule of law or respect for human rights.

“Human rights are our common heritage, says Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and their realization depends on the contributions that each and every one of us is willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the future.” The July 2005 call by nearly 200 Palestinian civil society organizations for a mass-based campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law is a collective call to individuals and organizations worldwide to place respect for human rights at the center of the process of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian refugees and internally displaced should not be denied the right to return to simply because of their ethnic, national and religious identity. Nor should Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel be denied equal rights. And Israel must begin respecting the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories as a necessary step towards ending nearly 40 years of military occupation.

Experience around the world has shown the legitimacy and sustainability of political processes are strengthened, not weakened, by the inclusion of human rights standards. They provide a common framework to regulate relations between former antagonists, resolve future disputes, rehabilitate victims of past violations, and ensure that no individual or party is above the law and can act with impunity. Disregarding human rights, or subordinating these rights to political considerations, can only undermine the prospects of achieving durable peace and security for all.

Some Israeli and international political officials and analysts like to label the Palestinian demand for the right of return as extremist. This labeling if often used to shut down discussion about the rights of Palestinian refugees. The right of return is only extreme if one considers respect for human rights as extremist. In this sense, Palestinian refugees are no more extreme than refugees around the world who simply want to return home.

Related Links

  • BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights
  • BY TOPIC: Refugees
  • BY TOPIC: Human Rights