March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Refugees and IDPs often face multiple forms of racial discrimination. Sometimes racial discrimination is a root cause of displacement. Too often refugees and IDPs are discriminated against in places of exile. Racial discrimination, moreover, is frequently a barrier to the right of refugees and IDPs to return to their homes of origin following the cessation of conditions that led to their displacement.
For more than 50 years Palestinian refugees and IDPs have faced all three levels of discrimination - i.e., as a root cause, as a condition of exile, and, most important, as a barrier to durable solutions. Israel has refused to allow Palestinian refugees and IDPs to return to their homes of origin primarily due to their ethnic, national, and religious origins. As disturbing is the complicity of major international actors, including the United States and the European Union, both of which have strongly advocated for the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes in other refugee cases.
The United States, for example, has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions affirming the right of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes of origin, repossess their properties, and be compensated for damages and losses (See, S/11940, 23 January 1976; S/12119, 29 June 1976; and, S/13911, 30 April 1980). The discriminatory character of US policy towards Palestinian refugees is especially evident in comparison to US policy towards Bosnian refugees. The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which includes explicit recognition of the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes and repossess their properties (Annex 7) was drafted by US Department of State lawyers. Annexed to the agreement, moreover, is the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination sets forth the explicit rights of refugees and IDPs to return to their homes of origin and repossess their properties. General Recommendation XXII (Refugees and Displaced Persons) to Article 5 of the Convention emphasizes that:
(a) All such refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin under conditions of safety;
(b) States parties are obliged to ensure that the return of such refugees and displaced persons is voluntary and to observe the principle of non-refoulement and non-expulsion of refugees;
(c) All such refugees and displaced persons have, after their return to their homes of origin, the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of the conflict and to be compensated appropriately for any such property that cannot be restored to them. Any commitments or statements relating to such property made under duress are null and void;
(d) All such refugees and displaced persons have, after their return to their homes of origin, the right to participate fully and equally in public affairs at all levels and to have equal access to public services and to receive rehabilitation assistance.
In March 1998, the UN Committee that reviews state compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination explicitly noted that: “The right of many Palestinians to return and possess their homes in Israel is currently denied.” The Committee thus recommended that Israel “should give high priority to remedying this situation. Those who cannot re-possess their homes should be entitled to compensation.” Meanwhile, Israel continues to prevent Palestinian refugees and IDPs from exercising their basic human rights of return and restitution. Israeli military attacks on Palestinian refugees camps, cities, and villages, in the context of the second intifada has led to a new cycle of displacement.
The latest effort by key members of the international community - including the US, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations (i.e., ‘The Quartet’) - to facilitate a comprehensive solution to the longstanding conflict makes no reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees and IDPs as set forth in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, among other international instruments. The latest draft of the so-called ‘Road Map’ merely calls for an “agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue” - i.e., a solution based upon the current balance of power rather than international law. Stability, security, and a comprehensive, just, and durable peace in the Middle East will continue to be illusive as long as Israel is not held accountable to its obligations and responsibilities under international law and as a member of the United Nations, and as long as key international actors apply double standards to the role of international law and UN resolutions.