Global Policy Forum

Human Rights Watch Policy on the Right to Return

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has long defended the right of refugees and exiles to return to their homes. We have upheld this right both when international borders were settled - Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Malawi, Burma, Mauritania - and when they were in dispute - Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, Ethiopia/Eritrea. Human Rights Watch similarly urges that this right be recognized for all displaced people in the Middle East, regardless of religion or nationality. In the case of the Middle East peace agreement currently being negotiated, the agreement should recognize this right for Palestinian refugees and exiles from territory located in what is now Israel or in what is likely to be a future state of Palestine. Recognition should accord with the following principles:

The right is held not only by those who fled a territory initially but also by their descendants, so long as they have maintained appropriate links with the relevant territory. The right persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested or has changed hands. If a former home no longer exists or is occupied by an innocent third party, return should be permitted to the vicinity of the former home.

As in the case of all displaced people, those unable to return to a former home because it is occupied or has been destroyed, or those who have lost property, are entitled to compensation. However, compensation is not a substitute for the right to return to the vicinity of a former home should that be one's choice.

All nations should assist in finding durable solutions to refugee problems. Ideally, this consists of giving each displaced person three options: local integration, third-country resettlement, and voluntary repatriation. In the Middle East context, countries where Palestinians now reside should offer them the option of full local integration. Palestinian families, many having lived in these countries for more than fifty years, have built lives there which they should be granted the option of continuing to lead. Similarly, the international community should be generous in offering the possibility of third-country resettlement to those who might desire it, and in providing aid to assist the permanent settlement of those who choose to remain in the region as well as those who choose to exercise their right to return. Neither the options of local integration and third-country resettlement, nor their absence, should extinguish the right to return; their humanitarian purpose is to allow individual Palestinians to select during a specified period among several choices for ending their refugee status.

Like all rights, the right to return binds governments. No government can violate this right. Only individuals may elect not to exercise it. The parties currently involved in negotiating a Middle East peace agreement should focus on implementing the right to return and facilitating the options of local integration and third-country resettlement. They should not waive individuals' right to return.

The international community has a duty to ensure that claims of a right to return are resolved fairly, that individual holders of the right are permitted freely and in an informed manner to choose whether to exercise it, and that returns proceed in a gradual and orderly manner. Governments' legitimate security concerns should be met consistently with these principles and other internationally recognized human rights.



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