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.




Relevant Background
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948)

    The right to return has a solid foundation in international law. Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country". More..

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

    The right to return is most clearly enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under its provisions on the right to freedom of movement (Article 12).  More..

  • Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (28 July 1951)

    International refugee law and international human rights law mutually reinforce each other on the right to return. More..

  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948

    11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,.. More..

  • The Human Rights Committee General Comment on Article 12 of the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights (November 1999)

    In November 1999 the HRC, the authoritative U.N. body for interpreting the ICCPR, produced a thorough and comprehensive commentary on Article 12.  More..

  • Treatment and Rights in Arab Host States

  • Rights Under Israeli Occupation and the Palestinian Authority