On December 21st, the Trudeau government announced a $90 million contribution to UNRWA, the main UN agency for supporting Palestinian refugees. This humanitarian gesture is warranted and will be appreciated by Palestinian refugees. But while making the announcement, Canada avoided referring to its own policy on the issue of the Palestinian refugees and the need to find a solution to their status as refugees. Read more….
Canada’s announcement of a $90 million contribution (spread over 3 years) of humanitarian support to Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, is welcome and significant. Especially so given the USA decision last year to stop funding UNRWA, and the increased demands now put on UNRWA’s medical system by the COVID pandemic.
The Liberals will no doubt face intense criticism from the Israel lobby. For many years, Bnai Brith Canada has been campaigning to end all Canadian funding to UNRWA, claiming it “promotes hatred toward Israel and Jewish people”. Bnai Brith’s underlying motive, however, is to weaken UNRWA which it sees, rightly, as an important institution for Palestinian refugees. In that context, it took some political courage for the Liberals to act.
However, the Liberals seem intent on continuing Canada’s historic policy of seeing the Palestinian refugee issue only through a “humanitarian” lens, (aimed at giving immediate help to needy refugees) rather than a “political” one (aimed at resolving their status as refugees.)
But no amount of humanitarian aid can resolve the Palestine refugee issue. It is the ongoing result of the “Nakba” – the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1947/48 in order to turn historic Palestine into a Jewish state. Every year since then, the UN has voted to affirm the Palestinian right to return, but Israel refuses to accept that right, and has shown it is prepared to use deadly military force to prevent it happening.
The “right to return” is not a special right that Palestinian refugees enjoy. It is a universal right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adopted by the United Nations in 1948. This right is not unique to Palestinians.
“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Article 22, Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Adopted by UN, December 10 1948
The right of return is an individual right that cannot be negotiated away, and it is one of the three durable solution rights anchored in international law available to all refugees and their descendants: (i) the right to return to their homes and homeland; (ii) to reside in the host country; or (iii) to resettle elsewhere.
However, Palestinians are almost unique in the world in seeing their right to return denied for over 70 years. Since 1947/48 those refugees and their families have been held “in limbo” waiting to exercise their right to return to where they came from.
Our official policy… versus our actions
According to Canada’s official policy, “Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is central to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) (…) This solution should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.”
But what has Canada done to find a just solution? What pressure are we putting on Israel, the USA or our allies toward find a “just solution”?
At one time Canada was asked to take the lead in a “Refugee Working Group (RWG)” aimed at resolving the Palestinian refugee issue. We even organized international workshops on the issue.
The Refugee Working Group was a US/UN approved multilateral approach aimed at encouraging negotiations between Israel and those Arab countries where Palestinians expelled from Israel had found refuge in 1948. From its inception, however, the Israeli/US focus was on improving the living conditions of the refugees “in place”, whereas the Palestinians wanted to push toward implement the relevant UN resolutions concerning their right to return.
Even on the very limited humanitarian objective, there was little progress. Israel denied any significant responsibility for the refugees. Faced with Israeli intransigence (backed by the USA), meetings of the RWG were scheduled and cancelled repeatedly, said an anonymous Canadian diplomat who was involved in the frustrating exercise. And today Canada doesn’t even talk about resolving the refugee issue… just about throwing money at it from time to time.
In fact, Trudeau’s government appears no longer willing to support UNRWA at the UN General Assembly. Earlier this month, Canada abstained on a resolution to renew UNRWA’s mandate at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and voted “No” on another motion supporting the activities of UNRWA. “It is hypocritical when Canada funds UNRWA to the tune of $90 million, but then refuses to stick up for the agency politically on the international stage,” said Michael Bueckert, Vice-President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.
The Trudeau Liberals should be praised for the humanitarian support to UNRWA, but they should not be allowed to let the fundamental issue – that of the “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees – to be buried in the process.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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