Meeting with Lebanase President Michel Suleiman

The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), in partnership with the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR) sponsored a delegation of British and EU MEPs to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon several weeks ago and the 10 member delegation has just released their findings.

It was a quick 48-hour trip filled with tightly scheduled briefing, mainly from Lebanese politicians, including President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister designate Najib Miqati as well as UNRWA officials, some Palestinian civil society organizations. In addition, the delegation visited refugees in Burj Barajneh, Nahr al Bared, and Shatila Refugee camps.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, who led the delegation, told the Lebanese media: "When I went to Gaza in 2010 I thought I had seen the worst that could be seen of the appalling predicament of Palestinians living in conditions which no human being should be expected to endure. But what I saw in the camps in Lebanon is far worse and far more hopeless.”

From the Lebanese politicians, the visitors like other delegations before them, heard basically the same vague support for Palestinian civil rights that they have been repeating for more than 20 years.

Typical were the words of Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman who explained to the delegation that: “Lebanon does not have the capacity to absorb 400,000 people; we simply cannot offer them a good life. The truth is that we will not see peace in the Middle East without the implementation of the refugees’ right of return.”

Of course the Lebanese President’s presentation obscures the central issue almost completely. Suleiman’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees, is a bit more accurate than some other politicians who use the scare tactic bogey figure of 500,000. In fact there are close to 250,000 Palestinians remaining in Lebanon and they are not seeking to be “absorbed” or even presented by Lebanon with “a good life”, as Suleiman and others mistakenly and regularly aver. All they and the international community demand is that Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees be granted the elementary civil rights that all refugees everywhere are entitled to. Most urgently, the right to work and to own a home.

The Lebanese politicians are correct that it’s also an international problem and Lebanon has never been asked to shoulder the whole burden, but rather to do its part by granting the internationally mandated elementary civil rights. For the past 63 years Lebanon has shirked its duty.

Almost without exception the brief Lebanese presentations included ‘escape clauses’ absolving one or another of the 18 Lebanese confessions from responsibility and explaining why the particular party represented in the briefing really wanted to alleviate the “Perpetual Hell” of the quarter million Palestinian refugees packed into 12 “official camps” and twice that many informal “gatherings.” But, as they explained to their guests, there exists a laundry list of reasons why the simple act of allowing Palestinians in Lebanon the full right to work and to own a home should not be expected anytime soon.

The Parliamentary delegation heard nothing that countless visitors have not heard before. But the importance of their visit was that they came at all, learned quickly about many more details of this human tragedy and what needs to be done than they explained they were previously unaware of, and that to a member, they vowed to do something about it upon return to their countries.

As British journalist and photographer, Stuart Littlewood reminds us, the delegation’s report once more shines light on binding international treaties and conventions that recognize the right to return, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

The right of return for refugees is guaranteed under Humanitarian and Human Rights Lawincluding international customary law with incorporates the 1952 Refugee Convention even though Lebanon has to date declined to sign it. Also applicable to granting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon elementary civil rights are countless UN resolutions.

The members of the delegation pledged that that they will work with their governments to assist Lebanon with granting the internationally mandated civil right to work and to own a home. The European MPs visit was refreshing and a welcome break from the stream of American officials and Congressmen who visit Lebanon without visiting Palestinian camps and whose main work recently has been to threaten Lebanese politicians to tow the US line and oppose the Lebanese national resistance while being ever vigilant not to antagonize Israel.

The delegation made clear that Israel is the main culprit that caused today’s humanitarian crisis but Lebanon’s new government, when formed, must act without further delay to grant civil rights to her refugees.

The Parliamentary delegation made the following findings of fact:

• The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are victims many times over and they are still denied access to their homeland.

• They are the victims of Lebanon’s civil wars and the numerous Israeli
invasions and occupation.

• They are victims of the unwillingness of the international community to secure justice and the unwillingness of the Lebanese authorities to grant them their basic human rights.

Among the delegation’s recommendations relevant to Lebanon, and which are nearly identical to the findings of more than two dozen workshops and conferences and three dozen studies of the subject over the past two decades:

• The international community, including Israel, is responsible for guaranteeing the rights of Palestinian refugees and providing them with protection.

• While Lebanon and many members of the United Nations offer appropriate rhetoric, this must be matched with concrete steps to tangibly improve the lives of the refugees in Lebanon and put an end to the catastrophic conditions in which they live.

• An appropriate solution is needed that restores and protects the human rights of the refugees, including their right to return to their land.

• In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have a status that falls far short of even second class citizenship. This should be corrected without delay.

• As Israel has shown no inclination to respect the rights of Palestinian refugees under international law, it is incumbent on the international community to enforce a resolution.

• The European Union and its member states, including the United Kingdom, should significantly increase their funding to UNRWA to allow the agency to fulfill its remit.

• Negotiators, politicians and activists should ensure that Palestinian refugees remain at the center of all peace talks.

• Lebanon’s position on the refugees is woefully inadequate. The 17th August 2010 law should be implemented immediately as a first step to normalizing the lives of Palestinian refugees by improving human, civil and property rights and lifting restrictions on the professions available to Palestinians.

On housing, all restrictions that limit the right to adequate housing for Palestinians should be removed, including any legislation that discriminates against Palestinians who are not officially citizens of a recognized state. A degree of security of tenure should be guaranteed and restrictions on bringing building materials into refugee camps should be removed, including the fines or penalties imposed on Palestinians for attempting to make their homes habitable.

As regards the environment, minimum levels of sanitation and access to clean water for all Palestinian refugees should be ensured.

As regards employment, restrictions on Palestinian access to all professions should be lifted and the process of obtaining work permits eased.

As regards education, Lebanon should ensure that all children under its jurisdiction have access to education equal to that enjoyed by Lebanese nationals.

As regards non-ID refugees, their status in Lebanon should be regularized and refugees provided with identification documents.

With the new incoming government there and is every reason, opportunity and ability for Lebanon to meet its obligations and earn the respect of all countries and people of good will.

Against the backdrop of the great Arab Awakening of 2011 Lebanon can also help propel their unwanted guests back to their own country, Palestine.

Lebanon needs the help of human rights activist worldwide, including the hundreds of bloggers who write eloquently on the subject without really affecting the lives of those who most need their solidarity and support. If these activists would become involved with the issue of Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon in their countries by urging their governments to insist that Lebanon apply international humanitarian laws to Palestinian refugees who today remain forced to live in seemingly interminable misery, this problem can be solved without more delay.

Al-Manar (Lebanon)