Last week I participated in (and helped organize) a Chatham House workshop on the rather technical issue of Palestinian refugee compensation and associated implementation mechanisms. It was held, like most other Chatham House meetings on the issue, in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell. Over two days, some two dozen Palestinian, Israeli, and international experts were formed into teams, and given the challenge of designing an appropriate reparations mechanism for the refugee issue. Each of these were then “stress tested” by the group against likely political and operational challenges, as well as different funding scenarios. Participants were in top form, and the discussions were of extremely high quality.
The Chatham House team will be pulling together a full workshop report in the new year. For now, however, I thought I would offer a few of my own take-aways from the meeting, with the obvious caveat that other participants may have somewhat different impressions.
First, I was impressed with how much discussion of the issue has matured in the last decade or so. When IDRC and Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet held a workshop on compensation in 1999, it was fraught with political sensitivities. Some Palestinians feared that a focus on compensation was somehow an effort to erode other refugee rights. Now, however, it is broadly recognized that reparations are a right in and of themselves. Moreover, the quality of the discussion has improved dramatically over the years. Much of this is due to growing amount of policy-relevant research on the topic, including that by the International Organization of Migration (supported by IDRC), the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO, and others.
Second, the workshop underscored how extremely complicated compensation is. The format of the workshop pushed participants to delve into technical details, ranging from eligibility to valuation, inheritance laws, payment, structures and procedures of an international mechanism and fund, and other aspects beside. These are not minor details too—if you get some of them wrong, the process is likely to run into serious practical and political problems. Claims-based systems of compensation are likely to be especially complicated, given the need to trace back properties, ownerships, and values over 65 years and three generations.
Third, an absolutely central theme running through the meeting was that doing compensation right fundamentally hinges on addressing normative issues of responsibility, moral acknowledgement, and recognition. Without these, the amounts of money that are likely to be available will be inadequate to provide any sort of closure to the issue. On the contrary, throwing just money and a mechanism at the issue of property seizures and forced displacement would only aggravate refugee grievances.
This is really, really important. Up until now, most policymakers have assumed that a compensation regime would be something of a positive element that could help sell other parts of a broader deal. I am now of the view that—at best—its effects are neutral. More likely, it may could prove to be a significant liability.
The problem is exacerbated by resource limitations. None of the mechanisms we discussed looked likely to work with less than $30 billion in financing. By contrast, the US had thought that up to $20 billion in funding might be available for compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees at the Camp David negotiations in 2000, and Israel seemed willing to consider a fixed sum contribution of around $3-5 billion during the Taba refugee negotiations in 2001. At the most recent workshop, as with every other meeting I have ever attended on the subject, those with the most experience in the donor community warned that the international community’s contribution to a compensation fund would be limited. Instead, donors would be more willing to provide support for repatriation and development costs.
It could be argued, of course, that compensation funds are meant to be a symbolic recognition of the suffering suffered by refugees, rather than fully repairing the damages done by the Nakba. However, one can’t imbue an act with symbolic value in the eyes of victims merely by assertion—refugees themselves have to view it in that way too. However, the sorts of amounts often discussed for “refugeehood” payments to Palestinian refugees may be seen as insulting rather than providing moral and emotional closure. (They add up quickly, too—at $1,000 per refugee you’re already running up a total of $5-8 billion or so.)
Given this, I’m now tending to the view that we may need to rethink the entire paradigm of individualized compensation. Or, perhaps, the decision ought to be left to refugees themselves. One could envisage an agreement in which an international fund (based largely on israeli contributions) is established, but its ultimate use is made subject to broad consultations within the refugee community, even a referendum of sorts.
I’m not at all optimistic that the current peace process will lead to any sorts of breakthroughs, much less an agreement to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue. However, the refugee issue is also not going away—and, if it is ever to be resolved in the future, thinking through these sorts of complex technical issues in advance could be very valuable.