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David Matas
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International Human Rights Lawyer David Matas: Rights and Redress for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries

Jewish refugees, at the time of their displacement, met the standard international law definition of refugees found in the Refugee Convention. Palestinian refugees, in contrast, are not refugees in the standard international law sense

by David Matas, posted May 16, 2013


[Editor's note:The following is  David Matas's Submission to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, May 2, 2103, Ottawa. David Matas is a Winnipeg based international human rights lawyer and honorary legal counsel for Justice for Jews from Arab countries.]

Jewish refugees from Arab countries are entitled to recognition of their rights and acknowledgement of the violation of those rights.  They are further entitled to redress for those violations.  It would be an injustice if the rights of Palestinian refugees were recognized and their rights redressed and yet the rights of Jewish refugees were ignored and their violations not redressed when both sets of violations arose from the same conflict.

The international definition of a refugee applies to Jews displaced from Arab countries. A refugee is a person who "owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..."

a) The UNHCR
On two occasions, in 1957 and again in 1967, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees who fell within the mandate of the UNHCR.
 "Another emergency problem is now arising: that of refugees from Egypt. There is no doubt in my mind that those refugees from Egypt who are not able, or not willing to avail themselves of the protection of the Government of their nationality fall under the mandate of my office."

 "I refer to our recent discussion concerning Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries in consequence of recent events. I am now able to inform you that such persons may be considered prima facie within the mandate of this Office."

b) Multilateral Initiatives
In the context of references to Middle East negotiations, there are many references to the need to include Jewish refugees and remedy their plight.  Some of these occurred in the context of multilateral initiatives.

The Madrid Conference, first convened in October 1991, launched direct negotiations between Israel and many of her Arab neighbours.  In his opening remarks at a conference in the Madrid process held in Moscow in January 1992, then U.S. secretary of state James Baker made no distinction between Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees. In articulating the mandate of the Madrid process Refugee Working Group he said:
 "The refugee group will consider practical ways of improving the lot of people throughout the region who have been displaced from their homes." 

The Roadmap to Middle East peace currently being advanced by the Quartet (the U.N., EU, U.S., and Russia) also refers in Phase III to an "agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue", language applicable both to Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

c) Bilateral Arab Israeli Agreements
• Israel - Egypt Agreements
The Camp David Framework for Peace in the Middle East of 1978 (the Camp David Accords) includes  a commitment by Egypt and Israel to "work with each other and with other interested parties to establish agreed procedures for a prompt, just and permanent resolution of the implementation of the refugee problem."

The Israel - Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 provides that the "Parties agree to establish a claims commission for the mutual settlement of all financial claims."   Those claims include those of former Jewish refugees displaced from Egypt.

• Israel - Jordan Peace Treaty, 1994
The Israel - Jordan Peace Treaty, entitled "Refugees and Displaced Persons" recognizes  "the massive human problems caused to both Parties by the conflict in the Middle East". Reference to massive human problems in a broad manner means that the plight of all refugees of the conflict in the Middle East includes Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

• Israeli Palestinian Agreements, 1993
Almost every reference to the refugee issue in Israeli Palestinian agreements, talks about refugees, without qualifying which refugee community is at issue, including the Declaration of Principles of 13 September 1993 , and the Interim Agreement of September 1995 , both of which refer to refugees as a subject for permanent status negotiations, without qualifications.
d) Recognition by states
•  After the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries were discussed at Camp David II in July, 2000, former U.S. President Bill Clinton stated:
 "There will have to be some sort of international fund set up for the refugees.  There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land".

• Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, after successfully brokering the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty, stated in a press conference on Oct. 27, 1977:
"Palestinians have rights ... obviously there are Jewish refugees ...  they have the same rights as others do."

• Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin stated, in a June 3rd, 2005 interview with the Canadian Jewish News which he later reaffirmed in a July 14, 2005 letter:
 "A refugee is a refugee and that the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must be recognized. All refugees deserve our consideration as they have lost both physical property and historical connections. I did not imply that the claims of Jewish refugees are less legitimate or merit less attention than those of Palestinian refugees." 

e) Distinctions
While there is an imperative to address the plight of Jewish refugees along with Palestinian refugees, the two refugee populations are not the same.  There are significant legal differences between Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Palestinian refugees. 

Jewish refugees, at the time of their displacement, met the standard international law definition of refugees found in the Refugee Convention.  They are people who at the time of their displacement had a well founded fear of persecution by reason of the fact that they are Jewish. 

Palestinian refugees, in contrast, are not refugees in the standard international law sense.  This is so in a variety of ways.  By pointing out these differences, we do not mean to suggest that Palestinians artificially labelled refugees do not justify our concern or that they have not suffered.  On the contrary, the very quarantining to the label and life of refugees has been a large part of the plight of the Palestinians which needs alleviation.  The distinctions between the Palestinian and Jewish refugee populations both highlight the unfair limitation to the life of refugees which has been inflicted on Palestinians and the real criteria for refugees which Jews from Arab countries have met.

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