Between 1960 and 1968 the representatives of a number of Asian and African states tabled a series of draft resolutions in the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee recommending the establishment of “appropriate and effective machinery for safeguarding the property rights of the Arab refugees of Palestine”. Just over a decade had passed since the Assembly “resolv[ed] that the refugees wishing to return to their homes ... should be permitted to do so ... and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property”. Having failed to secure political support for the idea of an international custodian, another decade would pass before Palestinian allies in the “Third World” would secure enough votes in the Assembly for the adoption of a resolution calling for “the protection and administration of Arab property, assets and property rights in Israel, and [the establishment of] a fund for the receipt of income derived therefrom”.
The contentious debates in the Special Political Committee, where Palestinians had also won the right to take part, were part and parcel of much broader and equally divisive discussions about the right to property in the decades that followed its codification in article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Efforts to enshrine the principle in binding covenants on civil, political, economic and social rights revealed significant disagreements on almost every aspect of the issue. These debates intersected with the concurrent drafting of international instruments which prohibited racial discrimination and affirmed the rights of indigenous peoples. Interlinked with decolonization, these latter debates also reflected a shift in focus from the individual rights enshrined in the International Bill of Rights towards a new generation of “solidarity” rights with an emphasis on collective ownership and the development of customary law on permanent sovereignty over natural resources.
The German reparations programme after the Second World War and the discussion of reparations that followed Algerian independence appeared to reflect the evolution and tension between evolving understandings of the right to property. In Palestine, the Israeli government was putting the finishing touches on its land regime through the adoption of a basic law creating a “closed land reservoir” to prevent the return of property to its refugee owners. This came just as the UNCCP was in the final stages of its more than decade long effort to document and valuate property losses arising from the 1948 war. Viewed in broader context, Afro-Asian efforts to establish an international property custodian for Arab refugees provide a rich source of evidence to explore understandings of property ownership in Palestine in the first decades after the Nakba. Using discussion of the right to property during the drafting of Resolution 194 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a baseline, the paper will explore how major state and non-state actors conceptualized property ownership through examination of debates in the Special Political Committee, the development of relevant treaty and customary law and in concurrent state practice.
Terry Rempel (PhD, Exeter University) is an independent scholar