The purpose of this brief is to outline the current situation and to push for reforms in Lebanon pertaining to the ownership of property, land and housing by Palestinian refugees. It is addressed to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since the office is charged with the responsibilities of ensuring the compliance of national legal systems with International Human rights.
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Various recommendations have been put forward in this brief to address the specific issues mentioned and among them is the implementation of proposals in a change of the 2001 law on land that has brought great controversy (Brynen 2007, p.138).
Statement of the Issue/Problem
It may be pertinent to pursue the everlasting question of what role the Lebanese Government and other international organizations play in ensuring equal rights of ownership of land and property by the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?
Background of the problem
Palestinians have since the massacres of Black September and war with the Israeli, been refugees with more than 50% of the Palestinian population displaced living all over the world. Estimates indicate that over 200,000 Palestinians were living in Lebanon by 1970 (Haley 1979, p.24).
There is very little prospect of returning to their homeland despite an established right in international law to return to their homeland. Palestinian refugees account for nearly 10% of the population in Lebanon with majority of them living in 12 refugee camps managed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other committees.
Some of the refugees also live in rural settlements that are outside the UNRWA mandate. Palestinian refugees have suffered in these camps for many years having most of their basic rights infringed. Among these is their lack of rights to ownership of property, land and housing (Beker 1991, p. 96).
The law of Lebanon passed in 1969 had restricted land ownership by foreigners to 500 square meters per foreign person. Spouses and children of these foreigners were not considered as separate persons according to this law. In 2001, amendment of the law further imposed the restriction to 300 square meters per foreign person.
Furthermore the law now requires that for a foreigner to own land in Lebanon, he or she must be a citizen of an internationally recognized state. Given that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not citizens of any country, they were completely locked out from owning property or land in Lebanon.
The issue has been a sensitive topic in the international community as well as within Lebanon itself. However, the question on whether the issue is racist is subject to great debate.
In 2007, a conflict arose which had devastating effects resulting in the near complete destruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp and areas surrounding it. There has been a recent move by the Palestinian government in trying to improve the conditions for the Palestinian refugees. Law reform proposals are still under scrutiny in parliament and have not yet been made into law (Knudsen 2011, p.48).
UNRWA is the main organization that has been of the most influence in trying to reduce the impact of lack of ownership rights by the Palestinian refugees. Various other organizations among them – The Directorate General for Development, Cooperation- Europe Aid and the European Union groups have also made huge contributions towards relief operations and reconstruction in these refugee camps.
Statement of the UN office
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is charged with the mandate to protect and promote human rights, in this case, of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
This very important international task is carried out in three main stages i.e., setting of international human rights standards, monitoring and making amendments to the standards and finally facilitating the adoption and implementation of the standards.
It therefore, has great interest in a move to change the current situation in Lebanon. Since none of the Palestinian refugees are citizens of a recognized country they are therefore not recognized as legal owners of property in the country. A description of the life of the following Palestinian refugee communities highlights the situation as it is in Lebanon (Choueiri 2005, p.48).
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This was a former hospital that was constructed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) during the civil war in Lebanon. The organization later handed it over in 1982 to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society which was in charge of the premises until mid-80s. As a result of the civil war, some displaced Palestinians took refuge in the premises which comprises of a four building compound.
The compound currently houses many Palestinian families as well as other different groups. The buildings committee is a collective term which comprises each of the committees for the four individual buildings and acts as both the authority and body that ensures the provision of basic services such as water and electricity.
As such, the legal status of the Gaza compound can be clearly outlined as follows:
Being that the compound was constructed without a legal permit it is therefore, deemed legal by the Lebanese authorities since they were not registered with the Real Estate Agency. The Agency therefore considers neither the PLO nor the PRCS as the owners of the property or land. According to the Agency the land belongs to Lebanese public institutions and private natural persons.
Despite there being a contract between the owners of the land and the PLO, authorizing them to build on the land there has been silently suppressed with regard to the matter possibly with intentions to dispute the existence of some form of contract (Schiff 1995, p.88).
Currently, none of the people residing in the buildings have a legal document issued by the real land owner. This therefore implies that no inhabitant is legally allowed to live in the buildings as they do not possess legal documents that would grant them the right to reside in any unit or store in the buildings.
If in any case, the Lebanese government proves that the construction was undertaken in bad faith i.e., with knowledge of non-ownership of the premises, then the land owners are considered to have no legal obligation to compensate the PLO for construction if no written agreements are produced.
Nahr el-Bared camp
This is among the 12 refugee camps set aside for Palestinian refugees in the northern region of Lebanon. It is under the mandate of the UNRWA and its territory is outlined in the 1940 demarcation. Majority of the inhabitants of the camp were displaced after the 2007 conflict and those who remained live in pre-fabricated houses. Others have constructed their homes with assistance from some relief NGOs.
However some families are still renting houses around the camp to secure access back. The adjacent area has since the 1980s turned into a somewhat extension of the Nahr el-Bared camp. Palestinian refugees begun to purchase land in the surrounding areas and constructed their houses and as a result formed settlements due to the increasing population pressure in the camps.
In relation to the ownership of land and property by Palestinian refugees, the 2001 law had adverse effects on the practices of the purchase and sale of real right in the adjacent area.
Specific areas of interest were the revocation of the right to purchase land under irrevocable power of the attorney and the right to register property with the Real Estate Agency. This resulted in the increased role of the Popular Committee in the purchase of land and units.
Due to the 2007 conflict, the adjacent area sustained serious damage to the extent that part of it is still inaccessible until today (Talhami 2003, p.48).
Several legal issues have been raised as a result of the situation of the 2001 law especially relating to the legal status of the land before promulgation of the law, and the impacts of the 2007 conflicts and the resultant status of contracts that have been signed after the law amendment.
Generally the situation in Lebanon has led to worldwide action and petitions from humanitarian organizations. The Palestinian refugees are greatly mistreated and the Lebanese government has done comparatively little in an effort to make their lives more bearable. In this time and age violation of basic human rights should be a thing of the past.
So far the Lebanese government has received criticism from all over the world due to this issue. It is time for the leaders of the country to demonstrate good leadership qualities by amending the laws of the land so as to contribute to the general development of the entire state.
Advantages of the policy options
The following advantages will accrue to Lebanon as a country after the implementation of the above reform proposals:
By allowing the Palestinian refugees to own land, poverty levels will be relatively lower in the country since Palestinians will be able to invest in the land thus creating business and employment opportunities.
The Palestinian population is still waiting for the implementation of proposed changes in the laws defining the ownership of land in Lebanon. It is therefore time for the Lebanese government to facilitate reforms and complete the last step in establishing a socio-economic link with the Palestinian refugees (Khalidi 1997, p.76).
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Brynen, R 2007, Palestinian refugees challenges of repatriation and development, I.B Tauris, London.
Choueiri, Y. M 2005, A companion to the history of the Middle East, Blackwell Pub, Malden.
Haley, P. E 1979, Lebanon in crisis: participants and issues, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.
Khalidi, R 1997, Palestinian identity: the construction of modern national consciousness, Columbia University Press, New York.
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