The right to redress: How Palestinians could take the UK to court

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The right to redress: How Palestinians could take the UK to court

Palestinian officials from President Mahmoud Abbas to Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malaki have repeatedly threatened to take the UK to court over the 1917 promise to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Just last week, Zakaria Al-Agha, a member of the PLO’s executive committee and head of its refugee department, strongly protested against the British government’s decision to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and its invitation to Israeli officials to attend the celebrations.
Al-Agha cautioned: “Holding the celebrations is considered a hostile act toward the Palestinian people and portrays Britain as an enemy of what is right.” Instead of celebrating the Balfour Declaration, he said, Britain should apologize to the Palestinian people for the declaration, and recognise a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Otherwise, the Palestinians would be compelled to sue Britain over its declaration.
A similar statement to Al-Agha’s was made by President Abbas at the UN in September. There, Abbas repeated his appeal to the British government to rectify “the grave injustice it inflicted upon the Palestinian people” when it issued the Balfour Declaration. Abbas observed that the British government had not taken any steps to “correct this historical injustice.” 
Al-Malaki told Palestine TV this year that he had raised Palestinian complaints over the Balfour Declaration with Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and expected the UK to acknowledge its historical responsibility and pay reparations. At the Arab League Summit in Nouakchott last year, Al-Maliki called for the assistance of Arab international lawyers to help Palestine prepare the case.
Most commentators have dismissed Abbas’s threat to take the UK to court as empty talk. But the warnings should be taken seriously. 
This is because Britain was responsible for maintaining law and order in Palestine as Mandatory Power. While the Balfour Declaration was sanctioned by the League of Nations, this was subject to clauses safeguarding the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian population. Britain was moreover obliged to provide for the well-being and development of the Palestinian population. Instead, on May 15, 1948, it unilaterally revoked the Mandate after blocking all attempts at the UN to provide for an orderly transfer of power at the end of the Mandate. Britain prevented the UN from travelling to Palestine to undertake a study on the feasibility of the UN Partition Plan, and dismissed a US proposal to establish a Trusteeship Agreement over Palestine. The UK pressed ahead with its decision to withdraw its civil administration from Palestine in the midst of a civil war that it did little to stop.

Britain committed a grave injustice in Palestine in 1948, and there is no statute of limitations on bringing claims for reparations under international law.

Victor Kattan

British troops remained in Palestine until August 1, 1948, when over half of Palestine’s Arab population had fled or been expelled from their homes. The UK’s Colonial Secretary was caught lying to Parliament when he claimed that Britain was doing everything in its power “to expedite action” by the UN to implement a transitional plan to transfer power before Britain left. He made this claim amid shouts from opposition politicians of “bogus,” “poppycock,” “lame and lamentable,” “pathetic” and “just nonsense.” The UK’s Attorney General told Parliament there was “no rule of international law … which would compel us to continue the expenditure of British blood and British treasure upon an attempt to carry out a Mandate which has become completely unworkable.”
What he did not say was that the Mandate had become completely unworkable because of British actions in Palestine. The Attorney-General’s claim that Britain could revoke the mandate unilaterally was also questioned because Britain needed the consent of the UN to modify the status of the mandate. But the UN had made its consent to Britain’s decision to relinquish the Mandate conditional on an orderly transfer of power at the end of the Mandate. Instead, Britain left the Mandate in chaos. The Palestinians have been living with the consequences ever since.
If the Palestinian leadership has not already begun quantifying all the claims for the financial losses sustained in 1948, it should immediately do so. This should be done in a professional manner with the assistance of experts from the UN who have access to the files at the UN Secretariat and in Palestine’s negotiations archive. The Palestinian leadership should present this claim to the UK to agree and settle. Should the Foreign Office continue to ignore Palestine’s claims, the leadership should consider litigation.
This is not the forum to discuss the details of any potential litigation strategy. Suffice it to say that Palestine will need the help of friendly Arab states that had also been members of the League of Nations. The British government needs to understand that it committed a grave injustice in Palestine when it was the Mandatory Power in 1948, and that there is no statute of limitations on bringing claims before international courts. 
• Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and an Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Law. He was formerly program director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. Twitter: @VictorKattan
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