To mark the centenary of the Palestine Mandate coming into force, Shawan Jabarin, General Director of Al-Haq and Dr Ralph Wilde, Faculty of Laws, University College London, have published a joint position paper calling for “British Reparations Owed to the Palestinian People”.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for “reparations…in accordance with international law” against the UK for the “fateful Balfour declaration”. That declaration was made by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917, pledging to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, despite Palestine already being inhabited by mostly non-Jewish Palestinians. Is there a legal basis for reparations for something that happened when global norms were different from how they are now? Based on new research, Jabarin and Wilde argue that there is, and the key to this is a legal agreement adopted one hundred years ago today.
The Balfour pledge itself is merely a political statement, of dubious legal standing as a binding commitment, made when the UK had no authority over Palestine. What makes it significant politically, practically and legally is something else, with a different date. The Palestine Mandate Agreement incorporated the Balfour commitment, expanded into a detailed set of objectives for colonial rule. This then formed the ostensible legal basis for how the UK implemented these objectives in in practice, which paved the way for the proclamation of Israeli independence in part of Palestine in 1948. Thus as a matter of international law it is the Mandate Agreement, not the Balfour Declaration as such, that is the key legal instrument. And that Agreement entered into force on 29 September 1923.
The legal conundrum is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Balfour plan in the Agreement, and Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which required that the Mandates of the former Ottoman Empire such as Palestine to be “provisionally recognized” as “independent nations”. New research reveals a factor hitherto ignored when this contradiction has been assessed by experts: whether or not the League Council had the legal power to seemingly bypass the requirement of the Covenant to provisionally recognize statehood through the 1923 Agreement. Actually, the Council had no such power, and so those parts of the Agreement that purported to bypass the Covenant requirement were null and void. In consequence, the UK had no legal cover through the Agreement for failing to implement Palestinian statehood in the 1920s. Thus, this failure was a violation of international law. And the proclamation of an Israeli state in 1948 necessarily involved a violation of the collective legal right of the Palestinian people in the Covenant.
For a full legal analysis of the significance of the Palestine Mandate as the legal basis for Reparations to the Palestinian People see our joint position paper here.