Liberal Democracies’ Divergent Interpretations of the Right of Return: Implications for Free Movement

Megan Bradley
Megan Bradley Former Brookings Expert

September 1, 2013

Editor’s note: The book “Democratic Citizenship and the Free Movement of People,” edited by Willem Maas, challenges the normal way of thinking about freedom of movement by identifying the tensions between the formal ideals that governments, laws, and constitutions expound and actual practices, which fall short. A summary of Megan Bradley’s chapter for this book is below.

The right of return has long been recognized as a critical liberty, particularly in democratic and democratizing polities. Despite the centrality of this principle to contemporary human rights systems, there is a surprising lack of literature examining the origins, evolution and implications of this concept. To the limited extent that scholars have probed the right of return, they have tended to focus on the claims of particular refugee groups, such as the Palestinians, to return to their homelands. However, the right of return is not only relevant to refugees. Rather, it is one of the fundamental human rights norms underpinning free movement, and is enshrined in agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This chapter expands debate on the complexities of this pivotal human right and its implications for free movement, focusing in particular on how liberal democracies have conceptualized and shaped the implementation of this right by their own citizens, as well as by displaced persons from other countries. It explores trends that have developed over the past twenty years in liberal democracies’ interpretations of the right of return, demonstrating that liberal democracies have embraced a wide range of interpretations of this right, depending on the political considerations at stake.