‘The Right to Have Rights’: An Introduction to Statelessness

Internship note: whenever it rains really heavily (which is typical for Halifax) our roof leaks. The office is in a great location with excellent square footage, but the building is rather old. It’s all good; I mop sometimes. So one of the advantages of this internship is that I have a chance to get involved in a number of projects and work on a number of different files. I’m gaining exposure to a lot of different issues in an atmosphere where I have the guidance to help me make sense of what I’m learning. One of the issues I’ve become really interested in is statelessness. An individual is stateless when no country recognizes them as a citizen. Because of this, they may not (and often do not) enjoy all of the things that come from the legal bond between the state and the individual; protection and safety, public education, health care, political representation, etc. This doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, and since nationality is so automatic for many of us, it’s hard to contemplate. But as U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “Citizenship is man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.” (1958, taken from the UN’s handbook for parliamentarians). It seems like this would be some sort of legal oddity—a fringe case that only affects a few people. However, UNHCR estimates that 12 million people worldwide are stateless. (Note: this includes 3.9 million Palestinians). This was absolutely incredible to me -- I had no idea. So how does this happen? One UN Background report explains that people become stateless, “through a bewildering series of sovereign, political, legal, technical or administrative directives or oversights.” (ed: I love that quote). Here are some common situations that contribute to the problem: 1)      Changing borders or shifting territories: for example, at the dissolution of the USSR, citizens of the USSR were citizens of a country that no longer existed. 2)      Administrative problems: If children aren’t registered at birth, they may lack the identity documents to prove their citizenship. Registration is sometimes inaccessible to or undervalued by certain communities. Identity documents could also be confiscated, missing or otherwise destroyed. 3)      Conflicts of Law: Citizenship is granted to children in two principle ways, according to where the child is born (citizenship by birth or jus soli) and according to nationality of a child’s parents (citizenship by decent or jus sanguinus). Canada actually grants both. But consider this example: A child is born in country X that only grants citizenship based on the citizenship of the parents (citizenship by descent, or jus sanguinus). However, the parents are from country Y which only grants citizenship to people born on its soil (citizenship by birth or jus soli). Country X wants to consider the child a citizen of country Y, but country Y doesn’t grant citizenship by decent, so the child is stateless. 4)      Arbitrary revocation of state protection: citizenship is a legal bond between an individual and a state. Either party can break this bond, and there are examples (to follow) of states purposefully revoking or not recognizing the citizenship of large groups of people. Note too, that statelessness can be either de jure (because of law) or de facto (because of fact; i.e. there is a legal claim to citizenship that is not being recognized, so the individual is effectively stateless). It’s hard to imagine this level of vulnerability. I’m going to follow this up with some statelessness case studies that I found really interesting, and hopefully some discussion of how the asylum systems of individual countries deal with (or don’t deal with) statelessness. UNHCR has a great site with their statelessness resources compiled: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/statelessness.html