“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Europe’s National Human Rights Institutions put statelessness on the agenda

25 November 2013 | Stans Goudsmit (Commissioner with the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights) and Laura van Waas (Manager Tilburg University Statelessness Programme)
Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and Tilburg University logos

Nationality is a human right. The right to a nationality was established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been reaffirmed in almost every major human rights treaty adopted since. The very existence of statelessness stands at odds with this human rights norm. Nationality is also critical to the ability to exercise many other human rights, so statelessness presents a significant barrier for people’s access to the benefits of international human rights law. Moreover, nationality is a fundamental part of a person’s identity, so statelessness can leave people feeling like outcasts. In other words, statelessness is a pressing human rights concern. It is also a very real one, given that it effects over 10 million people worldwide.

Around the world, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) share the common objective of promoting and protecting human rights. This is a broad mandate which naturally encompasses a wide variety of issues, including the right to a nationality. The exact work of NHRIs varies from country to country, depending on the national human rights environment and challenges – yet, there are many shared concerns and common types of activity. At different times and in different ways, NHRIs have therefore developed mechanisms to exchange information and discuss experiences, with a view to refining their human rights work. Given the severity, scale and reach of the problem of statelessness, this is an issue which is likely to have drawn the attention of NHRIs in many different countries and regions. At a time of growing international commitment towards addressing statelessness, shedding light on NHRIs’ responses to statelessness can help to build a better understanding of what role they are already playing and to develop a roadmap for their future engagement. With this in mind, in the summer of 2013, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and the Statelessness Programme of Tilburg University joined forces to conduct a survey of the role of NHRIs in addressing statelessness. This blog offers a brief snapshot of the principal findings of the study (the full report can be accessed here).

Although the survey response was relatively small, it was complemented by some desk research which uncovered further examples of NHRI engagement on statelessness. Overall, the study clearly demonstrated that statelessness is indeed a phenomenon that is known amongst NHRIs and uncovered some interesting examples of their engagement on this issue. Among the NHRIs that responded to the questionnaire, an impressive 80% has conducted some form of lobbying or issued advice on issues relating to statelessness. Most often, this work concerns advising on the reform of nationality laws or on the removal of discrimination from nationality policy. Nevertheless, 40% has also lobbied or provided advice in relation to strengthening the protection of stateless people and the same proportion has actively assisted individual stateless people to secure better access to their rights. A greater number of NHRIs has engaged in individual cases relating to the enjoyment of the right to a nationality (60%) or recognition as a stateless person (50%). Note that this figure should also be read in light of the fact that not all NHRIs have a mandate to do individual casework. An important aspect of NHRIs’ human rights work is education, i.e. informing different stakeholders and the general public about human rights norms and standards. Another interesting finding of the survey was how often this human rights education has touched on statelessness: 40% of the NHRIs that completed the questionnaire indicated having carried out awareness raising on the issue.

Currently, 40% of the NHRI survey respondents feature statelessness in their work plan, but 60% have dedicated staff time to the problem. All of the latter expressed an interest in developing more expertise on statelessness in the future, suggesting that NHRIs are open to and may benefit from the development of further tools and/or the establishment of networks for information exchange on statelessness. The study expresses this as one of its recommendations, recognising the role that capacity building and knowledge sharing can play in strengthening the influence of NHRIs on statelessness issues in their country of operation.

Earlier this month, the European Group of National Human Rights Institutions discussed the findings of this study and decided to put statelessness on its agenda. One clear common interest of European NHRIs is to strengthen the role of human rights in the migration context and many countries in the region are confronted with statelessness in the migration setting. Indeed, stateless people are among the most vulnerable of Europe’s migrants and much more needs to be done to improve the protection framework under which they are received. Against this background, the issue will now be taken up in the Migration Working Group of European NHRIs, of which the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights is the chair. This will kick off with an informal discussion of challenges and opportunities in response to statelessness in Europe at their next strategy meeting in Brussels this December. We hope that it will mark the beginning of regular discussions on the role of NHRIs in tackling statelessness in the region and perhaps lead to greater collaboration in this area of work.


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