“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Victory for Slovenia's "erased citizens" at the European Court of Human Rights

26 June 2012 | Sebastian Kohn

Almost exactly 21 years ago – on 25 June 1991 – Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. After this momentous event a period of transitional laws followed, including regulations for acquisition of citizenship in the new state. Slovenia set three conditions for citizenship.  Citizens had to have acquired permanent resident status in Slovenia by 23 December 1990; they must have been residents of Slovenia at the time of independence; and they had to make an application for citizenship within six months of independence.

Eight months later on 26 February 1992, the government moved to delete the names those who had not made applications. More than 25,000 individuals were simply erased from the civil registry. As a result, they lost their legal resident status and overnight became stateless illegal residents. Those affected – the so-called “erased citizens” – brought numerous challenges at the national level to no avail. At one point the Constitutional Court declared the erasure illegal, but the government failed to address the situation.

In 2006 the case of Kuric v. Slovenia (initially known as Makuc v. Slovenia, until Mr. Makuc passed away) reached the European Court of Human Rights. The Chamber of the Court decided in July 2010 that Slovenia had violated the right to private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government disputed the decision and requested a referral to the Grand Chamber. A hearing was held on 6 July 2011, and today – almost a year later – the Grand Chamber delivered its decision, finding Slovenia in violation not only of article 8 but also article 14 (prohibition on discrimination) and article 13 (right to an effective remedy).

The government has claimed all along that the “erased” had been informed of their change of status from citizens of Yugoslavia to illegal stateless residents. But the applicants in the case – as well as many others in the same situation – argue that they never received information from the government. Many only found out that they were no-longer citizens when they tried to renew ID documents. Others were evicted from their apartments, and some were expelled.

The finding of a violation of article 14 in conjunction with article 8 is particularly interesting, especially as it departs from the Chamber ruling. The Grand Chamber found that article 14 was “applicable as there had been a difference in treatment after  independence  between  two  groups  –  as  former  SFRY  citizens  were  treated  differently from  other  foreigners  –  which  were  in  a  similar  situation  in  respect  of  residence-related matters.” In other words, former citizens of Yugoslavia suddenly found themselves in a disadvantaged position compared to other aliens in the country. The basis of this difference in treatment was national origin, and it had not pursued a legitimate aim and was thus discriminatory.

While in practice the Court’s ruling may not significantly change matters on the ground in Slovenia – most of the “erased” have by now managed to regularize their status – the case is important as it demonstrates that issues related to legal status and nationality may at times fall under article 8 of the Convention, even though it does not contain a right to nationality per se. The decision also puts a final end to a much prolonged debate about the legal principles around one of Europe’s most egregious cases of statelessness in recent history.       

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