“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Campaign for statelessness conventions gains traction, at last

1 October 2012 | Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager at the Statelessness Programme, Tilburg Law School

The ‘statelessness conventions’, two little-known instruments that have long floated somewhere on the periphery of international law, are finally starting to command the attention that they deserve...

Closely related to, yet not really part of, either refugee law or human rights law, the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness did not initially make much of a splash after their adoption in 1954 and 1961 respectively. The 1954 Convention took twice the time to gather enough state parties to enter into force as compared to its sister instrument, the virtually identical 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Meanwhile, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness took a full twelve years to gather just six ratifications and enter into force. After this less-than-promising start, both conventions continued to lag far behind other international agreements in terms of accessions and remained woefully under-appreciated. And so it was with no false modesty or irony that the instruments were still being described as “orphan conventions” into the late 1990s. Recently, however, there has been growing interest in these two international agreements which are specifically designed to help states to protect stateless people and avoid cases of statelessness.


In fact, over the past decade or so, repeated calls have been made by a variety of international and regional bodies - including on numerous occasions by the UN General Assembly - for states to embrace the statelessness conventions. With this renaissance of interest in the issue and rediscovery of the conventions, accessions have also started to pick up significantly. This trend now looks set to continue as the campaign to raise awareness of and support for the statelessness convention starts to really gain traction, especially with regard to Europe. Already at the December 2011 Ministerial Meeting convened by UNHCR, over 30 states worldwide made pledges relating to accession to one or both conventions and many, including some European countries have already acted on these promises. Then, at a similar UN high level meeting dedicated to the Rule of Law, there were further encouraging signs, in particular the pledge by the Delegation of the European Union on behalf of the EU Member States. This included the explicit and concrete statement that “the EU Member States which have not yet done so pledge to address the issue of statelessness by ratifying the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and by considering the ratification of the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness” (pledge 4).


This recent EU pledge confirms the position of the statelessness conventions at the heart of the international legal framework for tackling statelessness – EU countries pledge to address the issue by signing up to these instruments. This sends a strong signal to governments elsewhere about the value of these conventions, regardless of their somewhat chequered history. A close inspection of how this statement has been formulated suggests a slightly stronger commitment to the 1954 convention, which serves as the foundation for identifying and protecting stateless people. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the European Union has already achieved near-universal accession to this instrument, with just a handful of states still needing to take action. Still, the promise that universal acceptance of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons in the European Union will be met is significant. The instrument is pivotal to the protection of non-refugee stateless people and once all EU member states become parties, this will help to raise the profile of statelessness in the region and may provide a new avenue for instigating a Europe-wide dialogue on the implementation of states’ obligations towards the stateless.


At the same time, it is also promising that EU member states have collectively pledged to “consider” acceding to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It is true that Europe already has its own, relatively strong, regional framework for the coordination of nationality policy and the avoidance of statelessness – provided by the 1997 European Convention on Nationality, the 2006 Council of Europe Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in relation to State succession and a range of related recommendations. Yet, there are still numerous EU member states which have not adopted these regional standards. And even if they were embraced across Europe, the 1961 Convention remains an important counterpart for this framework at the global level. It contains highly similar safeguards for the avoidance of statelessness and even provides a stronger guarantee with regard to acquisition of nationality at birth where a child would otherwise be stateless. Therefore, by also committing to universal accession of this second instrument, EU member states send a strong message to - and set a good example for - countries elsewhere about taking and sharing responsibility for ensuring that no-one is left without a nationality in this day and age. It remains to be seen within what timeframe these pledges will become a reality.


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