From Commitments to Achievements? The Zagreb Declaration on Access to Civil Documentation and Registration in South Eastern Europe

Stéphanie Marsal, Senior Advisor, Office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities
/ 6 mins read

We know that there are still around 20,000 people who lack basic civil documentation and registration in South East Europe. This figure can only be regarded as an estimate, as detailed data is often difficult to obtain in the absence of a data collection system that would provide accurate and timely information on the number of undocumented persons. This figure is also reported to encompass those who have undetermined nationality and may be at risk of statelessness or de facto stateless. 

We know that many of the people affected are from Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Even more worrisome, they can find themselves in a vicious multi-generational cycle in which the parents’ lack of identification obstructs the birth registration of their children, violating the right to birth registration and the right to a nationality enshrined in the UN Convention on the Right of the Child.

Lack of documentation is a particularly complex problem in South Eastern Europe. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia left many people with civil registration and documentation problems that, among other challenges, made it extremely difficult to prove one’s citizenship. Further exacerbating the problem, many people were forced to flee the regional conflicts that broke out in the 1990s, including the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, and found themselves with destroyed, missing or displaced documentation. Thereby, an already acute situation has been made worse, demanding that effective bilateral co-operation be established, notably to share information.

We cannot accept that the lack of documents is trapping people in a legal limbo, depriving them of access to their fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights.  People without civil registration documents are legally invisible, making them vulnerable to discrimination and trafficking. In other words, we cannot accept that a new born who is not registered at birth is offered a life of exclusion.

Access to documentation is at the very core of human rights: the right to live in dignity as a human being.

The States of South Eastern Europe have legal obligations that are important and need to be implemented. These obligations are found in the international conventions that they have ratified, including the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. They have also ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.[1]

The issue of statelessness, whether de jure or de facto, has mobilised a number of local human rights organisations as well as the international community. At the international level, UNHCR has been providing long-term support to tackle statelessness and lack of civil documentation. Meanwhile, the European Commission pays specific attention to these issues within the framework of candidate countries’ and potential candidates’ path to the European Union. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (OSCE HCNM) takes the view that de jure or de facto statelessness is a test case for the integration of society. In accordance with her mandate, the OSCE HCNM argues that leaving vulnerable people in a legal limbo with no possibility to fully access to their rights is not only a human rights concern, it is also a threat to security and the peaceful development of societies. It can also be regarded as a failure on the side of the authorities to meet their responsibilities.[2]

In 2011, UNHCR, the European Commission and the OSCE HCNM joined forces to explore ways to resolve this issue in a systemic and comprehensive manner. At their joint initiative, a Declaration on Access to Civil Documentation and Registration was adopted by the participants of a regional conference held in Zagreb on 26 and 27 October 2011. The conference was attended by officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo*, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as local and international stakeholders. The resulting “Zagreb Declaration” is a set of recommendations to eliminate the underlying causes of de facto statelessness. Among others, the Zagreb Declaration[3] recommended that the participants amend legislation to facilitate birth and subsequent registration, waive fees for documentation, strengthen co-operation between the various stakeholders at all levels, work closely with the community concerned and enhance bilateral co-operation to facilitate the exchange of information of undocumented people and recognition of documents.

Two years after the Declaration was adopted, the participants, along with UNHCR, the European Commission and the OSCE HCNM, took stock of the progress (or lack thereof) at a meeting hosted by the Montenegrin authorities in Podgorica on 25 October 2013.

It was positive that high level participants re-convened to review the legal and practical steps taken to implement the recommendations of the Zagreb Declaration. Sustained commitment to tackling these issues is indeed sorely needed. Even more needed are concrete results.

There are positive initiatives in the region: laws have been amended to facilitate civil registration, including subsequent registration; fees have been reduced, expiry dates on documents have been removed; residence has been registered even if not formal, cases of successful civil registration have been reported thanks to legal aid provided by civil society organisations. Good practices have been identified as part of regional projects including the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ Project on Best Practices for Roma Integration. However, enduring challenges remain the lack of a comprehensive approach to addressing the issue of civil registration and de facto statelessness as well as consistent implementation of existing laws. The legal and administrative frameworks in the region remain excessively complex and individual cannot find their way through the administrative labyrinth of regulations and evidentiary requirements without the support of legal aid networks and UNHCR. Not to mention the fact that undocumented people are often required to cross borders to retrieve documents from the country they have left – a difficult task if you do not have identity documents.

The number of undocumented is, however, not unmanageable, especially if one compares it with other regions where UNHCR is involved. Solutions are, therefore, within reach.

We know what needs to be done. As was said at the opening of the Zagreb Conference in 2011: “if there is a political will, there is a way”.[4]  Newly appointed High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors reiterated this message recently when she said that “clear leadership from the top level of government [is a] precondition[s] for a successful integration policy”.[5] UNHCR, the EU and the OSCE HCNM will remain united on this issue; they will also remain on the side of governments in their undertaking to tackle statelessness. Commitments need now to be transformed into achievements.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/1999 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on Kosovo's declaration of independence.

[1] All States have ratified these Conventions with the exception of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which has not been ratified as yet by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

[2] See the Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies released by the OSCE HCNM in November 2012.

[3] See

[4] Address by Knut Vollebaek at the Conference “A Regional Undertaking to Combat Exclusion and Prevent Statelessness” to the Conference on the Provision of Civil Documentation and Registration in South-Eastern Europe, Zagreb, Croatia, 26-27 October 2011.

[5] Address by High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Warsaw, 23 September 2013.

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