Moving Statelessness Forward on the International Human Rights Agenda

Lindsey Kingston – Director, Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies at Webster University
/ 5 mins read

The word “statelessness” had not yet entered my vocabulary when I first arrived in Thailand during the spring of 2005. I had come to conduct research on human trafficking, and I was under the false impression that everyone had nationality somewhere. At first I caught glimpses of the problem from Bangkok – murmurs of hill tribe women on Soi Cowboy in the red light district, offhand remarks about “illegal” indigenous groups that sent children south to work in resort towns such as Pattaya and Phuket. It wasn’t until I headed north to the border town of Mae Sai, where I was scheduled to work with a local NGO, that the term “stateless” began to have meaning for me. It was in Mae Sai and the surrounding countryside where I witnessed the human costs resulting from lack of nationality – including poverty and vulnerabilities to sex trafficking. By the time I arrived back in the United States to write a thesis on what I had learned in Thailand, the issue of statelessness had become a major source of frustration for me. Not only had I never heard of this problem during my graduate studies, but it seemed that very few scholars, policymakers, or human rights advocates had heard of it, either. My own subsequent searches for information – hunts for library books and journal articles, online searches, calls to refugee law centers and immigration NGOs in the United States – yielded few results and seemed to confirm the inattention described, with annoyance, by NGO and UN experts in Thailand.

               The issue of statelessness has certainly gained more attention from the international community since 2005, yet the problem has not fully emerged onto the human rights agenda. Although it is true that statelessness has enjoyed partial emergence during the past few years – the UNHCR recently prioritized statelessness as a budgetary pillar, for instance, and a landmark 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva reinforced and expanded state commitments to international legal frameworks related to statelessness – the problem has not yet garnered widespread public attention or become “mainstream” enough to warrant campaign adoption by a major human rights NGO. This disconnect between the issue’s severity and its level of support has prompted me to ask the simple question: Why do some issues make it onto the international NGO agenda while others do not? Limited academic scholarship on issue emergence – the twin steps of constructing and accepting a specific problem as an international issue in the first place – provides us with a starting point, but fails to adequately explain the non-emergence of statelessness.

               In an attempt to better understand why statelessness has received limited international attention despite its global pervasiveness and negative ramifications, I conducted interviews with 21 decision-makers at leading U.S. human rights and humanitarian NGOs. My findings identified three main weaknesses for the issue of statelessness: issue heterogeneity, lack of global solutions, and lack of political will. First, issue heterogeneity creates strategic obstacles and impedes statelessness’ emergence. As one interview respondent quite simply observed, “statelessness is not clear to a lot of people.” Because of the complex nature of this issue, statelessness encounters obstacles related to strategic characteristics including: absence of a clear problem, misunderstood issue basics, unclear consequences, lack of data, and lack of both compelling images and a story that can be easily interpreted by the media. Second, statelessness currently lacks widely-recognized global solutions, which impedes the issue’s potential for change. “I think it’s a hard issue to approach in a generic kind of way. Statelessness covers a lot of different situations,” explained an interview respondent. “The more concrete and focused, and the more achievable your goal becomes, [the better]. With statelessness, this is especially the case.” Third, lack of political will for eliminating statelessness serves as a major obstacle in the process of issue emergence, and this lack occurs for a number of reasons. Critics worry that the issue is fundamentally tied to the delicate issue of state sovereignty, and vulnerabilities for stateless populations limit grassroots organizing and community feedback. Many organizers assess issues in a “hierarchy of needs” and do not rank statelessness as a top priority in relation to other human rights and humanitarian problems.

               Thankfully, statelessness also possesses a number of strengths for eventual issue emergence. It offers organizations possibilities for filling gaps and creating niches, and it may appeal to some supporters because it connects to other social problems and results in long-term rights violations. Statelessness fits with a number of organizational identities, including NGOs focused on human rights and refugees, and there are already dedicated anti-statelessness advocates located within several NGOs. Characteristics related to the overall political environment – including statelessness’ potential fit with emerging needs and trends, as well as its ties to current political situations – may also benefit issue organizers. Lastly, powerful narratives and images from stateless communities could inspire support, as well as fit with media trends and technologies. Although anti-statelessness mobilization has been limited so far, these strengths help explain why organizers have achieved partial, limited emergence within the international community.

               It is imperative that organizers build on statelessness’ existing strengths and overcome obstacles to its successful issue emergence. My recommendations include:

  • Framing and information sharing – Formulate two levels of framing and information sharing; one focused on reaching members of the general public and another targeted at the elite ranks of policymakers, academics, and advocates.
  • Operationalize conventions – Organizers must build on existing legal frameworks (particularly the 1954 and 1961 statelessness conventions) to implement a decisive global “plan of action” for eliminating statelessness. This will require information sharing, as well as complementing international frameworks with local research, problem-solving, and advocacy.
  • Strategic leadership – Seek out leadership within state governments and international organizations.
  • Provide educational opportunities – Because many stateless individuals are not fully aware of their rights to nationality, educational programs must outline this fundamental information in understandable ways.
  • Make grassroots mobilization feasible – Increased grassroots organizing among stateless populations is necessary for increasing political will, yet stateless individuals represent an inherently weak constituency. NGOs may help spur grassroots activism by offering partnerships that provide some level of local participation.

               To read more about my work on issue emergence and its implications for statelessness, please see my recent publications in Forced Migration Review ( and Human Rights Review (“’A Forgotten Human Rights Crisis’: Statelessness and Issue (Non) Emergence,” available online and forthcoming in print).

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