Statelessness, Human Rights and Development: It's time to Connect the Dots

Amal de Chickera
/ 8 mins read

The worlds of ‘human rights’ and ‘development’ have for many decades run parallel to each other, blindingly indifferent to the complementarity of their objectives, the overlap of principles they foster and the near impossibleness of achieving one without the other. Thus, where in an ideal world there would have been healthy cross-fertilisation between the two fields – a wholesome marriage resulting in the offspring of justice, prosperity and sustainability – we have experienced polarisation, territorialism, contradiction and competition for resources between the two, to the extent that there are very few people who can genuinely claim real expertise in both fields, and even fewer examples of real success in both grounds.

Both the development and the human rights fields are the poorer for this – and ultimately, this has left the poor, poorer still.

Add to this mix of missed opportunity – the issue of statelessness. ‘Statelessness’ as we know too well, has long been relegated to the very back of the bottom shelf in the cupboard of ‘issues and causes’ – a technical and idiosyncratic ‘niche’ pursued by a few eccentrics, but primarily of academic interest. It is of course our job to demonstrate that statelessness is much more than a niche, that it is relevant and important to even the most general discourse on society and justice. We have collectively been making significant progress in this regard, as evidenced by the increased attention paid to statelessness by various human rights mechanisms at national, regional and international levels. But in many ways that is too easy an achievement, for the connection between statelessness and human rights is all too obvious – stateless persons are first and foremost human, the right to a nationality is a human right, the lack of a nationality makes the individual more vulnerable to other human rights violations etc. A more difficult, but equally important connection to make is between ‘statelessness’ and ‘development’, and that is what this blog is all about.

Problem, problem, solution

The problem(s) of statelessness

That the stateless are among the most vulnerable in our world today is well established. That they are more likely to be poor, sick, illiterate, unemployed and malnourished; and less likely to be able to move freely, observe their religion, enjoy liberty and live as equals is supported by empirical evidence and common sense. The more structure and rules in place in society, the less space for the outcast and the greater the cost of not fitting in. In human rights terms, this scenario is likely to lead to an analysis of the tension between universal rights (civil, social, political, economic and cultural) and national sovereignty, and result in principles of dignity, equality and non-discrimination being relied on to demand greater protection for the stateless.

In development terms though what needs to be looked at is the impact of statelessness – and often intergenerational statelessness – on the ability of the individual and community to develop, compete, catch up and keep up. Or to put it another way, the impact of discrimination on stateless persons that keeps them repressed as development resources are channelled elsewhere. The development lexicon does not include the word ‘statelessness’ and therefore, the development field can almost be excused for not noticing. ‘Almost’ for regardless of labels, the most untrained eye can spot the immense inequalities in development around the world, and all it takes is a curious mind to question why.

We in the ‘statelessness world’ can continue to fight for greater protection, better documentation, the provision of nationality etc. – but unless and until those in the ‘development world’ build schools and hospitals and create jobs for the stateless as well, any improvement to the quality of life of the stateless would be marginal.

The problem(s) with development

The manner in which the international development field has… well… ‘developed’ makes it difficult to effectively address the problem of statelessness within the existing paradigm. I have absolutely no developmental expertise (I fall on the human rights side of that dichotomy), but my lay person’s analysis has churned up the following possible reasons:

  1. Development is an international programme with national focuses: At the end of the day, international development is most concerned with national and often nationalistic outcomes. ‘Kenyan development for Kenyans’ or ‘Sri Lankan development for Sri Lankans’. Given the finite nature of the development pot, priority is given to nationals – not migrants and certainly not the stateless. Therefore, the increase of hospital capacity by 5000 or school capacity by 10,000 will be seen as a success, but the exclusion of stateless persons from the benefits will not necessarily be seen as a failure. To put it differently, development is more concerned with aggregate improvements and less so with equality of access to and enjoyment of the improvements made. While this impacts on all vulnerable groups, the stateless are often the easiest to exclude and their exclusion is least likely to be noticed.
  2. Development promotes aspiration, not obligation: The development world is built on ‘aspiration’ –to end poverty, end child mortality, end illiteracy etc. While such aspirations are noble, they will never be universally achieved if not coupled with the obligations to treat people equally, to be just and fair, to not discriminate. New roads and buildings are great, but stronger mechanisms and entrenched obligations to protect the vulnerable are essential. Ultimately, if those deprived of enjoying the fruits of development have no means of fighting for a slice of the pie, they will remain excluded and the gap between them and the rest will only increase over time.
  3. Development is for the developing world: The ‘developed’ world is not an ‘equally developed’ world, and large communities within the global north including in Europe live impoverished lives. Many stateless persons count themselves within these numbers, and they remain excluded from the fruits of the development agenda.

In this context, many vulnerable groups and the stateless in particular are destined to not benefit from international development. Over multiple generations, the impact of such exclusion can be immense and profound. Development which does not alleviate all poverty, which entrenches inequality and has an intergenerational impact, is neither just nor sustainable. The development world must take stock, reassess and change. What is required is a paradigm shift and the post 2015 discourse may just provide that opportunity!

The post 2015 solution(s)

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a game changer – but the above analysis goes into some of the reasons as to why they fell short. The post 2015 development agenda provides us a second chance to get things right and the stakes are incredibly high. The positive is that both the development and the human rights worlds have recognised the need to better complement each other in the future. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in an open letter on human rights and the post 2015 agenda stated that:

"…[T]he Post-2015 Agenda must be built on a human rights-based approach, in both process and substance. This means taking seriously the right of those affected to free, active and meaningful participation. It means ensuring the accountability of duty bearers to rights-holders, especially the most vulnerable, marginalized and excluded. It means a focus on non-discrimination, equality and equity in the distribution of costs and benefits. It means embracing approaches that empower people, both politically and economically. And it means explicitly aligning the new development framework with the international human rights framework – including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as the right to development. In essence, it means deliberately directing development efforts to the realization of human rights."

Similarly, the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda in a recent report recognised the importance of ensuring that “no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities”, and made a commitment that the post 2015 agenda “leave no one behind”.

The words of both the High Commissioner for Human Rights and of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons are of significant importance to us ‘statelessness’ folk. They mean that no one, not even the stateless, will (or should) be excluded from the fruits of development and the protection of human rights in the future. Our job is to remind them and keep reminding them that the stateless do exist, and fall as much within their mandates, as they do the UNHCR.

In concrete terms, this means pushing for stateless persons to be explicitly recognised in the post-2015 agenda. The High Level Panel has recommended a framework of twelve illustrative goals which would be debated at multiple levels, including at the UN General Assembly, with the final version replacing the MDGs. The Equal Rights Trust (ERT) in a contribution to the post 2015 discourse has identified two points, on which slight amendments to the illustrative goals and targets would result in stateless persons (and migrants) being expressly included within the development agenda. Accordingly:

1.       States should be required to ensure that non-citizens (including stateless persons) benefit from the realisation of the post-2015 framework, through collecting and analysing data on their situation, and targeting development resources at them.

2.       Illustrative Target 10(a) (“Provide free and universal legal identity, such as birth registrations”) should be expanded to include the words “and eradicate statelessness.”

These two ERT recommendations (as well as other recommendations on underpinning the development agenda on principles of equality and non-discrimination) are worth reading in full, and I do not intend to replicate them here. They mark what potentially could be the start of a long overdue discourse on statelessness and development. Their message is a simple one – ending discrimination against stateless persons and ultimately ending statelessness can only be good for development.

The post-2015 agenda will be debated throughout 2014 – an important year for statelessness as plans are made around the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The convergence of these two international discourses in 2014 was perhaps destined in the stars. Perhaps this is merely a happy coincidence. Either way, it poses an opportunity to remind the world that its most vulnerable human inhabitants must be given every opportunity to develop.

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