In September, the leaders of the United Nations Member States will meet to adopt the global agenda for development post-2015, the document containing a series of 17 goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the go-to guidelines for how global development should be directed. At the beginning of the year, my ENS blog post on the Secretary General’s Synthesis Report was hopeful in its reflections on the inclusion of ‘migrant status’ in the discussion of sustainable development, but argued that it was necessary to go beyond this. Earlier this month, the final draft of the outcome document for September’s momentous meeting, entitled ‘Transforming Our World’, was released and we are only months away from adoption. There is much to celebrate but there is work still to be done.
‘No one will be left behind’. This phrase, and versions of it, appear five times in the final draft of the outcome document, and it has been a mantra of the discussions surrounding the development of the SDGs. This is an exciting aim. Realising it will take a lot of rethinking how things are done (e.g. see this blog by Thomas Pogge on addressing poverty effectively). But, crucially, it will also require an agenda that explicitly addresses the prevalence of statelessness and the burdens of statelessness and noncitizenship more generally. This is because stateless persons too often are left behind in development, in countries of every development group, every global region, every type of government.
In this post, I consider what it would mean not to leave currently and future stateless persons behind. I touch upon some of the key considerations that need to be addressed as the indicators for the agenda are finalised, the implementation plans are developed and the State action plans are put before national governments.
Address the underlying assumption of citizenship and status
There is an underlying assumption in today’s world that everyone has a citizenship through which rights and obligations are best channelled. This makes it particularly vital to be explicit about not discriminating on grounds of statelessness. One of the almost 30 UN Technical Support Team (TST) issues briefs to support the SDGs mentioned statelessness (on conflict prevention and peacebuilding), in the context of the need for legal identity. Meanwhile, the TST brief on social protection in fact reiterates the citizenship assumption, opening with a quotation from the Rio+20 document, The Future We Want, encouraging ‘national and local initiatives aimed at providing social protection floors for all citizens’. This underlying assumption of citizenship has even made its way visibly into the final draft of the post-2015 outcome document. Paragraph 47 of the Preamble describes the laudable inclusion of millions of ordinary persons in the process of developing the agenda. Having listed all of the various sectors that participated, from governments and parliaments to academics and civil society, it goes on to celebrate the engagement of ‘ordinary citizens’.
It is unlikely that these texts intentionally exclude noncitizens, among whom, stateless persons. But this is more than just a manner of speaking. Just as declaring that rights are for ‘every man’ would reflect problematic assumptions of the exclusion of women, the default use of the word ‘citizen’ is reflective of an international system that implicitly assumes both that everyone is a citizen and that States have human rights obligations primarily towards citizens. Addressing this needs a two-fold approach: first, ensuring everyone has access to a citizenship; and second, ensuring no one is prevented from accessing human rights on the basis of being a noncitizen of the country where they live.
Data that is as comprehensive as possible, disaggregated and comparable
Stateless persons need to be included in national data and this data need to be disaggregated to allow stateless persons and noncitizens to be visible. Stateless persons are often absent from censuses and national registers. Their births are left unrecorded, their marriages and deaths officially un-noted. As a result, their poverty, lack of literacy, and other difficulties may also be absent from State, regional and global development reports. Meanwhile, so long as stateless persons and the hardships they suffer are under-reported and unknown, this situation is unlikely to change. This is why a post-2015 that explicitly included stateless persons could be so exciting and world-changing.
For the post-2015 agenda really to leave no one behind, it must ensure that States both accurately measure and address the poverty of all. Several commentators have argued that this would be a crucial improvement on the MDGs. For example, UNICEF argue in their June 2015 report that a focus on raising national averages drove an agenda that addressed the needs of those easiest to reach, not those suffering most from poverty. And others criticise the MDG reporting and measurement techniques as both changing too often to be comparable and based upon strong Member State interests. These shortcomings also contributed to the exclusion of stateless persons.
The UN Development Group (UNDG) has been pushing for the explicit inclusion of stateless persons in the poverty-alleviation targets for some time. As their Human Rights Working Group notes, this is crucial to the indicators that are developed, the measures that are taken, and the type of disaggregation of data that will be possible. That statelessness has still not been included in the agenda as an explicitly ‘prohibited grounds of discrimination’ is problematic and should be fixed.
The sticky question of Identity
Having a legal identity is important both because protection of dignity currently needs an official recognition of personhood and in order to collect data and to monitor that improvements are being felt by the people that need them. On the face of it, then, Goal 16.9: (‘By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration’) is something to be celebrated. As the CENTAR Public Policy Research Centre points out, it represents a rare opportunity to ‘mainstream statelessness as part of a much bigger picture’. And indeed, there has been little dissent over the two years of the development of the agenda from including this goal (e.g. see report from the Center for Global Development in Washington). However, what this should and could mean has been the focus of much concern and discussion.
First, it is unclear what a legal identity means. One participant, at a recent All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group event at the UK House of Commons, and someone that has himself experienced statelessness, put the concern particularly well. He asked: ‘What if the legal identity that someone is given is that they are illegal?’. That is, legal identity per se is not useful and indeed may even serve to further entrench poverty if a derogatory legal identity is fixed. That is why several commentators, such as Alan Gelb have emphasised the need specifically for a legal identity that acts as an access point to key systems. And I would add that there is need for access to a range of ways for persons to engage with States.
Second, there is a risk that a push only to improve access to legal identity makes life even more difficult for those that do not have one. It is on this basis that Laura van Waas draws attention to the need also to ensure persons have rights regardless of their nationality or lack of it, and not to focus only on the granting of legal identity.
Third, there is a risk that forcing birth registration alone may in some cases make life more difficult for those who are navigating complicated situations. For example, Edgar A Whitley and Bronwen Manby note that:
‘a poorly implemented civil registration system might, perversely, make claiming a particular nationality more rather than less straightforward. For example, refugees from Côte d’Ivoire fleeing violence targeted at people believed not to be “really” Ivorian whose children receive a birth certificate from a neighbouring country, may fear that the same document could be read in future as proof that, as alleged, the child is not Ivorian.’
It will be necessary, therefore, to be careful about how this Goal is realised.
A new acceptability of denationalisation?
Even while the world has been discussing this exciting new agenda, the acceptability of stripping people of their citizenship has been growing, across continents, across development groups and across models of governance. This further reinforces the need to ensure that stateless persons are explicitly placed within the development agenda. The period over which the sustainable development agenda has been put together (2014 and 2015) has seen governments across the world creating new powers, and reworking old ones, to strip people of their citizenship. Here is a quick selection, though there are others: Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Kuwait (see the Economist discussion of ‘the new unpeople’), the UK. In several cases, this is only possible for dual nationals (leading to concerns about unequal citizenship) and commentators in some of those countries note that this would only ever be used against the very few persons that may cause an existential threat to the State. But 2015 has also seen the denationalising of hundreds of thousands Dominican Republic citizens on ethnic grounds, leaving most stateless (e.g. see this analysis by Eve Hayes de Kalaf). And with little response from the international community.
Ending statelessness and ending the burdens of statelessness: Common but differentiated response
Statelessness, then, is a global issue, likely found in some form in every State on earth. The post-2015 agenda is a global agenda, recognising (as has been important throughout its drafting) a shared obligation and a differentiated response. And it is so with statelessness. In every country, the situations leading people to be stateless are different as are the particular ways in which the implications of statelessness are felt. The solutions, also, will have to be developed as part of each State’s own agenda for post-2015.
To tackle the underlying assumption of citizenship, statelessness must explicitly be one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. While ensuring everyone has a legal identity is important, it is crucial that this does not, perversely, make life more difficult for stateless persons. In a world where denationalisation is becoming increasingly acceptable and stateless persons continue to be among the most marginalised worldwide, ensuring ‘no one is left behind’ must explicitly apply take currently and potential future stateless persons into account. Addressing this in the post-2015 would be an exciting and positive step.
Do you want to be part of it? UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign is a good place to start to find ways to help address statelessness where you are.
If you are already working in this area and would be interested in contributing to a global report by looking at how your country can address statelessness in its response to the SDGs, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information (country experts, editorial assistants and peer reviewers needed). The report is being organised by Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP).
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