What (more) can the EU do to help address statelessness in its external human rights action?

Laura van Waas, Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
/ 7 mins read

As international interest in tackling statelessness grows, a question that repeatedly surfaces is: what role can X organisation, Y country or even Z individual play in helping to promote solutions? Several previous ENS blogs already explored different angles for addressing this question towards the European Union, including recently by considering the context of involuntary loss of an EU member state’s nationality and ensuring that all children born in the EU acquire a nationality. A very different perspective, and one that is both relevant to the ENS’ broader geographic scope of work (stretching beyond the EU to include all Council of Europe countries) and to organisations active in other regions of the world entirely, can be explored by directing the question of the EU’s role in addressing statelessness towards its foreign policy. This was the topic of discussion during a meeting of the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights last week, at which the newly published policy paper on “Addressing the human rights impact of statelessness in the EU’s external action” was presented.   

Promoting and defending human rights is a key area of the European Union’s external action. Currently, however, statelessness does not feature among the EU’s stated human rights priorities (which include, among others, protecting the freedom of expression, combatting discrimination, abolishing the death penalty and supporting the work of human rights defenders). As such, determining to what extent the EU is already contributing to the global fight against statelessness is not a straightforward task. Footnote 72 of the new policy paper illustrates this with the following example:

"a search within the EU External Action Service website for documents relating to “stateless” yields 103 and “statelessness” just 26 results whereas a search for “human rights defenders” (an EU priority area) yields 2,200 results".

It could be tempting, on the basis of these minimal search results, to assume that the EU has shown little to no interest in statelessness in its external human rights engagement – but such a conclusion is premature. The policy paper in fact succeeds not only in demonstrating the ways in which statelessness interacts with numerous EU human rights priorities, but also in uncovering a variety of ways in which the EU has already been contributing to addressing this issue around the world.

The paper points out that statelessness is identified as an area of specific concern in certain strategic documents, such as the current EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which includes as an action the development of “a joint framework between the commission and EEAS for raising issues of statelessness with third countries”. The EU Global Approach on Migration and Mobility also includes statelessness as an explicit area of action, asserting that among measures to promote international protection and enhance the external dimension of asylum policy, “the EU should encourage non-EU countries to address the issue of stateless persons, who are a particularly vulnerable group, by taking measures to reduce statelessness”. But the policy paper also identifies a series of concrete activities through which the EU has engaged, directly or indirectly, on statelessness, such as through supporting awareness raising for the avoidance of statelessness (e.g. in Vietnam), promoting birth registration (e.g. for Roma as part of the work of DG Enlargement), supporting research and dialogue on statelessness (in several regions) and raising issues of statelessness in multilateral fora (e.g. in Human Rights Council resolutions). These and other recent examples show that there has been and continues to be space for action. Moreover, the scope of EU interest is broad: the EU has engaged in action that is oriented towards awareness-raising and advocacy as well as that which is geared towards direct impact in the form of support to on-the-ground statelessness projects; and it is interested in both helping to avoid or reduce statelessness and supporting the enjoyment of fundamental rights by stateless persons. Statelessness is therefore evidently not an entirely new area of engagement for the EU, which has shown a real interest in areas where statelessness intersects with the EU’s core human rights priorities, such as where it meets questions of children’s rights, gender equality or the treatment of minorities. Nevertheless, the policy paper concludes that this engagement can be characterised as rather ad hoc and lacking in a cohesive or comprehensive vision for the EU in terms of its overall role on statelessness. Developing such a vision, or the promised framework for statelessness engagement, would help to strengthen the EU’s impact in this area.

The policy paper goes on to present a number of ways in which the EU could strengthen and expand its multilateral and bilateral human rights engagement in relation to statelessness. In view of the evident interest of the European Parliament, and in particular its Sub-Committee on Human Rights, the paper pays particular attention to the question of a stronger role for this EU body (see page 29 of the report) – suggesting, for instance, that the Parliament could adopt a specific thematic resolution on statelessness, use its authority to address parliamentary questions towards other EU institutions with respect to their human rights action on statelessness, consider undertaking country visits to examine situations of statelessness and help to raise awareness of and capacity to address statelessness issues with other parliamentary bodies. Following these suggested areas of increased engagement, the policy paper also addresses a number of recommendations with respect to the improvement of institutional arrangements in support of a more effective role for the EU in the global fight against statelessness. It proposes that certain tools, capacity building measures and reporting mechanisms be developed in order to ensure that EU engagement in this area is better informed and can be more readily tracked and monitored. The policy paper then closes with a discussion of three concrete thematic areas (the UNHCR-led campaign to end statelessness; the international campaign to abolish gender discrimination in nationality laws; and promoting children’s right to a nationality) and five country situations (Côte d’Ivoire, Thailand, Myanmar, Dominican Republic and the countries affected by the Syria crisis) in which the EU could apply the various ideas outlined throughout the document.

The presentation of this policy paper to the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights provided the first opportunity to gauge the response of an EU institution to its content and to the recommendations made. During the ‘exchange of views’ which the Sub-Committee had convened – and at which presentations were also made by UNHCR on its #ibelong campaign, a member of the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation based in Lebanon and a representative of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation – a number of highly supportive interventions were made. It was welcome to hear MEP's explicit support for the case which the policy paper makes for critically reviewing the EU’s internal ‘performance’ with respect to statelessness with a view to ensuring coherency with and the credibility of the EU’s external action on this issue. With two EU member states in the top ten of countries with the largest known statelessness populations globally, MEPs were eager to understand what progress was being made towards more effectively address statelessness within EU borders – the most recent sign of progress, in fact, being the adoption that same day by Estonia of amendments to its citizenship law that should greatly facilitate the reduction of statelessness in that country. One MEP pointed to the strong connection between statelessness and forced displacement / migration, pointing out that the fact of statelessness being a push factor for international migration is a strong reason why it should indeed be an EU priority. Another asked for clarification from the European External Action Service (EEAS) of how high statelessness is on the agenda currently, suggesting that the time is ripe to develop a toolkit on the issue, as well as separately offering support for the pursuit of a parliamentary resolution dedicated to statelessness. The representative of the EEAS, in his response, welcomed the policy paper for the insights it offered into EU action on statelessness and confirmed that the promised framework for raising the issue with third countries is indeed currently under development. In all, we can and should expect to see more from the EU in terms of its external action on statelessness in the  years to come, but it will also be important to continue to seek opportunities for pushing this engagement forward.

The ‘exchange of views’ on statelessness that took place within the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights on 21 January 2015 can be viewed by webcast here (from minute 15.59).

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