Interview with Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues


Prof Fernand de Varennes is Dean of the Faculté de droit at the Université de Moncton. He was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues in 2017. We spoke about his work, the role of the Special Rapporteur, how statelessness affects minorities and the challenges ahead.


Shortly after assuming your role as the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues you announced in an address to the UN General Assembly, that you will, among other issues affecting minorities around the globe, focus on the issue of statelessness. Why do you think statelessness is such an important issue for minorities?

It’s important to understand that statelessness is, first and foremost, a minority issue, since more than three quarters of the world’s stateless population belong to just a relatively small number of minorities. Most people don’t realise this. In other words, and this is true in every part of the world, most of those who are stateless belong to a minority, the clearest examples being the millions who are members of the Rohingya minority of Myanmar and Palestinians who together represent the vast majority of stateless populations in Asia. One of the reasons this was one of the first thematic priorities of my mandate was the extent this aspect of statelessness is misunderstood: it is not an “equal opportunity” phenomenon that similarly affects individuals globally, but one where specific minorities are impacted or targeted. I therefore concluded early on that this needed to be urgently addressed and highlighted, leading me to announce statelessness as a minority issue as one of the first initiatives under my mandate to both the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council.

You hosted a two-day expert meeting at the beginning of May last year to start the process of compiling a thematic report on the link between statelessness and minorities for the UN General Assembly. This was attended by a number of experts from around the globe, including ENS. What did the parallels between the experiences from different parts of the world suggest to you about the value in finding international and regional solutions to common issues?

I won’t deny that one of the objectives of the meeting went beyond the preparation of a thematic report for the UN General Assembly to raise awareness of statelessness as a mainly minority issue, though this was one of the main goals. It was also my hope that it would highlight to the participating experts how much the primary causes of statelessness affecting minorities from all of the world’s regions are similar. At the end of the day, whether dealing with members of the Russian minority in the Baltic States, the Haitian-descended minority in the Dominican Republic, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, there can often be common patterns of stripping or denial of citizenship, which could be deemed to be discriminatory and in breach of international human rights obligations. While many may understand this intellectually, I am not sure the extent of parallels is always fully grasped.

The Eleventh session of the Global Forum on Minority Issues in November had a focus on stateless minorities. This was a great opportunity to take stock, identify the main challenges faced by stateless people and to promote dialogue and cooperation to identify effective solutions. The report is now published and you presented the Recommendations to the Human Rights Council last week. Can you tell us about the main recommendations?

The recommendations in the report highlight the primary responsibility of states to address and prevent statelessness, and particularly through promoting and protecting the human rights of minorities, with an emphasis on non-discriminatory laws, policies and practices, including those which address access to birth registration and procedures for accessing identity and other documentation necessary to acquire a nationality, which are too often at the centre of the causes of statelessness for minorities globally. To eliminate all forms of discrimination against stateless minorities, the report also recommends that states should include stateless minority representatives and organisations in decision-making processes as well as recognise that representatives of minorities, the United Nations, civil society organisations and other stakeholders play an important role in activities preventing and combating statelessness, and in collecting disaggregated data to help inform decision making processes about statelessness of minorities. The recommendations emphasise the importance of states sharing best practices and combating statelessness through increased regional and international cooperation, and to deliver pledges to take concrete steps to prevent statelessness at international forums including the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Statelessness in October this year. I also thought it was a good idea to recognise an International Day for Combating Statelessness to further raise awareness on the importance of combating statelessness through the protection of the rights of minorities!

Living without a nationality and rights is a harsh reality for many minorities. In Europe, many Roma including children are at risk of statelessness. This is something you've raised, urging authorities to take immediate action. What do you think is the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed in the short-term?

That’s a good question – and I’m not sure I have an answer, nor that there is a single solution that would be suitable for all of the different contexts involving the Roma in Europe. They are not a single monolithic community, and the difficulties some of them may encounter in the United Kingdom may be completely different from the challenges and obstacles in the Ukraine. That’s actually one of the reasons I am not satisfied with issuing a report and raising awareness of statelessness as a minority issue. I am hoping to work in the next few months with a panel of the world’s leading experts on statelessness to try to draft a handbook or practical guidelines to address full-on how to more effectively counter statelessness among the largest minorities in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, and for Europe obviously this would mean trying to be more specific and concrete on what could be done for the Roma in addition to the Russian minorities.

Alongside your work on the issue, actions by UNHCR under their #IBelong campaign, as well as increased activity by civil society groups and networks, suggest that statelessness is now higher up the political agenda. Is this an indication that the issue is finally being given the attention it warrants seeing how it affects 10 million people with devastating consequences? 

In a general sense, I would agree with the premise of your question that much needed attention is finally being given to what can only be described as one of the most marginalising issues for millions of people. I don’t have to tell you how devastating and crippling statelessness can be for generations of individuals who find themselves without any citizenship, and the rights and privileges which often flow it. At the same time, I am concerned that much more needs to be done where it is most needed.  I am deeply concerned, however, that not enough is being done to tackle more directly most cases of statelessness, and even emerging national contexts where the world may see millions – even four million - more minorities being stripped of or denied citizenship almost “overnight”, as news reports have recently mentioned may be occurring right now in the Indian state of Assam. Unless more attention is given to the circumstances which lead to statelessness specifically involving minorities, then I fear we will be ending up at the end of the campaign to eradicate statelessness with millions more individuals without citizenship than when the campaign started.

Finally, with everything that has happened in politics in 2018 what do you think are some of the biggest challenges ahead for those working on statelessness and what keeps you positive?

As I just mentioned earlier, one of the biggest challenges is to acknowledge more directly that statelessness is mainly a minority issue. Unless we fully and openly acknowledge the nature and extent of that challenge, we will only be “chipping at the edges” of the problem, and not focusing sufficiently on the most effective and workable solutions. I’m still positive for three reasons: despite this apparently daunting challenge, the #IBelong campaign is making a difference for thousands, even tens of thousands of individuals, and that in itself – because of the differences it has brought to these lives - is cause to celebrate. It has also helped lead to legislative changes in some countries finally allowing women to transmit in a non-discriminatory way their nationality to their own children. And for me, I remain positive because there is now no doubt a much, much better understanding and acknowledgement at the UNHCR and elsewhere of the degree to which statelessness is a minority issue. That’s a solid foundation from which we can build and move forward, despite the obstacles and difficulties ahead.

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