After his Human Rights Statement on stateless children was released on 15 January 2013, ENS caught up with Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Muižnieks talks about his commitment to address statelessness in Europe and the changes he would like to see.
ENS: Why did you decide to release a Human Rights Comment on statelessness among children and how is this issue relevant in today’s Europe? What are typically the causes of statelessness among children?
Nils Muižnieks: I first became interested in statelessness among children almost twenty years ago when I began human rights work in Latvia. I sought to address the issue in that country not only through NGO advocacy, but also as the minister of social integration, when I sent out 15,000 letters to parents of the children informing them of the possibility of registering their children as citizens and urging them to do so. However, the issue of statelessness of children remains a major concern not only in Latvia, but in a number of Council of Europe member states. Yet it is still too often ignored or neglected. Stateless persons very often belong to national minorities and are deprived of access to a number of basic human rights. Stateless children are in particular extremely vulnerable to exploitation, including child labour, sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and illegal adoption. This is why tackling the issue of stateless children is one of the priorities I have set for my mandate as Commissioner for Human Rights. Statelessness is passed from generation to generation: giving a nationality to children is therefore key to ending the perpetuation of statelessness. The causes vary. In some states, the issue is linked to migration and conflicting nationality legislation. In others, it is a consequence of state succession or restoration. Many Roma lack personal identity documents and thus, have difficulty in accessing citizenship.
ENS: What is the key message you would send to European governments about how they could better respect their obligations to prevent statelessness among children? What are the legal instruments governing this issue and where is current ratification and/or implementation lacking?
NM: States should protect children against statelessness. They should take proactive measures to ensure respect for the overarching principle of the best interest of children, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This entails ensuring that all children are registered at birth; granting nationality at birth to all children who would otherwise be stateless is also an important principle that should be abided by. Easily accessible and effective procedures for accessing nationality should be available to stateless children and their caregivers. NGOs and bar associations providing counseling and free legal aid can play a key role in this context.
Moreover, States should access existing international instruments aiming at reducing statelessness and protecting stateless persons, in particular the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions as well as the Council of Europe Conventions on nationality (1997) and on avoidance of statelessness in relation to state succession (2006). While the rate of ratification of the two UN conventions is growing, accession to these two Council of Europe treaties remains limited, especially as regards the 2006 Convention which has so far been ratified by only six member states. In addition to these binding international instruments, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted in 2009 a Recommendation on the nationality of children which provides very useful guidance for member states on improving protection of children against statelessness. UNHCR’s specific guidelines on the implementation of the UN conventions on statelessness are also very relevant tools that may be used by states.
ENS: Many commentators have highlighted inadequate access to birth registration and/or other identity documents as a major cause of statelessness among children born In Europe, including with regard to the Roma and other in situ minority groups. In your view who is primarily responsible for the failure to properly register births and are there any good practices to learn from?
NM: The lack of registration of children at birth is indeed a major factor of risk of statelessness for children, especially among national minority and other vulnerable social groups. While the blame has often been put on parents or historical circumstances and the legacy of the past, it is clear that the authorities (national and local) have a key role to play in improving registration of children at birth. Obstacles preventing people from registering their children at birth include incomplete, inadequate or incompatible pieces of legislation, cumbersome administrative practices, excessive fees, language barriers, lack of awareness among the population groups affected by statelessness as well as sometimes institutional racism. All these hurdles that can deter parents belonging to some groups of the population from registering their children at birth, especially when they are themselves stateless, can only be lifted through resolute action by the states. There are good practices in some member states, such as in the region of former Yugoslavia, involving birth and civil registration campaigns among marginalized and isolated minority groups. Such out-reach campaigns have been carried out by the authorities in cooperation with NGOs and international stakeholders, such as UNHCR, and by involving representatives of the groups affected by this problem. They have shown that when there is a willingness to resolve existing statelessness problems, solutions can be found.
ENS: Aside from the question of statelessness among children, what do you consider to be some of the other key statelessness issues in Europe and how should these be tackled?
NM: I am concerned by the fact that a number of stateless persons are held in detention in migratory contexts, sometimes for long periods of time, because they are stateless and cannot be deported to another country. Those who avoid detention can be held in a limbo situation for an indefinite time, due to the absence of statelessness determination procedures or effective access to naturalization. Widespread discrimination against stateless persons, due to their status, is also a cause for concern in many countries.
ENS: Given estimates that there are over 600,000 statelessness persons in Europe, including many residing within European Union Member States, how in your view could European Union institutions and processes be better geared towards preventing statelessness and properly protecting stateless persons who have migrated to and reside in Member States?
NM: It is necessary to raise more awareness of the problem of statelessness in EU member states, particularly in order to ensure that existing EU non-discrimination standards apply equally to stateless persons. Stateless persons should not be left in a legal limbo and condemned to marginalization, destitution and absence of rights. They need additional protection. The setting up of statelessness determination procedures could help EU member states tackle more effectively existing problems. Data collection on statelessness, disaggregated by age and gender, is also essential.
ENS: What role should civil society organisations play in addressing statelessness in Europe, and in your view how can the European Network on Statelessness most effectively help to coordinate these efforts?
NM: Civil society organisations play no doubt a major role in providing support and assistance to stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness throughout the Council of Europe member states. Legal advice, social and other support provided by NGOs are sometimes the only effective remedy available to stateless persons. NGOs have also been instrumental in campaigns of birth registration or other campaigns aimed at facilitating access to nationality of stateless persons. Moreover, they contribute to awareness-raising as stateless persons are often legally and de facto “invisible”. In this context, I warmly welcome the setting up of the European Network on Statelessness which, I trust, has the potential to enhance efforts aimed at reducing and preventing statelessness in Europe. It is important to pool together information, knowledge, and existing experiences, in order to raise awareness of statelessness in a more effective way and find effective and innovative ways of tackling this serious human rights problem.
Nils Muižnieks is the Commissioner for Human Rights, an independent, non-judicial institution of the Council of Europe, mandated to promote awareness of, and respect for, human rights in the 47 member States.
Photo: Council of Europe
This interview first appeared in ENS Newsletter: issue 2. To sign up for the newsletter click here.