Combatting statelessness: Claire Achmad reports on the First Global Forum on statelessness held recently in the Hague.

AuthorAchmad, Claire
PositionCONFERENCE REPORT - Conference notes

Statelessness, despite being a global problem affecting an estimated 12 million people worldwide, (1) remains a somewhat niche area of international law and an oft-ignored blight on the international affairs landscape. To highlight the problem and bring together people and organisations working on the issue, the Statelessness Program at Tilburg University (the Netherlands) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently co-hosted the First Global Forum on Statelessness. (2) The forum was held from 15 to 17 September 2014 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, providing an occasion to examine the causes and impacts of statelessness, and an opportunity to discuss good practice and develop solutions for statelessness prevention and the protection of stateless people.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that everyone has a right to nationality; furthermore, states have an international obligation to prevent statelessness. As the UNHCR succinctly states, 'to be stateless is to be without nationality or citizenship'. (3) Being without nationality or citizenship triggers a myriad of practical problems ranging from restricted freedom of movement to difficulties accessing social services such as health, education and welfare support. Statelessness as a concept has a long history. However, the fact that statelessness persists in the 21st century is anachronistic, given that it is a problem which is wholly preventable via comprehensive birth registration and nationality legislation and policy which complies with international law norms and standards. Despite this, universal birth registration remains unrealised (although all children have the right to registration at birth). (4) Discriminatory national legislation on citizenship and nationality continues to exist in many countries. Others, meanwhile, have not closed gaps within and conflicts between their nationality laws or have responded inadequately to the effects of state succession. The two international treaties specifically dedicated to the issue of statelessness--the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness--remain under-ratified and under-implemented, despite their adoption being testament to the depth of the international problem.

The global forum acknowledged that statelessness is a preventable problem, and that it is within reach of the international community to find solutions within the foreseeable future. The forum's sub-title, 'New Directions in Statelessness Research and Policy', indicated the forward-looking focus of its programme. Centred on three core themes, 'Stateless Children', 'Statelessness and Security' and 'Responses to Statelessness', the programme featured inspiring plenary keynote addresses, thought-provoking and in-depth parallel thematic panel sessions and cross-theme panels and workshops. The programme was complemented by lunchtime side-events (such as the launch of a new collected volume on statelessness and nationality) (5) and poster presentations covering a range of issues in statelessness. The three forum themes reflected the most pressing statelessness issues today;

* an estimated 5 million stateless persons worldwide are children

* the nexus between statelessness and security and the role of statelessness as a root of insecurity requires better understanding, and

* positive responses to statelessness must be shared widely to engender innovative, global responses and solutions.

New dynamism

The first day of the forum focused on galvanising delegates to deal with the problem of ending statelessness, whilst not under-estimating the gravity of the challenge. In his opening address, Volker Turk, the UNHCR's director of international protection, stated that ending statelessness is an imperative for the 21st century. In this call to action, Turk identified three subsidiary imperatives: the ethical imperative, the rule of law and development and peace-building. Despite significant achievements in the fight to end statelessness in the past ten years (for example, the granting of nationality to four million stateless people and 40 accessions

co the statelessness conventions over the past three years), creative-thinking is needed to find solutions to the problem of the remaining millions of stateless people. Turk observed a new dynamism, renewed energy and commitment around the issue of statelessness; citing the global forum as evidence of this, he highlighted the need for it to be a platform for harnessing and consolidating this new momentum.

Something voiced strongly in Turk's address--and a strong thread running through the entire forum--is the reality that stateless people, because of their lack of nationality, can effectively fall into a void of virtual non-existence. This was echoed by the powerful and confronting images in the exhibition 'Nowhere People' by photographer Greg Constantine, (6) on display in the Peace Palace as part of a world tour. Turk noted that in being stateless, people are discriminated against; their lack of recognition amounts to a manifest injustice, an affront to equality and human dignity.

Eradicating statelessness


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