Statement to the Regional Ministerial Meeting on statelessness in West Africa

Banjul

Mr. President,

Honourable Ministers,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour and pleasure to have the opportunity to address you today, I am also very grateful to the President of ECOWAS for co-chairing this event. This Ministerial Meeting is an important milestone in our joint endeavour to put an end to the scourge of statelessness, which affects more than 10 million people worldwide, including over one million in West Africa.

I also take this opportunity to express the gratitude of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the people and Government of The Gambia for their hospitality and generosity in hosting this important meeting at this point in time. This is a clear signal underlining The Gambia’s renewed commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights, including both its commitment to eradicate statelessness and its recognition of the fundamental importance of this cause as a regional and continental priority.

It is befitting that we are meeting here in The Gambia which, after experiencing a crisis of governance, is now embarking on a path of socio-economic recovery.  I would like to congratulate the people of The Gambia, with the strong support of ECOWAS, for having resolutely decided to pursue the promise of democracy that respects human rights.

Statelessness is a very serious human rights problem affecting the daily lives of people. I met stateless people trapped in poverty who described their marginalized, isolated, and stigmatized existence. These persons are excluded from participation in public affairs; they can no longer determine their own future.

Statelessness prevents people from accessing basic rights and services and participating in the society they live in. Depriving individuals of a nationality generates suffering, exclusion, and marginalization. Ensuring that everyone has a nationality means contributing to social cohesion and integration, and enabling societies to build on their capacities and talents. This creates inclusive societies that foster the prosperity of people and nations.  Statelessness is therefore also an important development problem. It is not by chance that all the countries of the world have decided to include "legal identity for all, including birth registration" in the Sustainable Development Goals they aspire to achieve by 2030.  There is now a clear understanding of the importance of having a legal identity for both human development and national development.

It should be emphasized that the right to legal identity is also a matter of national security, especially at a time when ECOWAS Member States are legitimately concerned about the protection of their citizens from growing threats.  People without a legal identity, including citizenship, could be more vulnerable to radicalization, exploitation, and abuse – including recruitment by armed groups – because of their marginalization.  These people will also be more difficult to identify in a safe manner. Moreover, unresolved situations of statelessness can fuel inter-communal conflicts and even lead to forced displacement.

The strong engagement of West African countries on the issue of statelessness underscores the increasing awareness of the extent and the causes of the problem in the region. Mappings of statelessness have been initiated in many countries, for example in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and The Gambia. We estimate that there are more than one million stateless people in West Africa. We also know that several million more are at risk of statelessness. 

Studies have identified similar causes of statelessness in the region – in particular the lack of legal safeguards in nationality laws and also administrative obstacles to accessing proof-of-nationality documentation. Up to 30 per cent of people in the ECOWAS region do not have sufficient documentation proving their identity and their claim to a nationality. This problem will grow as long as there continues to be a high number of children born in the region who do not have access to birth certificates. This risk is further aggravated when people move to another country.

Also, several nationality laws in the region do not yet provide equal rights for women to pass their nationality on to their children, and some limit nationality on the basis of race or ethnicity. The reform of nationality laws and the establishment of legal guarantees to ensure that all children have a right to a nationality at birth are essential. This will help ensure the full realization of the values and principles that define the ECOWAS community. 

In a region as profoundly shaped by human mobility as this one, both historically and today, protecting populations on the move from becoming stateless is of crucial importance, and it is therefore one of the top priorities which I hope States will address.  Successful initiatives are already underway. I would like to commend Benin for its recent efforts to reform its legislation, guaranteeing gender equality and every child’s right to acquire a nationality at birth if otherwise left stateless. It sets an important example, which I encourage other States to follow. In Burkina Faso, the Government, in partnership with the private sector, has been testing an innovative technology called “iCivil”, which is a welcome initiative that aims to ensure that every birth is immediately registered via a mobile phone application. In Niger, to respond to the dramatic scarcity of documentation in the Diffa region – which is also home to a large number of refugees and internally displaced people – the Government is planning, with UNHCR’s support, to conduct a registration exercise aimed at collecting individual data that will assist in the identification and documentation of people at risk of statelessness.

The ECOWAS region can take pride in its pioneering role with regard to the reduction of statelessness on a global scale. Two years ago, in February 2015, ECOWAS ministers adopted the Abidjan Declaration on the eradication of statelessness – one of the first of its kind. Since then, Member States have taken important steps to achieve this objective: three States in the region have become parties to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, bringing the total number of signatory States in the region to 12 and 11 respectively. No other African region has had as many States party to the two UN conventions on statelessness.

Recognizing that the eradication of statelessness is a priority, all ECOWAS States have appointed dedicated government focal points. Togo and Mali have established inter-ministerial committees on statelessness. Twelve States have moved to the stage of adopting national action plans to end statelessness. Seven countries are reforming their nationality laws to prevent and reduce statelessness. I congratulate all States on the measures taken so far.  I encourage them to accelerate their efforts to adopt national action plans and to complete the necessary law reforms.

These achievements confirm that the region is firmly committed to ending statelessness. Over the past two days, government experts have worked tirelessly to develop a timetable for concrete actions to end statelessness by 2024, according to the commitments made in Abidjan. Today's meeting marks a new stage in the fight against statelessness. ECOWAS Member States have the opportunity to adopt the first binding regional instrument of this kind.  The regional action plan to end statelessness in West Africa is a unique and inspiring development. ECOWAS sets an example for the rest of the continent, and for the world.

The commitment and dynamism of West Africa resonate throughout the African continent. In 2015, ECOWAS Member States requested the African Union (AU) to draft and adopt a protocol on the right to nationality. As a response, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a draft protocol to the African Charter on the right to nationality and the eradication of statelessness in Africa. In July 2016, the AU’s Executive Council approved the examination of the draft protocol by its accredited bodies, before its final submission to Member States for approval. I hope that ECOWAS will form a bloc of solidarity to support the adoption of this important instrument as soon as possible.

I have to underscore the fundamental importance of partnerships in addressing statelessness. In particular, the support of UNICEF and the World Bank in strengthening birth registration and access to other forms of proof of nationality is key –  both to the prevention of statelessness and to the successful implementation of this regional initiative. Statelessness is a challenge from a human rights, humanitarian, and development perspective, and it requires the active engagement of all stakeholders. It is necessary that universities, schools, media, and civil society organisations are involved in efforts to address it. I note with pleasure that the engagement of all actors from government to civil society is integrated into the plan of action.

West Africa is known throughout the world for the great hospitality of its people. The region’s strong commitment to ending statelessness is very much in line with the best of this tradition. For my part, I can assure you that UNHCR will do whatever we can to support you in this critical effort.

Thank you very much.