Remarks at the Launch of the OSCE-UNHCR Handbook on Statelessness
OSCE Hofburg, Vienna
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Across the world today, there are an estimated ten million people who are told they do not belong anywhere. They are called “stateless” because they do not have a nationality. Stateless people may have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. As a result, they often cannot go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house, or even get married. Without these things, they can face a lifetime of obstacles and disappointment, and some may even become displaced.
Statelessness can result from discrimination, conflict between nationality laws, State succession, and lack of documentation. Discrimination in nationality laws (for example, based on race, religion, or gender) is a leading cause of statelessness. There are still 26 countries in the world where women cannot confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as men. Being undocumented is not the same as being stateless. However, the lack of birth registration can place people at risk of statelessness, as a birth certificate provides proof of parentage and where a person was born – both of which are needed to establish a nationality. Statelessness can also arise in situations of displacement. For example, in the context of the Syria crisis, the risk of statelessness is increased by gender discrimination in the nationality law coupled with problems in accessing civil documentation for the displaced population.
Governments establish who their nationals are, and are therefore responsible for making the legal and policy reforms necessary to prevent and address statelessness. States are indispensable partners in addressing statelessness. Under international law, they set the rules for acquiring, changing, and withdrawing nationality. The discretion that States may exercise with regard to nationality, however, is constrained by their obligations under international treaties to which they are a party, customary international law, and general principles of international law.
At the same time, UNHCR is mandated by the UN General Assembly to identify and protect stateless people and to prevent and reduce statelessness. UNHCR fulfills its mandate by working with governments, other UN agencies, and civil society to address the problem. On 4 November 2014, UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024. To achieve the goals of this Campaign, the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness: 2014-2024 was developed.  It establishes a guiding framework of 10 Actions to be undertaken by States, with the support of UNHCR and other stakeholders. The Global Action Plan is intended to resolve existing major situations of statelessness and prevent new cases from emerging.
Since the launch of the #IBelong Campaign, the level of international awareness about statelessness has increased, and the willingness by States to take concrete actions is on the rise, including in the OSCE region. For example, since the Campaign was launched, Turkey acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Italy acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness; the European Union adopted the first EU Council Conclusions on Statelessness; and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a Resolution on the eradication of childhood statelessness.
Together with States, UNHCR, other agencies, regional organizations, civil society, and stateless people themselves play an important role in preventing and resolving statelessness. To make a difference, we must join up our efforts. Partnerships with international organizations, regional organizations such as the OSCE, and NGOs can be essential to ensuring that the information, expertise, resources, influence, and long-term staying power are available to develop and implement a fully effective strategy to address statelessness.
Working in partnership and making good use of our complementary roles and the unique skills, knowledge, and resources we each bring to these endeavours is critical to a successful response to statelessness. The OSCE is a key partner for UNHCR. Our close co-operation in the field of statelessness, especially with the ODIHR and the High Commissioner on National Minorities, dates back to the 1990s. Since then, our organisations have collaborated closely in a number of OSCE participating States to address issues of statelessness, citizenship, and civil registration.
There are many recent examples of how this cooperation has worked well in practice, which can be found in the Handbook on Statelessness in the OSCE Area. They serve as encouragement for OSCE participating States to take further action and solve situations of statelessness on their territories. For instance, we have seen good practices emerging from our collaboration in Eastern and South Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The situation of Roma and related groups in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, for example, was the theme of an international consultation organised by the OSCE/ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues in 2016. This consultation brought together 33 participants from civil society, government, and intergovernmental sectors, including: Roma and Mugat activists from Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan; civil society activists supporting Roma and related communities; scholars from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; international experts; representatives of UNHCR, ODIHR, and HCNM; field operations from Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; and the Office of the OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.
Another excellent example of our cooperation was the regional inter-institutional process on durable solutions for displaced persons from Kosovo (UN SCR 1244 (1999)). This process was developed in follow-up to commitments made at the Skopje High-level Conference on Durable Solutions for Displaced Persons in Kosovo (UN SCR 1244 (1999)), organised by the OSCE in November 2014. UNHCR created a mapping tool, assessed the displaced population, and facilitated the Technical Working Group for Durable Solutions for Displaced Persons from Kosovo (UN SCR 1244 (1999)) in 2015. The OSCE and UNHCR jointly organized five meetings of this Group and another High-level Forum held in Belgrade in 2016 at which action points were agreed by Pristina, Belgrade, Skopje, and Podgorica, and are now being implemented.
Building on these recent positive initiatives, UNHCR is prepared to continue its engagement with the OSCE and participating States in using the Handbook as a practical guide to prevent and reduce statelessness. We would welcome and support targeted projects to achieve this in the years to come.