Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Launch of the African Commission's Study on the Right to Nationality in Africa. Addis Ababa, 29 January 2015

Speeches and statements

Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Launch of the African Commission's Study on the Right to Nationality in Africa. Addis Ababa, 29 January 2015

30 January 2015


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to witness the launch of this important study on the right to nationality in Africa, and I would like to congratulate the African Commission on Human and People's Rights for this landmark effort.

This is the culmination of several recent initiatives by African institutions which have gradually built awareness about nationality and statelessness issues. And to some extent, it is a wake-up call, in that it confirms important gaps in the current legal framework to ensure that everyone on this continent can exercise their human right to belong.

Having a nationality is something most people take for granted - but to those who do not have one, this lack often sentences them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair. This problem is much more wide-spread than many might think: it affects at least 10 million people worldwide, and every ten minutes another child is born stateless. In Africa, we have data on nearly three-quarters of a million stateless people, but know the real number is significantly higher.

Imagine what life is like for most of the people who are unable to prove their nationality. They cannot send their children to school, hospitals will not provide them treatment, they cannot get a job, marry or move around freely. They live as if they were invisible, and when stateless people die, many authorities will not even issue a death certificate - as if they had never existed.

When it is present on a large scale, statelessness can also fuel displacement and instability. But perhaps even more importantly, denying people a nationality is a missed opportunity for countries on the way to development and prosperity. Ensuring that everyone can enjoy their right to a nationality will allow societies to draw on the energy and talents of hundreds of thousands of people who today, legally speaking, do not exist.

For all of these reasons, UNHCR has recently launched a global campaign to end statelessness within the next ten years. There is a lot of positive international momentum now which makes this an ambitious but possible goal, and I count on the strong support of the African Union and its Member States to help us achieve it.

UNHCR works very closely with African governments - in the exercise of its legal mandate to ensure refugee protection, and within the inter-agency cluster approach, supporting the protection of people who have been forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries. This partnership with African States benefits from Africa's exceptionally strong regional legal frameworks for protection.

The OAU Convention of 1969 set the cornerstone for refugee protection in Africa, grown from this continent's long-standing tradition of solidarity with people uprooted by conflict. The Convention solidified that commitment, and millions of people have found sanctuary in the 45 years since its adoption. From the wars of independence to the refugee crises of today, countries and communities across the continent kept their borders open to refugees and shared what they had with new arrivals even when they themselves were struggling to make ends meet.

Forty years after the OAU Convention's fundamental contribution to the international refugee protection regime, the African Union adopted another ground-breaking treaty: the Kampala Convention on internally displaced persons. With this, Africa became the first region in the world to have a legally binding instrument on the protection of people displaced within their own countries. 39 States have signed this landmark instrument since then, and several are in the process of developing national laws and policies based on the Convention.

Their commitment to protection has long guided African States in the development of high-quality regional legal frameworks. And following this spirit, I am confident that African Union Member States will also extend this same commitment to the protection of the right to nationality and the fight against statelessness.

African countries have already taken significant steps in this regard, including 13 accessions to the two Statelessness Conventions in just over three years. UNHCR is working closely with many African governments to identify stateless populations and include safeguards in citizenship laws that would ensure no child is born without a nationality. Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal have made important changes to their nationality laws to prevent and reduce statelessness, and we will have the great honor to listen to His Excellency President Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire in a few minutes.

The study launched here today now presents a new opportunity to continue in this direction. The adoption of a Protocol on Nationality to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights would not only be a signal of the African Union's continued strong protection commitment and an important legal instrument to further strengthen its body of laws. It would also help to improve the lives of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people on this continent.

Let me add one word on the empowerment of women, which is the overall theme of this AU Summit. One of the main causes of statelessness today is discrimination against women when it comes to the passing on of nationality. In over two dozen countries in the world, including 10 African Union Member States, women still cannot pass their nationality to their children the same way as men, which can create new generations of suffering and despair. A regional protocol on nationality would set an important standard to help eradicate injustices like this, and to end statelessness, on the African continent. I am certain that, with the AU's strong leadership in protection, this is a goal that can be achieved, and we look forward to supporting the Union and its member states in this important endeavor.

But if you allow me a more general remark, beyond the immediate focus of my mandate - of course the concept of "belonging" contains much more than could be written down in a legal text. And in Africa's history, as all of you know better than me, the fact of belonging to a nation has never been limited to a discussion of identity documents. What is needed, ultimately, is the political will to build tolerance and acceptance for everyone, and to create the social and human space in a society that will allow all of its members to be recognized, to contribute, and yes, to belong. This is very much in line with the best of African culture and tradition. The role of civil society in this process is of course crucial, and needs to be supported.

Africa has proven many times that it is able to find creative solutions to some of its very complex problems. I have no doubt that it can do so again.

Thank you very much.