Interview with Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner – Protection

© UNHCR/Susan Hopper

9 July 2021

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, we asked UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, why the 1961 Convention is still relevant today.

Why is it so important for States to accede to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness?

While the grant of nationality is of course a classically sovereign prerogative of the nation State and States have discretion to provide nationality on different grounds, the 1961 Convention provides a number of safeguards to prevent individuals from falling through the cracks. The 1961 Convention was negotiated at a time when the international community was very aware of circumstances linked to conflict, displacement, and shifting borders that could lead to statelessness. But the safeguards of the Convention remain relevant to this day. Without these, a child may end up stateless in case the country in which he or she was born does not grant nationality based on birth on the territory and the law of the State of the parents’ nationality does not permit them to confer their nationality by descent. In this context, the 1961 Convention provides a safeguard so that children acquire the nationality of the country in which they were born if they would otherwise be left stateless. The Convention also generally prevents people from being deprived of their nationality where doing so would leave them stateless. Complying with this rule would help States to avoid potential situations of mass statelessness, which we unfortunately continue to see occurring in certain parts of the world today. Fortunately given the high rate of accessions to the 1961 Convention (we’ve had 15 since the #IBelong Campaign was launched in 2014), we can say as we approach the 60th anniversary that States clearly see and value its continued relevance.

One of the four pillars of UNHCR’s work on statelessness is prevention. How has the #IBelong Campaign and the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness by 2024 helped accelerate prevention efforts?

Well the prevention aspect of UNHCR’s statelessness mandate is unique and distinguishes it from its mandate to protect refugees. It was given to us because statelessness is preventable, and we’ve put forward the Campaign and the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness (GAP) to try to accelerate prevention and reduction efforts. Prevention is really key as it is much easier to prevent statelessness than trying to address it once it has occurred. Since the launch of the Campaign, we have seen impressive steps taken by States like Albania, Armenia, Cuba, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg and Tajikistan to ensure that no child born on their territory is left stateless. Removal of gender discrimination from nationality laws, which is of course also critical to preventing statelessness, is an area which has also seen some positive developments but where a lot more could be done. Iran, for example, recently passed laws that make it easier for a mother to pass on her nationality to her child, and this is a very welcome development. We would like to see all 25 countries which retain legislative provisions that discriminate against women in their ability to confer nationality to their children address these by the end of the #IBelong Campaign. Another important area of work to prevent statelessness is universal birth registration, something that virtually all countries and everyone can agree on. Birth registration records where a child was born and who their parents are – elements which are vital to establishing an entitlement to nationality. UNHCR is supporting many countries to improve their systems so that those who would be left at risk of statelessness as a result of not having important legal identity document such as a birth certificate, are able to access one. This work also ties into the Sustainable Development Goals, which call on States to ensure legal identity, including birth registration, and the overarching ambition of leaving no one behind. I hope we will continue to see important achievements in this regard as States implement recent pledges and commitments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of stateless persons. Could you say something about the importance of the 1961 Convention and statelessness prevention generally in this context?

One thing that COVID has demonstrated is that a pandemic does not respect your legal status – nationals and those without any nationality have all been affected. People in every country and every social class have been affected. However, people who were on the move, people fleeing violence, people who are refugees or asylum seekers and stateless people have been left particularly vulnerable. In many countries, healthcare and access to vaccines is restricted to nationals, and those with proof of their identity. You can easily imagine what it is like for somebody who does not have documentation and who is stateless being denied access to a vaccine. The lack of proof of identity is a very serious problem globally. The World Bank has estimated that over a billion people don’t have documentation to prove who they are. Of course, not all of those people are stateless, but some are. The important point here is that stateless people risk being excluded from national immunization plans regardless of whether their age, health status or role in society would otherwise place them in a priority group. To draw attention to this, UNHCR has just issued a paper on the impact of COVID-19 on stateless populations, which has examples of good practices and policy recommendations that we hope will make a difference. And of course preventing statelessness by implementing the provisions of the 1961 Convention offers a critical and lasting way to remove the risk of statelessness and precarity that comes with being without a nationality in the context of a global emergency like a pandemic.

How will UNHCR accelerate efforts to resolve statelessness and boost accessions to the 1961 Convention in the remaining years of the #IBelong Campaign

The remaining three years of the #IBelong Campaign give UNHCR, together with the international community, a defined period in which to really rally our collective efforts to address statelessness. Within UNHCR, we are doing our best to bolster our advocacy, to increase budget allocations, and to appoint dedicated staff to statelessness. We know from our experience in places as diverse as Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand and Malaysia, these are the ingredients that lead to the greatest possibility of success as they set the scene for effectively persuading a government to take the steps necessary to reform its laws, implement the new legislation, and ensure that communities can access nationality and the documentation to prove it. This is our strategy: work with local communities to try to build an interest in preventing and resolving stateless; identify who is stateless; and partner with allies in government, international organizations like the Inter-Parliamentary Union, civil society and supporters and influencers like Cate Blanchett to advocate for change. To increase accessions to both the 1961 Convention and its sister Convention, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, we will be following up with the States that delivered pledges at the 2019 High Level Segment on Statelessness to accede to one or both of these. We will also be encouraging States that are already party to advocate with other States, as that peer[1]to-peer dialogue is so important. Also, we will be having a treaty event in September to welcome all those that have recently joined the 1961 Convention. And we will have other events to raise awareness. But the key thing I think will be increased resources and staff to work on these issues and stepped up advocacy as we enter the final stretch now.


UNHCR’s Campaign to end Statelessness in Ten Years
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