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Regional Ministerial-level Conference on Statelessness in West Africa. Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Abidjan, 25 February 2015

Speeches and statements

Regional Ministerial-level Conference on Statelessness in West Africa. Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Abidjan, 25 February 2015

25 February 2015

Mr. President,

Honorable Ministers,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by expressing my thanks to the Government of Côte d'Ivoire for hosting this landmark conference, the first of its kind in Africa. In recent years, Côte d'Ivoire has shown extraordinary commitment to the fight against statelessness, setting an example not only for this region and this continent, but also for the world. I am very grateful to His Excellency President Alassane Ouattara for his leadership - and his strong voice - on this issue.

Having a nationality is something most people take for granted - but to those who do not have one, or who cannot prove it, this often sentences them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair. This problem affects at least 10 million people worldwide. And, what's worse, every ten minutes, somewhere in the world, another child is born stateless.

Imagine waking up tomorrow without a passport, without an ID card or credit card, without a driver's license - no way of proving who you are. Imagine you cannot send your children to school, nor get treatment in a hospital. You would find it very difficult to get a formal job, to travel, to buy land, and to participate in the everyday life of your community. Legally speaking, you would be invisible, and when you die, your family would not even get a death certificate - just as if you had never existed.

There is increased awareness of the importance of the right to nationality throughout Africa, most recently with the launch of a key study by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights at the AU Summit last month.

The ECOWAS region plays a pioneering role in this regard. No other African sub-region has this many States Parties to the two UN Statelessness Conventions, including seven countries who acceded in the last four years. West African States made the largest number of pledges related to nationality and citizenship at the 2011 Ministerial meeting in Geneva. Since then, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal have already taken important measures to reform their nationality laws.

This strong engagement of West African countries is a signal of the increasing recognition of the extent of the problem in the region. While statistical data is available on 700,000 stateless persons in Côte d'Ivoire, we know that the real number is significantly higher in the region. The identification of populations at risk of statelessness is therefore one of the top priorities on which, I hope, States will act.

There are many causes for statelessness in West Africa, many of them related to a lack of legal safeguards in legislation and various administrative obstacles to acquiring proof of nationality. Several citizenship laws do not yet provide the right for women to pass on their nationality to their children, or restrict access to nationality on the basis of race or ethnicity. Another fundamental risk of statelessness is related to civil registration, notably the high number of children born in the region who do not have birth certificates.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

West Africa has always been a region on the move, a region of migration and a host to displaced populations. As it is also mandated to protect refugees, UNHCR is a privileged witness to this tradition of hospitality. There is frequently a link between forced displacement and statelessness, as refugee populations in protracted situations often lack documents attesting to their nationality and, when their exile continues for a prolonged period, it becomes all the more difficult to prove. When their refugee status ceases, they are left without the protection of their country of origin, as they cannot establish their nationality.

In a region as profoundly marked by human mobility as this one, both historically and at present, protecting populations from becoming stateless is of crucial importance. The reform of nationality laws and the establishment of sufficient legal guarantees to ensure all children have a right to a nationality at birth, are essential in ensuring the full realization of the values and principles that define the ECOWAS community.

The right to a nationality is often described as "the right to have rights". It is a critical issue for human security and that of States, in particular at a time when these very States - including here in the region - are legitimately concerned about protecting their citizens from growing security threats. When it is present on a large scale, statelessness can even fuel conflict and displacement.

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 belong will allow societies to draw on the energy and talents of hundreds of thousands of people who today are marginalized and excluded.

For all of these reasons, UNHCR has recently launched a global campaign to end statelessness within the next ten years, with the endorsement of the UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General. There is a lot of positive international momentum now which makes this ambitious goal possible, and I count on the strong support of ECOWAS Member States to help us achieve it. UNHCR's Global Action Plan to End Statelessness is a central part of the campaign, and a tool for States in this effort. I wish to congratulate Benin, the first country in Africa and one of the first countries in the world to have adopted a national plan of action. Similar efforts are underway in Mali, the Gambia and Liberia, and UNHCR looks forward to supporting these initiatives.

At the level of Africa as a whole, one key step in this campaign would be the adoption of a Protocol on Nationality to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. I very much hope that ECOWAS Member States will support the African Commission in its efforts in this respect. Such a protocol would again highlight the long-standing African tradition of solidarity that already underpins the African Union's strong legal framework on protection, as exemplified by the OAU Refugee Convention of 1969 and the Kampala Convention on internally displaced people, both of which broke new ground in the advancement of the international protection regime.

I would be remiss not to remark upon the central role of partnership in the fight against statelessness. The issue of statelessness poses a cross-disciplinary challenge, the resolution of which requires concerted efforts by all stakeholders. The participation of so many different actors in this first regional conference today is a testament to the mobilization of the entire region, working together to achieve this goal. I would like to thank IOM and our sister agencies in the United Nations system, which have supported us in organizing this conference. I welcome the presence of national human rights commissions, academics and civil society, which all have an essential role to play in this regional campaign to eradicate statelessness.

West Africa is known throughout the world for the great hospitality of its people. We will never forget the decision to offer, in accordance with the ECOWAS principle of freedom of movement, local integration to thousands of former refugees who fled from the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Today, the region's commitment to ending statelessness reflects the best of that tradition. It recognizes that, ultimately, the concept of "belonging" goes beyond legal texts and identity documents, and requires political will to build tolerance and acceptance, and the social and human space for all members of society to be recognized, to contribute, and yes, to belong.

The ECOWAS region has already proven many times its ability and courage to embrace reforms, which is key to its strength and advancement as a community of States. I have no doubt that - as with so many other issues - West Africa will show the leadership and vision that is required to move decisively towards the goal of resolving statelessness. For my part, I can assure you that UNHCR will do whatever we can to support you in this crucial effort.

Thank you very much.