UNHCR to push for wider ratification of Refugee and Statelessness Conventions

UNHCR today launched a global campaign to encourage states to ratify the key international agreements on refugees and stateless persons by the year 2000, when UNHCR will commemorate its 50th anniversary.

The 1951 Refugee Convention is the cornerstone of refugee protection worldwide. The Convention and its 1967 Protocol define the status of the refugees under international law. The 1954 Convention on stateless persons and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness are designed to prevent people from being deprived of a nationality.

"This global promotional effort will be a litmus test of solidarity and international co-operation," said Dennis McNamara, UNHCR's top refugee protection official. He was addressing the 49th annual meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee, the refugee organization's governing body. McNamara called on members of UNHCR's Executive Committee which have not yet ratified these treaties to do so and "lead by example."

The heart of the 1951 Refugee Convention is the obligation of states to respect the principle of "non-refoulement" (Article 33) - that is, to refrain from sending refugees back to a country or territory where their lives or liberty would be at risk.

To date, 136 countries have ratified the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, but this figure is low compared to the number of states which have signed other human rights instruments. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has 192 signatories. Ratifications of the Refugee Convention are also geographically unbalanced, with relatively few from countries in Asia and in the Middle East.

The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is designed to help people who risk becoming stateless, for instance when states break up or borders are re-drawn. Recent examples include the Roma living in Czech Republic or the Tatars returning to Ukraine's Crimean peninsula from forced exile in central Asia.

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness prohibits states from refusing to recognize the citizenship of people linked to the country through birth, descent or residency.

Statelessness effectively bars people from returning to their own countries and enjoying the rights of citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and "no-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality".

To date, only 45 states have ratified the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and just 19 states the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.