Addressing Statelessness Worldwide: Towards a More Concerted Response - Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Good morning. First of all, I would like to thank the State Department and specifically the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration for its support to UNHCR's efforts to fulfil our statelessness mandate. Assistant Secretary of State Ms. Ellen Sauerbrey is a strong supporter of the Office and I would like to pay tribute to her work through Mr. Samuel Witten, representing BPRM here today.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which holds that everyone has a right to a nationality (Article 15), we must point out that millions of individuals around the world are still deprived of this basic right.
The numbers are approximate, but they do give a sense of the staggering scale of the problem. Today, an estimated 15 million people - the entire population of a medium-size country - are stateless. The number is less surprising, however, when one considers the multiple roads that lead to statelessness. Some are accidental, some intended.
There are children who have no nationality because their mothers do not have the right to transmit theirs. They cannot acquire a nationality from their father because he is unknown, stateless himself, or has abandoned the family. Others are arbitrarily deprived of their nationality as a result of persecution. They may become refugees if they flee or are expelled from their own country.
Some people become stateless as a result of disappearance of States and the creation of new ones, as when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 separate countries. In the future, this group may include victims of climate change. Pacific island states are today slowly sinking beneath the waves and may disappear completely in a few decades' time. If so, all the institutions of a modern nation state - parliament, police, courts, education and healthcare - will disappear along with the sandy beaches and palm trees. The islanders will either have to find a way to remake their vanished state elsewhere, or they will have to find another state to adopt them as citizens. Alternatively, they will be added to the list of the stateless.
Some stateless simply never acquire a nationality as statelessness may be transmitted, like a disease, from generation to generation.
Statelessness has dramatic consequences which can be as basic as the right to a name, the ability to attend school or university, to work legally, to get married, to travel, to own property, to vote or to be elected.
Statelessness has dramatic consequences on the most mundane activities and daily lives of individuals. It can be as basic as the right to a name, the ability to attend school or university, to work legally, to get married, to travel, to own property, to vote or to be elected.... Basically, to live life as a functioning and societal human being.
Of course, statelessness also has a tremendous impact on the cohesion of societies. Governments increasingly recognize that when a significant portion of the population has no formal link to the State, it leads to insecurity.
There are, however, signs of hope. Recently, several countries have taken decisive action to address statelessness. Let me cite a few recent success stories.
In Nepal, as part of the peace process and preparation for elections, 2.6 million people were issued with citizenship certificates earlier this year during a four-month documentation campaign. In Bangladesh, the Government recently recommended granting nationality to the majority of the Urdu-speaking population there, ending uncertainty about the status of the group that dates back to the country's independence in 1971. And in Vietnam, UNHCR is working with the Government on the naturalization of former Cambodian refugees who are now stateless.
Since statelessness is frequently a bureaucratic Catch-22, the best way of dealing with it is often to make sure it does not happen in the first place. Many times, all that is needed is one or two simple pieces of legislation.
By ensuring that individuals acquire nationality through birth on the territory, for example, some regions like the Americas have almost totally avoided statelessness. The OAS Universal Birth registration is already applied in most of the region and could very usefully be adopted in other areas. Chile and Brazil have both recently revised their constitutions, enabling children born outside of their territories to acquire nationality and providing additional safeguards to avoid statelessness. And in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Indonesia, civil society campaigns and a progressive approach by lawmakers have led to recent reforms allowing women to transmit nationality to their children.
Lastly, states can help by acceding to the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness. I am happy to say that this club - only 34 members - is becoming less exclusive. The latest State Parties are New Zealand, Rwanda and, just two weeks ago, Brazil.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
UNHCR does not act alone on statelessness. Although the UN General Assembly gave UNHCR the mandate to contribute to the prevention and reduction of statelessness and to protect stateless persons, my Office is fully committed to engage and develop partnerships within the UN and with other key actors, such as regional organizations, in the pursuit of solutions.
Within the United Nations, we are working with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on key issues such as avoiding and redressing arbitrary deprivation, the denial of nationality and ensuring protection for stateless people. With UNICEF, we are collaborating to implement key provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Specifically, assisting States to implement birth registration programmes to ensure all children access to a legal identity. Other relevant partnerships include UNFPA, on population census and documentation through civil registries, and UNDP, with whom we are focusing on the social and economic inclusion of stateless populations through poverty reduction programmes as well as the rule of law.
Civil society also has a critical role to play in addressing statelessness. I would like to thank the partners who are actively promoting responses to statelessness and always encouraging us to do more. Here, as elsewhere with NGOs, we are seeking a true strategic partnership, planning and acting together. I would like to recognize a few in particular - Refugees International, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Plan International - as well as the many national or local NGOs we are engaged with to combat statelessness.
Most importantly, we work with stateless people themselves. Both to prevent and reduce statelessness, our experience has shown that the most successful programmes are the ones which engage concerned individuals in a true dialogue, enabling them to make conscious and informed decisions about their status. Such an approach is the best guarantee that they will be able to enjoy an effective nationality.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Awareness of the many protracted situations of statelessness is a first step. But we must go further, building on the momentum achieved in recent years. And today, there is hope in a number of countries on all continents. I want to mention specifically Syria, Côte d'Ivoire, and Thailand.
UNHCR applauds the nations making efforts to prevent or cure situations of statelessness. We urge others to follow their example and pledge our unstinting aid and support. In some cases, statelessness is not so difficult to resolve. It is primarily a question of technical advice and legislative energy. Other situations are far more complicated, and require above all else strong political will. The UN can help in both cases. But we need your determination and will to succeed.
We must not forget the millions of stateless people whose dreams of nationality will never come to fruition. They also need our help to enjoy basic human rights right now.
We must not forget the millions of stateless people whose dreams of nationality will never come to fruition. They also need our help to enjoy basic human rights right now. I count on your support to make sure that they do not simply fade into anonymity.
I thank you.