Citizenship deprivation and statelessness are very much back in fashion. States increasingly resort to such measures to deal with those returning from foreign wars, or as a sanction for those otherwise deemed undesirable and unwanted – it must certainly seem easier than living up to their obligations actually to combat terrorist activities or war crimes or crimes against humanity (see here).
States are also ‘cracking down’ on citizenship claims and on the rights of refugees and migrants rights in orchestrated, if often chaotic, policies and practices seemingly designed to cultivate discrimination and division in society, often in the hope of some electoral advantage. Former UK Home Secretary, Theresa May’s ‘really hostile environment’ had such objectives (see here), while India’s current focus on minorities conveniently identified by reference to religion (see here and here and here), is not so very far removed from Myanmar’s programme of violence and persecution against the Rohingya it claims to be stateless (see here).
To any government which, thanks to the idle musings of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (see here), argues that citizenship is a privilege, not a right, one may as easily answer the contrary, for many a government these days seems bent on trashing precisely those responsibilities which are its raison d’être.
On the international plane, however, the State does have responsibilities with regard to its citizens. Among others, the State must ensure that they do not violate human rights and that they do not harm other States, whether through cross-border pollution, transnational criminal activities, or even by reason of their having to seek asylum from persecution, conflict or the risk of other serious harm. What is more, these responsibilities also apply after the fact, obliging States to do what may be required, for example, through prosecution and punishment, to uphold the integrity and efficacy of internationally agreed measures – to punish torturers, or those who have engaged in internationally proscribed terrorist activities; in short, to recognize and accept responsibility for those who have been formed among us, no matter how wrong the path subsequently chosen.
When citizenship enters the picture, does international law have much to say? The ‘old’ view that everyone should have a nationality, and only one nationality, has long since had to yield to the realities of a globalised world. What’s more, it has so far proved impossible to get States formally to accept constraints on their sovereign competence in nationality matters, even though what a States does in relation to nationality is entitled to recognition by others only so far as it is consistent with international law. And international law does have something to say, recognizing the link between people and territory, between the individual and their own country, between the competence to expel and the duty to admit.