The government of Myanmar has come under fire this month following Aung San Suu Kyi’s rebuke of U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel’s reference to the Rohingya, the estimated one million stateless Muslim inhabitants of Myanmar’s Western Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government refuses to fully confront the issue of the Rohingya, who have been denied equal access to citizenship since the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The denial of citizenship has compounded human rights abuses, rising to the crime of genocide, according to an October study by Fortify Rights. The persecution of the Rohingya has deservedly captured increasing international attention in recent years, although greater awareness and mobilization is needed. The plight of statelessness remains a universal challenge.
Around the world, there are an estimated 15 million stateless people. According to the UNHCR, somewhere a stateless child is born every 10 minutes and within the countries hosting the 20 largest stateless populations some 70,000 stateless children are born every year. In 2014, the UNHCR announced its Campaign to end Statelessness in ten years. The same year, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion reported that more people in Asia and the Pacific are affected by statelessness than in any other region of the world. How ASEAN addresses this challenge will be key to achieving the UN’s objective of eradicating statelessness by 2024.
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Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, calls citizenship the right to have rights, a sentiment which entered jurisprudence in 1958 through U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who wrote that the denial of citizenship is the denial of all claims to protection from any nation.
Modern notions of nationality emerged following World War I through a series of League of Nations treaties, which granted States total freedom to determine how individuals obtained or lost nationality. Such absolutism of State sovereignty changed following World War II with the realization of the degree of harm caused by discriminatory nationality laws, such as the Nuremburg Laws. This realization gave rise to Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, granting everyone the right to nationality.
Also in 1948, the United Nations commissioned the Study on Statelessness, released a year later. The Study affirmed that eradicating statelessness requires that, “Every child must receive a nationality at birth” and “No person throughout his life should lose his nationality until he has acquired a new one.”
The Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, adopted in 1954, provides the legal definition of statelessness as “a person who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law.” The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness followed with more guidance. However, both Conventions remain poorly ratified with only 86 and 65 state parties respectively. The Philippines is the only ASEAN country to have ratified the 1954 Convention.
The right to nationality was further codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore are not State parties. On the other hand, all ASEAN member states are parties to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Together they prohibit gender discrimination in matters of nationality, require immediate birth registration, and place an obligation on states to respect the right of the child to preserve identity and nationality.
Statelessness in ASEAN
The 2009 ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human rights (AICHR) and 2010 ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) are both mandated with developing strategies for the promotion and protection of human rights. ACWC is furthermore empowered “to advocate on behalf of women and children, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, and encourage ASEAN member states to improve their situation” and “to propose and promote appropriate measures…for the prevention and elimination of all forms of violation of the rights of women and children.”
Stateless people are indisputably among the most vulnerable and marginalized and international norms make explicit reference to women and children’s equal right to nationality. As such, AICHR and ACWC appear to have a mandated obligation to play a leading role in the elimination of statelessness in ASEAN, especially in ensuring birth registration and the elimination of gender discrimination in nationality laws.
One of the challenges to a regional approach is the lack of a unified definition of statelessness in domestic laws. The 1954 Convention provides the legal definition but the failure to ratify or implement in domestic laws provides countries with maneuverability. The Philippines offers the best example, having enacted the Convention and definition into domestic law in 2012. Vietnam and Laos provide a definition for stateless persons but do not go as far as the Philippines in implementing protections. The refusal to implement the accepted international definition in Myanmar, for example, has contributed to the State narrative that Rohingya do not qualify for protection as stateless because they are migrants from Bangladesh.
Birth registration, a human right vital for protecting against stateless, is not equally guaranteed throughout ASEAN. Cambodia provides a best practice in birth registration campaigning. In 2000, only around 5 percent of Cambodian births were registered. The Ministry of Interior, with support from UNICEF and others, initiated a pilot program involving more than 13,000 people who had received specialized training in birth registration. Within the first ten months of the program over 7 million adults and children were registered. Subsequently birth certificates were issued free of charge within 30 days of birth and only a small fee was incurred for late registration.
However, the 1996 Nationality Law offers no definition for statelessness and ambiguity in language implies that Khmer ethnicity may be a prerequisite for citizenship. Despite birth registration campaigning, several thousand stateless people remain in Cambodia.
Prohibitive costs for birth registration, requirements for documents that are sometimes unavailable or nonexistent, and associated costs of transportation or hospital fees, contribute to statelessness as well. Such obstacles often remain even after well-meaning policies have been adopted.
In Thailand, the 2005 National Strategy on Administration of Legal Status and Rights of Persons and 2008 changes in the Nationality Law ostensibly provided undocumented and migrant children, including stateless children, the right to attend primary and elementary school. Unfortunately, transportation or uniform costs continue to make education prohibitively expensive. Similarly, according to Children of the Forest, a child protection organization that works with stateless children and trafficking victims at the Thai-Myanmar border, among the common ways that children there become stateless is that parents will leave the hospital before registration because they couldn’t afford hospital services. Failure to register at the time of birth significantly increases the burden of registration at a later date. In 2015, the Thai government reported that over 18,000 previously stateless people had been given Thai nationality over the preceding three years. However, concerns over remaining obstacles in Thailand and elsewhere remain.
Gender discrimination in nationality laws is a significant contributor to statelessness. In Malaysia, although men and women confer nationality equally, children of Malaysian mothers born abroad only obtain citizenship at the discretion of the Malaysian Government. Mothers in Brunei have no right to pass nationality to their children. In a positive move, Singapore, in 2004, and Indonesia, in 2006, amended their nationality laws to permit mothers to pass citizenship to their children.
Three Approaches for the Elimination of Statelessness
The UNHCR acknowledges that some of the safeguards within the 1961 Convention have been enacted by ASEAN Member States. Still, accession to the two Conventions would provide the clearest framework for adapting national laws and policies to identifying, protecting, and eradicating statelessness within ASEAN. Although this is unlikely any time soon, there are three arguably more achievable measures that would strengthen the efforts to eradicate statelessness: empowering regional human rights bodies; emphasizing birth registration; and eliminating gender discriminatory nationality laws.
ASEAN created and empowered the AICHR and ACWC with a relatively robust mandate but they suffer from the lack of independence and weak enforcement capabilities. ASEAN’s Commitment to human rights, as expressed through the 2004 Vientiane Action Program and subsequent treaties, calls for strengthening such mechanisms.
This includes encouraging and working with States to withdraw reservations and amend laws that violate the right to nationality and birth registration, and localizing the legal definition of statelessness.
While civil society organizations are sometimes invited to regional consultations, the AICHR and ACWC remain under government authority. State representatives are largely coordinated by respective ministries of foreign affairs and not by national human rights institutions. Of course, national human rights institutions are not necessarily independent, as demonstrated in Myanmar and Thailand. However, AICHR and ACWC representatives from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines have attempted to work around certain political obstacles by involving civil society and individual human rights defenders in the drafting or evaluation process, at times, and should be encouraged to do more so in terms of nationality issues.
Empowering regional human rights bodies to take a more active role in the identification and elimination of statelessness may also require the improvement of complaints mechanisms. Specifically, regional human rights bodies with a mandate over CEDAW and CRC should have specialized training and procedures for hearing complaints of arbitrary denaturalization, denial of nationality at birth or obstacles to birth registration.
The establishment of a regional human rights court would provide another forum for investigating and prosecuting the widespread or systematic arbitrary denial of nationality or grave human rights violations arising from the denial of nationality.
Registration at birth is of paramount importance. The ACWC mandate implies a role for the organization in birth registration campaigning and, in cooperation with child protection and gender experts, it should arguably take a more active role in harmonizing birth registration laws and advising campaigns throughout the region.
Drawing from Cambodia, efforts at raising awareness through television and radio should be maintained while other channels should be investigated and utilized. Public education during popular holidays would likely reach larger audiences. Because of challenges of birth registration campaigns reaching hill tribes or remote regions of Thailand, for example, efforts should be made to identify new strategies for locations or times of greatest community congregation. Registration campaigners should also concentrate around markets, where women may be likely to congregate. Campaigning should be increased around holidays when people from more remote areas are most likely to be present or when weather is more amenable to travel.
In order to address financial and administrative obstacles, a regional funding mechanism could be piloted to offset the costs of birth registration, including associated transportation costs. A period should be designated when birth registration is free, and after that waivers should be made available for the extremely poor.
There is also a role for innovative technology. Digital birth registration programs point to innovation in improving registration and archiving records.
A robust regional investigation into gender-based discrimination in nationality laws is a fundamental component of addressing statelessness. A widespread gender-based assessment of equal access to nationality should be conducted throughout ASEAN. Member states, especially Singapore and Indonesia, should work with Malaysia and Brunei to amend their Nationality Laws to abolish gender discrimination. Based on their mandates, this presents a strong opening for AICHR and ACWC involvement.
Admittedly there remain serious social and political obstacles to eradicating statelessness. Such obstacles have been reproduced through decades of structural violence and historical narratives of exclusion. The involvement of United Nations experts or foreign governments is not always greeted with fanfare. But ASEAN has made specific commitments and empowered regional bodies with a mandate to promote and protect human rights. Identifying and eradicating statelessness in ASEAN cannot be seen as a foreign imposition, as the government of Myanmar claims, but as an obligation inherent in the ASEAN Charter and within the mandate of regional bodies for the full realization of human rights for all.
Michael Caster is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Previously he worked as a human rights advocate and civil society consultant based in East Asia.