European Court Strengthens Protections against Statelessness in Slovenia Ruling

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative welcomed a ruling today from the European Court of Human Rights that ordered Slovenia to compensate thousands of people who were “erased” from the list of permanent residents, after the country’s separation from Yugoslavia two decades ago.

In Kuric and Others v. Slovenia, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights upheld a 2010 ruling by a lower trial chamber that Slovenia had unlawfully deprived many former Yugoslav citizens of their legal status in the aftermath of succession. The Grand Chamber’s judgment [pdf]  found that this disproportionately affected Roma and other minorities, left many stateless and made it impossible to maintain meaningful family and community ties, in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Grand Chamber also went beyond the earlier ruling, by finding that Slovenia had breached Article 14 of the convention, which outlaws discrimination, on the grounds that it had treated its former Yugoslav nationals differently from other resident aliens on its territory. The Court also held that the Slovenian government should set up a compensation scheme for those affected within one year.

The case, brought in 2006 by 11 long-term residents of Slovenia, stems from the government’s 1992 decision to “erase” from the civil registry the names of over 18,000 people who were citizens of the former Yugoslavia residing in Slovenia, a constituent part of the then Yugoslav federation. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of an independent Slovenia, the new state had adopted laws allowing residents to apply for Slovene citizenship, but the policy was poorly publicized and thousands of people either missed the deadline or found their applications rejected.

Since then, these erased citizens have been forced to the margins of society. They have been evicted, denied social services including health care and schooling, and prevented from traveling or working—even though most had lived in Slovenia for decades.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “This decision should enable thousands of the “erased” to finally receive legal recognition. More broadly, the judgment represents an important milestone in strengthening international norms against statelessness.”

The Open Society Justice Initiative submitted a third-party intervention in the case (formerly called Makuc v. Slovenia), focusing on arbitrary deprivation of citizenship as a violation of the right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Justice Initiative also argued that the denial of citizenship in this case reflected discrimination based on ethnic and national origin, noting that many of those affected were Roma or from other ethnic minorities.

This judgment, from Europe’s highest human rights court, is particularly important because it references international legal standards to prevent statelessness, noting that denial of legal status is especially problematic if it leaves an individual stateless.

The court also interprets the right to private life broadly, recognizing the importance of longstanding the social ties residents have with their communities. Although there is no right to citizenship under the European Convention, the right to private life, understood in this way, may prevent the denial of citizenship to people who would otherwise be stateless.

Given this precedent, immigration and citizenship policies could be challenged under the European Convention if longstanding family and community ties are under threat—even if countries have not ratified international treaties on statelessness.