The following opinion piece by James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune.
While international law has narrowed the prerogatives of sovereign states, one field has remained stubbornly apart: the power to determine who is—and is not—a citizen. In theory, there are three main routes to citizenship: birth on the territory (as in the United States), parental lineage (as in many continental European countries), or naturalization.
In practice, more people are now falling through the cracks. In Europe, citizenship has grown more contested with the collapse of multinational states following the end of Communism. In Africa, the spread of formal democracy in the 1990s made it matter who could vote; the power to grant, withhold or deny citizenship became a weapon. In Asia and the Middle East, governments have increasingly used citizenship status to marginalize women and unpopular ethnic minorities.
As a result, the numbers of stateless people—who lack, or cannot effectively establish, citizenship in any country—have swelled beyond ten million. Some have joined the surging migration flows of globalization. Others have never left the country of their birth.
Given the myriad problems afflicting the planet, why should citizenship command attention?
Statelessness is a prelude to gross human rights abuse. Nazi Germany established the template by stripping Jews of citizenship before annihilating them. Modern, if less extreme, examples abound.
Persons at risk of statelessness are also a source of armed conflict and geopolitical instability. War in Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa is linked to the manipulation of citizenship for political ends. Statelessness is something we can remedy.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must help resolve situations of protracted statelessness, and make clear that citizenship is a fundamental right that may not be denied arbitrarily, for discriminatory reasons, or where it results in statelessness. The U.S. should lead by ratifying the two conventions against statelessness, and earmarking funding for UN agencies to combat it. Civil society groups should make statelessness a priority. To build a global campaign aimed at ending statelessness, we must forge alliances across traditional lines of identity.