Africa’s Human Rights Court Strengthens Protections for the Right to Nationality

NEW YORK—The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has taken a significant step to strengthen the right to nationality, in a case brought by a Tanzanian man who found himself forced to live in the no-man’s land between the borders of Tanzania and Kenya because of a citizenship dispute.

The court’s binding, unanimous decision [PDF] in Anudo v. United Republic of Tanzania, made public on March 22, declares that states cannot arbitrarily deny citizenship with retroactive effect. It cites the principle that “a state cannot turn a citizen into a foreigner for the sole purpose of expelling him.”

The case was brought before the court in May 2015 by Anudo Ochieng Anudo, who until 2012 had lived his entire life as a citizen of Tanzania where he was born, holding both a birth certificate and a passport. However, after he applied for a marriage license, local officials launched an investigation into his citizenship status, and subsequently deported him into neighboring Kenya. The Kenyan authorities then concluded he had no right to remain there, and pushed him back across the border. As a result, Anudo ended up stranded between the two country’s border posts.

Anudo was represented before the court by Asylum Access, an international human rights group. He argued that the Tanzanian Constitution and international law guaranteed his right to citizenship. The Justice Initiative filed an expert opinion on relevant international legal standards, noting that arbitrary denial of nationality frequently arises from weaknesses in civil registration and identification systems, coupled with a lack of procedural safeguards.

The ACHPR relied on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 15(2) to make its decision, which prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of nationality. In the court’s opinion, this covers situations where states deny citizenship arbitrarily with retroactive effect. 

The ruling establishes that states bear the burden of proof to show that an individual is not a citizen, when it is the state itself that makes such a claim based on the integrity (or not) of its own official state-issued identity documents, such as birth certificates and national identity cards.

The court also ruled that Tanzanian authorities did not observe appropriate procedural safeguards prior to withdrawing Anudo’s nationality and expelling him, including access to a fair hearing before a court or independent body, access to judicial review, and application of the proportionality principle.

Laura Bingham, a senior legal officer at the Justice Initiative said, “The African Court’s bold decision will help advocates and governments seeking to guarantee respect for the right to nationality in practice. Anudo’s case exposes the institutional weaknesses, discrimination, and flaws in legal frameworks on the right to nationality. It is simply not acceptable to ask individuals to prove that they belong, at the state’s whim, or face dire consequences.”

The African Court ordered Tanzania to amend its legislation to allow for judicial process for nationality disputes and expulsion orders. Tanzania must also take all necessary steps to restore Anudo’s rights. The court reserved its ruling on further reparations.

The Justice Initiative has been working for over a decade to defend the right to nationality and vindicate the rights of stateless people around the world. This includes engaging in litigation, and providing legal support for community-based legal outreach that helps people negotiate the process of attaining proper identity documentation.