NEW YORK —The Open Society Justice Initiative is urging members of the upper house of the British parliament to heed warnings over a government proposal that would allow British citizens to be made stateless, undermining an important principle of international law.
Clause 64 of the Immigration Bill will be debated by the House of Lords on Monday, April 7. This measure would enable the government to strip citizenship from individuals who have acquired British citizenship by naturalization, and then acted with serious prejudice to the vital interests of the UK, even in cases where this would leave the individual stateless.
When debated in parliament in March, retired Supreme Court judge Lord Brown called the proposal ‘a shocking example to other states, which ordinarily are readier than we are to make such a radical departure from the consensus as to proper international human rights conduct.’
He reminded members of the upper house that the Supreme Court had referred to “The evil of statelessness” and spoke of its “terrible practical consequences”.
Current UK law bars the Home Secretary from making people stateless, except where British citizenship was obtained by misrepresentation or fraud.
The Justice Initiative believes that approval for Clause 64 will signal to other countries that making people stateless is acceptable to the international community. This would undermine the principles of the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which the UK is a party.
Clause 64 may also put the UK in breach of international law. When it joined the 1961 Convention, the UK took advantage of an exception for a country’s existing laws on deprivation of citizenship. In 2002 the UK Parliament repealed these laws, supported by Members of Parliament of all the leading parties. It is doubtful that the Convention would allow a state to go back on such a decision and reintroduce the old laws.
The proposal faces strong opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as from non-party peers. On Monday, the Labour opposition will join with Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers to call for the proposal to be referred to a committee to examine its consequences,
Lord Deben, a former minister with the Conservative Party, said of the UK: “We have been the signatory to and the driver of much of the international law that seeks to reduce statelessness to its minimum. I fear that in this particular case, we may, for very good reasons—in seeking to close loopholes and make neat what is essentially a not very neat kind of law—do something which will do great injustice to a very small number of people. However, it is none the less injustice if it affects but one.”
Lord Pannick, a leading human rights lawyer who acted for the government in many cases, challenged the claim that the change would help protect national security. British citizens made stateless could not be sent to other states and could be deported back to Britain if abroad. He called the proposal ‘so fundamentally flawed, so in breach of international law and so damaging in its practical consequences for the security of this country that it should be removed from the bill.’
The Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Macdonald, called statelessness “a bleak, hopeless status, or rather a complete lack of status, that the British government should have no role in encouraging.”
Update: On Monday April 7, the House of Lords voted by 242 votes to 180 to reject Clause 64, and to establish a committee to review the proposed change in more detail.