'Best interests of the child' as a uniting principle for citizenship

By Laura van Waas · 8 December 2011

When thinking about the Oecumene project, I reflect on what binds us together and what separates us in terms of our experiences of citizenship around the world. In my last blog, I wrote about the shared experience of statelessness, which has regrettably become a truly global case study for exploring how the absence of citizenship affects people. This time, I’d like to share some thoughts on another common or shared experience relating to citizenship, which caught my attention thanks to a recent decision of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. It would seem that, whether we are perusing international legal standards or delving into the domestic citizenship law of any state picked at random, one notion emerges as a uniting principle: the best interests of the child.

Every citizenship law includes provisions that regulate the attribution of a nationality ‘of origin’ or ‘by birth’- i.e. the granting of citizenship to a newborn child, providing that the child is linked to the state in some way. Thus, whether nationality is conferred under a particular law on the basis of parentage, place of birth or a combination of both, all states seem to agree on one thing: children should, in principle, acquire a nationality at birth. This approach is so universal as to go largely unquestionned. It seems simply to make sense to us that a child acquires this part of his or her identity immediately, even if this is bestowed without consultation or regard for the legal consequences that holding of a (particular) nationality may entail for the individual in later life. Only rarely does someone, perhaps a political scientist or a legal philosopher, query whether this is proper [see for instance The birthright lottery, Schacher, 2009]. Admittedly, there will be other motives for states to confer nationality at birth in this manner – not least the need to maintain a body of citizens in order to continue to exist as a state, a population being one of the constituent elements of statehood. Nevertheless, we can already cautiously conclude that this universal and mostly uncontended approach to citizenship also reveals the value that we place on the possession of a nationality. Perhaps this state practice is, in other words, evidence that to have a nationality – even an enforced one – from birth, is in the best interests of the child.

Such a conclusion is reinforced when the we dig deeper and see what importance is given by states, both individually and collectively, to the avoidance of childhood statelessness. I could name no more than one or two citizenship laws that do not encompass at least some form of safeguard to ensure that children do not become or remain stateless. True, many of these safeguards are inadequate, incomplete and often poorly implemented. Yet at a basic level, their very elaboration supports the idea that states see statelessness to be generally incompatible with the best interests of the child. Turning to international law, the principle of the best interests of the child becomes explicit. It is central, for instance, to the Convention on the Rights of the Child [article 3], which asks for the best interests of the child to be ‘a primary consideration […] in all actions concerning children’. As such, this overall principle applies to the enjoyment and therefore the interpretation and application of all rights under the convention, which includes the right to acquire a nationality [article 7]. This verifies the above assertion that states view the enjoyment of citizenship to be in the best interests of the child [see also, for instance, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, articles 1-4].

This brings me to the recent decision of the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which considered the situation of children of Nubian descent in Kenya [issued 22 March 2011]. Throughout the text of this decision, the best interests of the child was a recurring theme, relied upon by the Committee at numerous junctures to shape its ruling and place the children in question centre stage. The best interests of the child ‘demanded’ that the Committee consider the communication that had been brought to them on behalf of the children of Nubian descent. The best interests of the child also justified ‘an exception to the rule on exhaustion of local remedies’ in this case, because the children had been left in limbo for too long due to stagnation within the domestic court system in Kenya. And the best interests of the child was taken into account at every stage of the interpretation of Kenya’s obligations with regard to the right of a child to acquire a nationality under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child [article 6]. The best interests of the child led the Committee to conclude that the practice of leaving children of Nubian descent without a nationality until they complete certain procedures when they are 18 years old is in violation of the African Children’s Charter. Continuing this line of reasoning, the Committee declared that the state has an obligation to implement safeguards against childhood statelessness (in the African context, a jus soli fall-back clause) ‘proactively’ and to prevent statelessness ‘as much as possible from birth’, because this is in line with the best interests of the child.

This case is one of the best examples to date of the concept of the best interests of the child being applied specifically – and explicitly – in the context of citizenship. But it is only one expression of what is emerging as a uniting principle, rooted in state practice, articulated in the aspirations of international law and gaining greater prominence in the battle against statelessness [see for instance the UNHCR expert meeting conclusions on the prevention of childhood statelessness, 2011]. It is food for thought that even if we don’t all share a common notion of what citizenship is and who should enjoy it, we do all seem to agree that it is something that no child should go without.

About the author

  • Laura van Waas

    Activist Consultant
    Laura van Waas
    Tilburg Law School
    Laura van Waas holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Her doctoral thesis, entitled “Nationality Matters – Statelessness under International Law... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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