Globalising statelessness

By Laura van Waas · 23 June 2011

At the heart of the exploration underway within the Oecumene project lies the concept of citizenship. Whether described in terms of membership or of participation, citizenship reflects some form of belonging, contributing to the drawing of dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Within the legal discipline, citizenship generally denotes a formal boundary, separating those who are official members of a state from those who are not. Also termed nationality, citizenship is then defined as the legal bond between a person and a state. Citizens are members of the state and hold certain rights and duties on that basis. Non-citizens are excluded – they are foreign, alien. The institution and globalisation of citizenship has therefore allowed modern states to stake out their people, much as they do their territory. As such, citizenship basically operates as an ordering mechanism: attributing people to a particular state for jurisdictional purposes and providing them, through the legal bond with their state, with a position within international relations.

Today, international law pronounces the “right to a nationality”, affirming the globalisation of citizenship and requiring states to guarantee that, when implementing this ordering mechanism, everyone is assured of being included somewhere. Despite this, the reality is that the globalisation of citizenship has been accompanied by the globalisation of a parallel phenomenon: statelessness. Indeed, as many as 12 million people, dispersed across the globe, currently share this fate. They are condemned to a life without nationality - non-members, non-citizens of every country in the world. Thus, just as citizenship has, for better or for worse, come to be a shared concept, people in countries as far apart as Thailand and the Dominican Republic, Latvia and Zimbabwe, now enjoy a common experience of statelessness.

This experience is, almost universally dismal. Rejected from membership of a state means being set adrift and leads to manifold problems in day-to-day life. Stateless people are commonly unable to travel, obtain identity documents, get married, register their children, inherit, accept gainful employment or access fundamental services such as schooling or healthcare. Unless it succeeds in including everyone somewhere, as foreseen by the “right to a nationality”, citizenship therefore transforms from an apparently neutral ordering mechanism to an instrument of exclusion and marginalization.

With this in mind, just as citizenship and its manifestations can become an enduring fascination, so too can statelessness. In fact, statelessness is arguably the ultimate case study for scholars of citizenship, since it exposes the very nature of this form of membership and demonstrates the dangers inherent in implementing a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. To discover the consequences of perpetual exclusion, you need only turn to a nearby situation of statelessness. How does this pure form of non-citizenship, non-membership, impact on the enjoyment of rights? On legal empowerment or societal participation? On democracy, human capital, economic development or national security? Or on an individual’s sense of identity and self-worth? In revisiting the concept of citizenship, these are significant questions and the regrettable existence of statelessness does present, at least, a pertinent opportunity to explore them. As the Oecumene project digs ever deeper into the concept of citizenship and how it is experienced around the world, I hope to help inject these discussions with observations on the poignant and compelling world of statelessness.

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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