Civil Rights - Commentary

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Stateless by design

Threatening as it is to be without a birth certificate in a settled community, to be denied proof of identity outside the borders of one's home country is to be consigned to the no man's land of statelessness. The obstacles to registration can be insurmountable for a child born in a State whose borders are splitting apart, or in a refugee camp, or into a family made stateless by discrimination due to its ethnic heritage or religious beliefs. And the failure to register such children adds to their vulnerability by interfering with the fulfilment of their other rights.

The doors to participation in mainstream society have long been closed to most of the 5 million to 8 million Romanies, or Gypsies, in Central and Eastern Europe. As a result, only about 7,000 of Croatia's 60,000 to 100,000 Romanies are registered.

The right to a name and nationality has been jeopardized for countless millions of children unfortunate enough to be born in countries undergoing various forms of political turmoil: Kurds living in Syria, Tatars in Ukraine, Russians in Estonia and Latvia, minority groups or foreigners in Bhutan, Cambodia, Kuwait, Myanmar, Pakistan, the countries of former Yugoslavia, the 3 million Palestinians around the Middle East -- the list goes on and on.

Copyright © UNICEF/94-070/Machava

In many countries, a birth certificate is required for voter registration, so people without proof of birth may be disenfranchised. This Mozambican woman proudly displays her voting card while waiting to vote in the country's first democratic election, in 1994.

Children abandoned in such upheavals and who lack papers cannot be legally adopted, which condemns them to lives of institutionalization, or worse.

Sometimes low levels of registration result from a government's deliberate and effective efforts to block it. In one of the most telling legacies of apartheid, in 1993 only about 13 per cent of the black population was registered in South Africa, a country with a thoroughly modern, computerized registry that for many years had managed to register all of its white citizens.

International human rights law is clear: Children have the right to a nationality. It can be acquired either from their parents or from the country of their birth. The Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness mandates that children acquire nationality from the country of their birth if they do not acquire it from another country (such as their parents' country of birth).

In fact, the right to a name and nationality has a long and honourable pedigree. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and now celebrating its 50th anniversary, states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality." This right has been addressed in 10 international agreements, most recently the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in force since 1990 and now ratified by every country on earth except Somalia and the United States.

The Convention requires that countries both honour children's right to a name and nationality when they are born and protect that right as they grow up. "Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity," stipulates article 8, "States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to speedily re-establishing his or her identity."

Discrimination against women also comes into play in birth registration, as it did for me. In 1983, I married an expatriate in my home country, Botswana. We have lived there ever since, but when my children were born in 1984 and 1987, national law required them to take my husband's nationality -- although they would have been granted dual citizenship if their father had been the Botswanan citizen rather than their mother. The law effectively forced my daughter and son to live as expatriates, preventing them from obtaining the full range of services a citizen of my country enjoys, such as voting or receiving tuition at the national university. We challenged that law, and after a long legal battle, we won the case in 1992 on the grounds that it violated a woman's right to pass on her nationality to her children. Three years later, Botswana changed its nationality law.

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