May plans to make British citizens stateless

November 21, 2013 — Comment

Written by Frances Webber

Is Theresa May’s threat to make British citizens stateless just an expression of frustration at the recent Supreme Court decision, or does she really intend to do it?

Press reports that Theresa May plans to change citizenship law to allow her to remove British nationality from anyone who, in her view, does not deserve it, even those born here who have no other nationality, open up mind-boggling possibilities. Over fifty years ago, the UK signed and ratified the UN Conventions on Statelessness, which provide for international protection of stateless persons and for the reduction of statelessness by inclusive nationality provisions. The evil of statelessness was pithily expressed by Hannah Arendt, who pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism that despite the adoption of universal human rights standards by the international community, the ‘right to have rights’ depended on having a nationality – without a state, rights remain abstract and unenforceable and individuals remain unprotected.

Who can lose citizenship?

Until 2002, only British citizens who had become British by naturalisation or registration[1] could lose citizenship. If they showed ‘disaffection’, or traded with the enemy in wartime, or had acquired British citizenship through fraud, they could lose it even if they had lost their original citizenship by becoming British. In 2002, the grounds for deprivation of citizenship were broadened, to ‘conduct seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK’. (Later, New Labour changed the law again, allowing removal of citizenship simply if it was ‘conducive to the public good’ to do so: see an IRR News article – ‘Deprivation of citizenship – by stealth’.)

At the same time, New Labour changed the law to allow British citizens by birth or descent to lose citizenship. But the quid pro quo for this unprecedented change was that citizenship could not be removed on any ground if it would leave the person stateless.

That is why in October, the Supreme Court rejected May’s attempt to remove citizenship from Hilal Abdul-Razzaq Ali Al-Jedda, saying that he would be rendered stateless by such a move. (See IRR News article ‘Deprivation of citizenship – judges restrain the minister’.) Al-Jedda was an Iraqi refugee who lost his Iraqi citizenship when he took British citizenship.

‘Overturning’ international conventions

Now, May has reportedly ‘asked officials to find a way of overturning international human rights conventions that prevent individuals with only one citizenship from being made stateless’. Apart from conveying the impression that she suffers from delusions of being a world ruler who can ‘overturn’ UN Conventions with an imperious click of her fingers, the report reveals the same frighteningly dismissive attitude to human rights as the earlier pledges, of May and her colleague Chris Grayling, ‘justice minister’, to overturn the Human Rights Act and if necessary to leave the European Human Rights Convention system in order to get rid of undesirable foreigners. Except that now, she wants to get rid of undesirable British nationals.

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in fact allows an exception to its ban on making people stateless through deprivation of citizenship. Someone who, ‘inconsistently with his (sic) duty of loyalty to the Contracting State, has conducted himself in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the State’ can lose citizenship and become stateless – but the get-out clause only applies if the State concerned said at the time of signing the Convention that it would rely on it and if its national law did so at the time. And May’s problem is that Britain’s declaration that it would rely on the get-out clause, and its national law at the time, applied only to naturalised British citizens. This would allow May to deprive Al-Jedda of citizenship, but not those British-born Muslims she has her eye on. Hence, perhaps, her talk of ‘overturning’ the Convention – or withdrawing from it. This would be ironic to say the least, since last year the government won praise from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for finally devising procedures for identifying and protecting stateless persons in the UK!

May’s mantra, recently repeated when the Special immigration Appeals Commission upheld her 2011 deprivation of citizenship of an Afghan terror suspect, is ‘Citizenship is a privilege, not a right’. The news reports suggest that May wants to implement her proposals by pushing through an amendment to the Immigration Bill currently going through parliament. But however fierce her determination to restore national sovereignty so as to de-nationalise and remove those she considers undesirable, she is sixty years too late. The body of international human rights law built up by the cooperation of states since the end of the second world war has created obligations for those states which, freely entered into, limit their freedom, their ‘sovereignty’, in ways which the international community as a whole, through the UN, has approved. An attempt to take Britain out of the Statelessness Conventions would deservedly create as much international outrage as renouncing the Refugee Convention. Is that next on the agenda?

[1] Children and certain other groups register to become British; others naturalise.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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