Sunday, December 02, 2007


The Economist discusses the growing trend of statelessness,
the world's growing band of stateless people who have no citizenship rights, and are often unable to claim the things that states can provide, like travel documents and education. According to international officials whose job is to cope with human flotsam and jetsam, the problem of statelessness is growing fast, despite a modest decline in the number of refugees in the strict sense.

In a cautious estimate, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that in the course of 2006 the number of stateless persons had climbed from 2.4m to 5.8m. That was one reason for a recent spike (see chart) in the number of “people of concern” to the UNHCR. A better guess for the stateless, says Maureen Lynch of Refugees International, an aid agency, is at least 11m; some UNHCR officials say the total figure, using looser criteria, could be 15m.

Some people become stateless because they are forced out of one country, and no other nation will accept them, or even grant them the rights which “refugees”—people who seek shelter because of a proven risk of persecution—can claim. Some people never leave home but find they are stranded by a shift in borders. Also ranked among the stateless are marginal groups who cannot claim civic rights because their births went unrecorded.

But then the magazine claims, confusedly, that,
the recent efforts to tackle the problem fall far short of what is needed to put into practice the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lays down that every human being is entitled to a nationality.
Statelessness does not mean a lack of nationality unless nationality is taken as synonymous with citizenship. A people may believe themselves unified into a nation through shared language, culture, beliefs, and so on while not necessarily having the recognized administrative form of a particular state. Kurds, for instance, or Québécois, or Palestinians. States are political administrative entities recognized in a system of states. Its boundaries are the boundaries of adjacent states (or international waters). Sovereignty is the internal control and external respect attached to statehood. We're talking about relatively distinct entities here which may or may not overlap.

This is also part of what generates the problem. When we consider humanitarian intervention, for example, we're putting a number of conflicting values into play. First, human rights concerns in another state give the ethical motivation for intervention. But, by intervening in the affairs of another state, other states are likely violating not only the sovereignty of that state, but possibly also its right to national self-determination. On the other hand, state sovereignty, especially when coextensive with some strong notion of nation, may generate the human rights abuses in the first place by considering a minority within its boundaries to be less important than the majority and treating them as such.

Statelessness isn't necessarily a problem of nationality, although it may be. Human identities may be tied to nations without there being a state to administer the practical concerns of that nation. The problem is when the state system as essentially a global bureaucratic system attempts to map nationality onto statehood. There are pluralistic identities, beliefs, and values within the boundaries of all states. The liberal conception of state-institutional neutrality is built upon the premise of pluralism. But mapping some unified sense of nationhood onto the boundaries of the state and in values reflected in its institutions can be an act of exclusion in itself. The legal limbo of statelessness is a reflection of rather arbitrary political outcomes of the state system.

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