This blog forms part of a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Recognising the numerous conflicts and the daily breaches of human rights taking place across the globe, this series aims to highlight both the challenges and the opportunities to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights elaborated in the UDHR.
Right to a Nationality
1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
Not long after the UDHR’s adoption, Hannah Arendt penned an essay titled “The Rights of Man: What Are They?” Later included in Arendt’s famous The Origins of Totalitarianism, the essay highlights a contradiction underpinning the UDHR. On the one hand, the document requires states to protect “universal” rights for all individuals. Yet on the other hand, international law is grounded in the principle of state sovereignty; states bear the sovereign right to determine who can enter and remain within their territory, who is eligible for citizenship, and who can access state-provided services. Thus, while all individuals theoretically have human rights, the state is a gatekeeper to the enjoyment of these human rights. To Arendt, this paradox could only be addressed through the recognition of a universal “right to have rights” as a precondition to the enjoyment of the rights enumerated in the UDHR.
No such right has gained recognition in international law, but traces of it might be found in Article 15 of the UDHR, which protects the right to a nationality, to change one’s nationality, and not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality. As the OHCHR has recognised, violations of the right to a nationality are conducive to violations of a broad range of other rights, including the rights to health, food, shelter, clothing, education, employment, and freedom of movement.
For many of us, our enjoyment of the right to a nationality is something we can take for granted. Yet the past few years have highlighted the fact that millions’ lives are punctuated by the fear of losing nationality or the uncertainty of statelessness. In India, the implementation of the National Register of Citizens for Assam saw up to 4 million Assamese residents rendered stateless. The Register predominantly affected minority groups residing in Assam, such as Bangladeshi migrants, who could not prove paperwork proving their ties to India. The recent violence in Gaza has, yet again, reminded the world that millions of Palestinians, across multiple generations, have lived their lives as stateless persons. And many countries around the world maintain, at the behest of the UN Security Council, laws that allow for the deprivation of citizenship of persons suspected of involvement in terrorist activity.
Most striking about these examples is the role of international and domestic law in legitimising deprivations of the human right to nationality. Such deprivations are neither accidental nor coincidental; rather, they are brought about through the implementation of sweeping domestic legislation, of exceptionalist international security laws, and through the imposition of unjust legal geographies. Thus, to strengthen the UDHR, we must first acknowledge, and address, the ways in which law itself is unleashed upon human rights.
As part of the GJA UDHR@75 celebration, we invited present and past students to contribute their personal reflections on the relevance of the UDHR today. This blog is by Dr Vivek Bhatt, an Interdisciplinary Fellow in Human Rights at the University of Aberdeen Law School and a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM), Utrecht University Law School. Dr Bhatt graduated from the UoE PhD Law programme in 2020.