The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Stateless Persons

A stateless person is someone who is not considered to be a citizen by any State on the basis of its national laws. There are ways of acquiring a nationality that vary greatly from country to country. These may depend on the place of birth, the territory of residence, the nationality of the parents, or of only the father or the mother, and so on.

It is possible to lose a nationality, even one legally acquired, or to have it revoked by law. This may happen, for instance, through a marriage or a birth outside the country of which the parents are a national, which can result in the loss of that nationality but without the certainty that the person in question will acquire a different one. Events such as territorial transfers, decolonization, or the disintegration, breakup, or creation of a State may engender statelessness if the new laws do not grant the nationality of the State in question to all persons residing on the territory concerned.

Stateless persons pose a serious problem to an international society that is organized around the concept of nationality. Individuals are protected as a result of their national legal status, since they do not have an autonomous international legal personality.

In times of conflict, a party to a conflict is forbidden from considering stateless persons as enemies and must grant them the protection provided to all civilians under humanitarian law (API Art. 73). Stateless persons must also be granted the rights granted to foreign nationals who find themselves on the territory of a party to a conflict (GCIV Arts. 35–46).

Two international conventions are currently in force that try to establish minimum guarantees for stateless persons and aim to reduce the effects that may cause statelessness.

Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

This Convention was adopted on 30 August 1961 (pursuant to GA Resolution 896/IX), and entered into force on 13 December 1975. It establishes that each State Party must grant its nationality to persons who are born in its territory and would otherwise be stateless. It also requires that each State grant its nationality to any individual whose father or mother had the nationality of the State in question, if the individual would otherwise be stateless.

The main goal of the Convention is hence to make sure that all individuals who would otherwise be stateless—despite existing links with a State, such as birth, descent, or residence—can acquire or keep a nationality. The Convention does not establish any specific rights for stateless persons, but recommends the creation of an entity, within the framework of the United Nations, “to which a person claiming the benefit of this Convention may apply for the examination of his claim and for assistance in presenting it to the appropriate authority” (Art. 11). This organ was never set up, and its functions were turned over to UNHCR.

Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons

This Convention was adopted on 28 September 1954 (360 UNTS 117) and entered into force on 6 June 1960. As of June 2015, it had eighty-six States Parties. It sets a minimum international status that must be granted to stateless persons. The Convention itself does not create specific rights for them; however, it does reaffirm the rights that must be granted by the laws of the State on whose territory stateless persons legally reside. States Parties to the Convention must treat stateless persons as favorably as possible and no less favorably than other foreign persons in the same circumstances. In particular, these provisions apply to the following rights:

  • family rights, respect for personal status, freedom of conscience and religion (Arts. 4, 12);
  • right to property (Arts. 13, 14);
  • right of association (Art. 15);
  • right of access to courts (Art. 16);
  • right to engage in different professions (Arts. 17–19);
  • right to benefit from various social, administrative, and other public services (Arts. 20–25);
  • right to freedom of movement, travel documents, and transfer of assets (Arts. 26–30);
  • respect for rights in terms of expulsion and naturalization (Arts. 31, 32).

NationalityRefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

For Additional Information: UNHCR. The State of World’s Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Available at http://www.unhcr.ch/pubs/sowr2000//sowr2000toc.htm .

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