The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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


Nationality is the legal bond that ties a person to a State. It confers on this person a legal status as determined by national laws, such as those regulating the rights of persons and property.

Each State establishes its own legislation regulating nationality, which includes provisions concerning the acquisition or loss of such nationality, and its own laws regulating the personal status of individuals. There are different ways of acquiring a nationality, which vary greatly from country to country and may depend on factors such as the place of birth, the territory of residence, and the nationality of one or both parents. It is the legal status derived from having a nationality that grants rights—both individual and collective—to individuals. Such rights include, among many others, the right to an identity, to get married, and to work, the right of association, rights to physical security, rights to due process, and so on.

The protection of individuals occurs mainly at the national level and depends on their national legal status. It is extremely difficult to offer adequate guarantees of protection to a person without a nationality. Serious problems therefore arise when a State revokes the nationality of a group of persons or when individuals can no longer benefit from the protection of their State of nationality. The latter may happen to individuals for a number of reasons—for instance, if they become refugees, stateless persons, populations in occupied territories, victims of a conflict, persons displaced within their own country, or victims of persecution by the authorities of the State of which they are nationals.

In such circumstances, international law attempts to fill the void left by national laws by setting forth the foundation for an international legal status for individuals. This is based on numerous international conventions codifying and defending human rights and humanitarian law. They impose on States minimum international standards relating to the treatment of individuals, which in some cases include mechanisms for protection.

Human rightsProtected personsstatesless persons

This status enables individuals to participate in the system of justice and claim respect for their rights before national courts. Such possibilities are almost non-existent for individuals at an international level.

In fact, international law does not establish a comprehensive legal status for individuals. However, it does try to complete and reinforce the protection that exists based on a person’s nationality.

Nationality in International Law

International law tries to ensure that each individual has a nationality and to limit cases of statelessness. The right to a nationality is actually one of the fundamental rights of individuals proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 15 of UDHR).

International human rights conventions and declarations establish the standards for the treatment of the human person. Above all, these norms—which are not all directly binding on States—are references that are meant to inspire and guide the drafting of national laws relating to the status of individuals. In certain cases, if these international standards are violated in a country, a victim may invoke his or her rights under international law before domestic courts. There are also several international mechanisms, for claims or complaints filed by individuals, to which the victim may have recourse.

Human rightsIndividual recourse

In certain situations of emergency, humanitarian law also tries to meet the protection needs of individuals who no longer have the protection of any State (in other words, stateless persons) or who temporarily cannot benefit from the full protection of their own State, such as populations living in a state of emergency, victims of a situation of conflict, populations in occupied territory, or refugees.

Finally, international law defines different categories of “protected persons” and establishes the fundamental rights and guarantees to which they are entitled. It puts this theory of protection into practice by explicitly authorizing humanitarian organizations—such as the ICRC, UNHCR, and certain NGOs—to carry out actions of relief and protection.

Fundamental guaranteesHuman rightsInternational humanitarian lawInternational conventionsProtected personsProtectionRefugeesStateless persons

List of States Party to International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Conventions (no. 17 to 21)

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