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UNHCR releases new guidelines on loss and deprivation of nationality

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has today issued new guidelines on the loss and deprivation of nationality. The guidance is intended to assist governments and policy makers in interpreting relevant international law.

“Decisions to deprive people of nationality have grave and far-reaching consequences not just for the individuals themselves but also for the broader community. It is by no means ideal nor in anyone or any State’s interest for people to be left stateless and on the margins of society,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs.

“While this is a practice that is increasingly being resorted to in most cases as a punitive measure, we hope this guidance will promote a principled and consistent approach to decision making, mitigating the risk of statelessness arising, in accordance with the law.”

The guidelines contain interpretive guidance on the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, one of two key statelessness treaties which together with the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, provide the legal framework to prevent statelessness from occurring and to protect people who are already stateless. They also contain guidance on complementary international human rights law relevant to deprivation of nationality.

The loss of nationality refers to circumstances where an individual’s nationality may be automatically withdrawn by the operation of the law, for example where national law provides that nationality will be lost in situations of prolonged residence abroad. Deprivation refers to situations where a State actively takes nationality away from its citizens.

With the right to a nationality widely recognized as a fundamental human right, international law prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, including on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds.

As a general rule, the 1961 Convention also prohibits the deprivation of nationality where it would leave a person stateless. There are very limited exceptions to this rule, including where nationality has been acquired though misrepresentation or fraud.

In specific circumstances, where countries expressly retained their right to do so when joining the Convention and provisions already exist in national law, behavior inconsistent with the duty of loyalty to the State may also be grounds for exception to the prohibition where, for example, it is seriously prejudicial to a State’s vital interests.

However, governments would still have a duty to determine whether decisions to deprive an individual of nationality would result in statelessness, as well as to ensure that procedural safeguards, such as the right to a fair hearing, are met.

In accordance with its mandate on statelessness, UNHCR provides guidance on relevant international law. The Guidelines on Loss and Deprivation of Nationality are the fifth in a series of guidelines on statelessness issued by the agency.

The full guidelines are available here.

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Originally published on UNHCR on 21 May 2020