May 6th 2014

Is Citizenship a Right?

MELBOURNE – Should your government be able to take away your citizenship?

In the United Kingdom, the government has had the legal authority to revoke naturalized Britons’ citizenship since 1918. But, until the terrorist bombings on the London transport system in 2005, this power was rarely exercised. Since then, the British government has revoked the citizenship of 42 people, including 20 cases in 2013. British Home Secretary Theresa May has said that citizenship is “a privilege, not a right.”

Most of the 42 held dual nationality. Mohamed Sakr, however, did not. His parents came to Britain from Egypt, but he was not an Egyptian citizen. Therefore, by stripping him of citizenship, the UK government made him stateless.

Sakr appealed the decision from Somalia, where he was living. His case was strong, because the UK Supreme Court subsequently ruled in a different case that the government does not have the power to make a person stateless. Nevertheless, Sakr discontinued his appeal, apparently because he was concerned that the use of his cellphone was revealing his location to US intelligence services. Months later, while still in Somalia, he was killed in an American drone attack.

Now, partly in response to fears that Britons who have joined the fighting in Syria may return to carry out terrorism at home, the government has proposed legislation enabling it to revoke the citizenship of naturalized Britons suspected of involvement in terrorist activities – even if this makes them stateless. (Since the start of the year, more than 40 Britons have been arrested on suspicion of engaging in military activities in Syria.) The House of Commons passed the legislation in January, but in April the House of Lords voted to send it to a joint parliamentary committee for additional scrutiny.

In the United States, citizenship can be revoked only on limited grounds, such as fraud committed in the citizenship application or service in another country’s military. Arguably, joining a terrorist organization hostile to the US is even worse than joining a foreign army, because terrorist organizations are more likely to target civilians.

But one important difference is that if people who join other countries’ military forces lose their US citizenship, they can presumably become citizens of the country for which they are fighting. Terrorist organizations usually have no such ties to a particular government.

The 1961 United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which Britain is a signatory, does allow countries to declare their citizens stateless if it is proved that they have done something “prejudicial to the vital interests of the country.” The legislation currently before the UK Parliament does not require any judicial or public proof even of the weaker claim that someone’s presence in the country is not conducive to the public good.

Should the person whose citizenship is revoked mount an appeal, the government is not required to disclose to the appellant the evidence on which it has based its decision. Though governments are bound to make mistakes from time to time in such cases, judges or tribunals will be unable to probe the evidence put before them. Another, more sinister possibility is deliberate abuse of these powers to get rid of citizens whose presence in the country is merely inconvenient.

There is a strong case for an appeal system that allows for full and fair review of decisions to revoke citizenship. But governments will respond that to make the evidence available to a person believed to be involved with a terrorist organization could reveal intelligence sources and methods, thus jeopardizing national security.

The ability to revoke citizenship without presenting any evidence in public is one reason why a government may prefer this course to arresting and trying terrorism suspects. And yet simply revoking citizenship does not solve the problem of leaving at large a suspected terrorist, who may then carry out an attack elsewhere – unless, as with Sakr, he is killed.

The larger question raised by the UK’s proposed legislation is the desirable balance between individual rights, including the right to citizenship, and the public good. Suppose that the government gets it right 19 times out of 20 when it relies on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities to revoke people’s citizenship. If that were the case with the decisions made by the UK government in 2013, there would still be a high probability that an innocent naturalized citizen was made stateless. That is a grave injustice. 

Suppose, however, that the 19 people correctly suspected of involvement in terrorism were able to return to Britain, and one carried out a terrorist attack similar to the London transport bombings, which killed 52 innocent people (the four bombers also died). In the face of such atrocities, it is difficult to insist that individual rights are absolute. Is it better to have one innocent person unjustly made stateless, or to have 52 innocent people killed and many others injured?

The much greater harm done by the terrorist attack cannot be ignored; but when a democratic government starts to revoke citizenship and make people stateless, it sets a precedent for authoritarian regimes that wish to rid themselves of dissidents by expelling them, as the former Soviet Union did to the poet and later Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky – among many others. In the absence of global citizenship, it may be best to retain the principle that citizenship is not to be revoked without a judicial hearing.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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