Nationality and Rights

 Van Waas, L.E. (2011). “Nationality and Rights”, in Statelessness and the benefits of citizenship – A comparative study, Blitz and Lynch (eds.), 19-36. Edward Elgar Publishers, 2011


In the autumn of 2003, a law was passed by the Sri Lankan parliament that promised to change the lives of several hundred thousand of the country’s inhabitants: the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act. This impressive piece of legislation aspired to bring an end to the marginalisation, disenfranchisement and exclusion of the ‘Hill Tamils’, who had lived in a condition of statelessness for many decades, by granting them Sri Lankan nationality.1 In time, reports came in of people who had benefited from the new law, and who explained in their own words what this policy meant: I was really thankful when my national identity card arrived because it allowed me to travel to Colombo and find work here. I am earning much more than I would have if I stayed on the estate.2

The resolution of cases of statelessness through the (re)instatement of the bond of nationality with a state can evidently have a positive impact upon the individual’s enjoyment of rights and quality of life; it can put an end to years, even a lifetime, of exclusion and abuse. But is this always the case? And to what extent does the formal acquisition of a nationality put an end to the difficulties experienced by previously stateless persons? These are the questions that guide the case studies in the chapters to come, where the situation of these new citizens of Sri Lanka and that of other populations whose statelessness has been addressed, is investigated in detail.

However, another question underlies those that were presented above; a more fundamental question about nationality and rights: in the contemporary human rights environment, to what extent is nationality (still) relevant to the enjoyment of rights? In order to better understand the findings of the case studies that are presented later in this book, it is important to be aware of the role that international law actually attributes to nationality today—the extent to which the stateless fall into a ‘protection gap’ that is, or should be, remedied by the acquisition of a nationality. This subject is the focus of the present chapter which looks at the trend towards the denationalisation of protection that is apparent in the development of modern human rights law, analyses how this same international legal framework addresses the specific plight of the stateless and discusses those areas in which the stateless may, indeed, find themselves excluded from the enjoyment of rights until their actual statelessness is resolved.



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