Racism and Human Rights

Nationality and Statelessness

Millions of people in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East have been denied or stripped of citizenship in their own countries solely because of their race, national descent, and gender. In many countries, children born in their mother's country are denied her nationality because women can not transmit nationality. These citizens without citizenship are denied a broad range of civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights.

Governments drive huge populations across international borders by depriving them of citizenship in their own countries, creating refugee crises and generating armed conflict. The breakup of states, the political tensions of war and intercommunal violence, and the creation of new states all provide scenarios in which holding on to or acquiring citizenship may turn on race or ethnicity and the whim of those in power.

The situation:

  • In Europe, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to discriminatory norms for citizenship in many newly independent countries. In the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the terrorizing and physical expulsion of minorities coincided with measures to deny citizenship to members of ethnic minorities residing there or seeking to return to their homes.

  • In South Asia, the government of Bhutan stripped of citizenship and expelled more than 100,000 Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin in the early 1990s, the majority of whom are still refugees.1

  • In Southeast Asia, the government of Thailand has registered some 300,000 members of the country's ethnic minority hilltribes and issued them special identity documents, but these indigenous people are denied a nationality or full citizenship rights. Hundreds of thousands of other hilltribe villagers are unregistered and officially considered illegal immigrants.2

  • Myanmar's (Burma's) government excluded hundreds of thousands of members of Burma's minorities from citizenship with a 1982 citizenship law. In the 1990s more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims denied citizenship fled to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.3

  • Moves to strip the citizenship of some 1.5 million Zairean citizens of the Banyarwanda ethnic group after 1991 spurred domestic and interstate conflict there.4 Ethiopia summarily denationalized and expelled some 70,000 Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean origin after war broke out with Eritrea in May 1998.5

  • In the Middle East, Kuwait continues to deny citizenship to some 120,000 Bidun, many of whose families have lived in Kuwait for generations and have no claim to citizenship of another country.6 Syria denies citizenship to some 150,000 Kurds, while recognizing that they are other than mere aliens.7 Millions of Palestinians remain stateless.

  • Citizenship is restricted to the children of male nationals in many countries of the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, discouraging female citizens from marrying men of a distinct ethnicity or nationality because their children would be denied citizenship.8


  • Denial of citizenship can affect minority populations that are indigenous to a country or have been present for generations’Äîas well as majorities. The end of the apartheid regime in South Africa spelled an end to denationalization taken to an extreme: a "homelands" policy that aimed to make every black South African a citizen of a "bantustan"’Äîand no longer a citizen of South Africa.9

  • Citizenship laws enacted by Slovakia and the Czech Republic after the division of Czechoslovakia served directly to exclude Roma citizens from citizenship in the new republics: international efforts have led to reforms of the relevant laws, although obstacles remain

  • Post-war progress by Ethiopia and Eritrean offers hope of a review of the administrative measures by which Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were summarily stripped of their citizenship.

  • Thailand in August 2000 announced that it would grant citizenship to the descendants of three groups of displaced persons: Burmese who entered the country prior to March 1976, Nepalese migrants, and Chinese migrants who had migrated to Thailand since the 1960s.10

Next Steps

  • An international campaign for ratification of international agreements on statelessness.

  • Campaigning by childrens' rights activists for the implementation of existing norms in the Convention on the Rights of the Child to combat statelessness. Populations with longstanding claims to nationality in their country of residence whose children remain stateless require urgent attention.

  • International measures of conflict resolution and early warning should address questions of citizenship and denationalization founded on discriminatory grounds. These issues should be recognized as major factors in the generation of massive human rights abuse, including genocide, and armed conflict, and the generation of refugee flows.

  • The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights should set in motion a study of the human rights dimension of discriminatory norms by which states determine who is a citizen and naturalize citizens.

  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child should request states to address safeguards against racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination in citizenship laws and practices in their regular reports to the committee.

  • The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women should consider the discriminatory dimension of citizenship and naturalization policies, in particular the manner in which race, ethnicity, and national origin intersect with gender, and request states to address these issues in their regular reports to the committees.

1. Amnesty International, Bhutan: Nationality, Expulsion, Statelessness and the Right to Return, AI Index: ASA 14/01/00, September 2000.

2. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, p. 46.

3. Human Rights Watch, "Burma/Bangladesh, Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution," May 2000, Vol 12., No. 3 (C).

4. Human Rights Watch, "Democratic Republic of the Congo: What Kabila is Hiding, Civilian Killings and Impunity in Congo" October 1997, vol. 9, no. 5 (A).

5. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, p. 46.

6. Human Rights Watch, "Kuwait: Promises Betrayed," October 2000, vol. 12, no. 2(E).

7. Human Rights Watch, World Report 1999, p. 374.

8. See, for example, Suad Joseph, ed., Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse University Press, 2000). For an example of discriminatory norms now overturned, see Human Rights Watch, "Second Class Citizens: Discrimination Against Women Under Botswana's Citizenship Act," September 1994.

9. John Dugard, "South Africa's `Independent' Homelands: An Exercise in Denationalization," Denver Journal of International Law and Politics, vol. 10, no. 1, Fall 1980; and, on the pilot "homeland" of Transkei, Govan Mbeki, The Peasants' Revolt (London: Penguin African Library, 1964).

10. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, p. 504.

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