Friday, 4 November 2011

Who ’deserves’ to be stateless?

In 1994, the State of Lebanon introduced a decree that would extend its citizenship to an estimated 200,000 individuals, approximately 80,000 of whom were reported to previously be stateless. This was meant to resolve the problem of individuals who had been overlooked at registration when the country’s citizenship laws were first developed and enforced and who were left as ‘maktoum alkayd,’ or undocumented. Unfortunately it would go on to become one of the most controversial decrees, immersed in the nation’s core preoccupation; confessional demographics. On October 2011, 17 years later, the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister signed a new decree that would allow the State to denaturalize individuals who benefited from the 1994 decree but did not actually ‘deserve’ to obtain Lebanese citizenship. The first step of this development is said to encompass ‘only’ 200 individuals, with ‘next’ steps pledged.

The motivation behind the 94 decree, as with any political act, has always been contested. The main contention was that it was ultimately used for sectarian and electoral purposes. Confessional and political forces did play a role in the decree but it was the authorities’ responsibility to take long-term effective measures to prevent this - and is not something that individuals, having established the last 17 years of their families lives as Lebanese citizens, should now suffer from. Alongside the stateless population who gained citizenship, many others came from an estimated 80 different countries. Although excluded from the decree - as this would have gone against the constitution – some Palestinians were believed to have naturalized, and it was argued that many Syrians fraudulently obtained Lebanese ID documents. Amongst the large communities of unregistered Lebanese, members of the same family who had all applied were each treated differently, often leaving a mix of stateless and Lebanese individuals amongst siblings. All these contentions resulted, in 2003, in a State Council decree being issued at the request of the Maronite League agreeing to revisit this naturalization effort. Because of this the legal effectiveness of this naturalized status has always been questionable, an effectiveness that will not progress under this new development

In light of this arbitrary, unregulated and politically sensitive atmosphere, concerns regarding the legitimacy and authority of the next steps of this new decree arise. The worry is that the mistakes committed by institutions or government bodies will, without strict regulations and protective frameworks in place, create new cases of statelessness and related problems seventeen years on. These problems may be even more difficult to address now that this naturalization effort has been largely unsuccessful and has made the situation more sensitive. The procedures attached to this new development have not been elaborated and raise many questions. How will fraudulent applications be reviewed? Why has it been stated that most of the 200 individuals selected are Christian - especially as the original controversy surrounded the argument that mostly Muslims had been naturalized? How will these individuals be selected? What are the ‘next steps’ in this series of withdrawal of citizenship? Most importantly, will there be regulations ensuring that those whose nationalities are withdrawn have another, effective, nationality?

Surprisingly, in a country where everything is shrouded in controversy and debated ferociously by opposing forces, there has, to date, been little debate or comment on this new development. To understand and address the controversies is important – but this new decree can only be a step backwards. The ambiguity over who ‘deserves’ it with no clarification as to the scope and extent of these series of withdrawals will be interpreted as opening an opportunity for discretionary practices. The extent to which this may lead to possible cases of statelessness is a huge worry in a state that does little to address or protect its current stateless population.

As part of its MENA research project, the Statelessness Programme will continue to monitor the developments and impacts of this new decree.

Zahra Albarazi, MENA Project Coordinator, Statelessness Programme

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