Friday, 16 November 2012

Denationalizing Bahrainis, ousting the opposition

This month, the volatile situation that has existed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the start of the Arab Spring saw a new development in Bahrain which has highlighted a worrying trend spreading across the region.  The Bahraini government ordered 31 of its citizens, all of them prominent opposition figures, to be stripped of their Bahraini nationality.  According to most reports only six of them hold another nationality (Bahrain does not generally recognize dual nationality), which means that an estimated 25 new cases of statelessness have resulted from this act. This decision follows high-profile denationalizations of several Emirati citizens in the UAE over the last year, prompting the worry that MENA States may revert to the practice of denationalizing citizens in response to broad ‘security concerns’ more frequently in the future.   

The Bahraini Ministry of Interior explained that it had exercised its powers under Article 10 of the country’s 1963 nationality law which allows the withdrawal of nationality under extreme circumstances. The 31 individuals concerned had been accused of 'undermining the security of the state’, which is a recognised ground for deprivation of nationality under this provision of the law. 

Whilst it is the sovereign right of any state to determine the conditions upon which nationality can be acquired or lost, the withdrawal of nationality from citizens must be undertaken with caution and must be done in adherence to both domestic and international regulations. Otherwise it would be at the discretion of any ruling political power to redefine its citizenry, denationalizing for example a section of society who they feel may not vote for them, or a section of society whose religious beliefs differs from theirs.

Article 10. 4 of the Bahraini law indeed allows the withdrawal of nationality when someone 'causes harm to the security of the State.' Whether the 31 individuals targeted in this instance have been found to seriously undermine the security of the State – and on what basis exactly – is not clear due to the lack of transparency of this decision.  There has been instability in the country, with a spate of bombings in the weeks leading up to this decision. Nevertheless, most indications show that this act of denationalisation was purely a political move.  One of the affected, lawyer Taimoor Karimi, was quoted by Human Rights Watch as saying that he had first heard about the decision through the media and had not been aware of any such impending process, highlighting this lack of transparency.  This suggests that what would be considered an accepted threshold of 'undermining the security' has not been met.  The government immediately publicly listed the names of the accused, including figures such as former MPs of the leading opposition movement, al-Wifaq, the head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, and three Shiaa clerics - Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.  Although no conclusion can be made without a full investigation, these individuals - all leading, opposition members - seem unlikely to have instrumented extreme militant acts.  Rendering them non-citizens is an attempt to de-legitimise criticisms against the government as it is now seen that they no longer belong to that State. 

Bahrain has declared that those affected would have the right to appeal this decision in national courts.  Article 11 of the same nationality legislation allows for restoration for those whose nationality was withdrawn.  However the likelihood of this being an independent and effective review is small.  Only a few days following this decision in Bahrain, the news from the Emirates was that its courts had rejected the appeal of the seven Emiratis who had their nationality stripped, again for 'threatening the security of the state,' setting a troubling precedent.

Perversely, the Bahraini Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifah further stated that one of the reasons behind this action was that the country had seen repeated abuse by these individuals 'of the rights to freedom of speech and expression,' which they deemed could no longer be accepted.  It is not in any way clear how they came to the interpretation that these individuals had been enjoying too much of this fundamental right.  They have shown no evidence of the need to derogate from this right, but instead are claiming that the individuals somehow overstepped some necessary self-imposed limitations of this right which justified the withdrawal of nationality.  Besides the absurdity of the claim that someone has been practising too much of their right to freedom of speech,  any withdrawal of nationality in response to the legitimate exercise of a fundamental freedom should, by definition, be deemed arbitrary under international law. This stands at odds with the Interior Ministry’s official statement and comments on State TV in which he declared that citizenship  would be revoked 'in conformity with the kingdom's commitments under international law.' At the same time, the authorities’ belief that rendering the activists stateless would exclude them from the enjoyment of the right to freedom of speech is worrying and shows a significant lack of understanding with regard to the content of Bahrain’s international human rights obligations. 

It is unclear what will now happen to these former citizens, specifically the majority who still reside in Bahrain.  An individual who has no legal link to any country often is unable to access many basic rights, such as healthcare, access to documentation, travel and education, thus there is a risk of further, subsequent violations of international law. Other questions arise such as possible limitations on residency in Bahrain. As prominent activists, many of those affected have been very outspoken since this decision, and it is clear that they are acutely aware of the possible detrimental outcomes.  

In Bahraini State media we are now witnessing a vilification of these affected individuals – a traditional tool used by states to popularize support for decisions to disqualify certain individuals as citizens.  There are many accusations being used to justify why they have ceased to deserve having membership in the Bahraini citizenry. One example is the circulation of a picture of one of these denationalized stepping on his Bahraini ID card.  The media, in this case, is being used as a channel to communicate to the general public why these high-profile individuals no longer deserve to be nationals.

Worryingly, all of the denationalized are of the Shiaa confession, highlighting suggestions floating in the media that members of this sect are more likely to be loyal to foreign states – namely Iran.  This is a dangerous speculation that alienates and isolates this sector of society, and certainly does not address the prevalent socio-political problems of the country.  This move may also – probably one of the state’s objectives - instil a sense of fear in other opposition elements, especially those from the Shia sect, who would worry that if they continue to voice criticism they may also face this fate.

A broader reflection: is denationalisation a growing trend in the MENA?

Exclusionary citizenship ideologies and denationalization are not new concepts in the MENA region. Underlying factors for such policies range from delicate confessional demographics to the Palestinian presence, from Pan-Arab ideologies to a fear of changing the cultural make-up of a population.  To these motivations, we must evidently add the mechanism of using citizenship policy as a political tool: to quell opposition and silence minority voices. 

Unfortunately, although one of the few collective initiatives, this move is not an isolated one. The GCC, in particular, have not shied away from using this mechanism, targeting a specific confession or political ideology, to de-legitimize any sort of vocal opposition. This both discounts opposition figures from the national debate and often scares others into silence.  Already in Bahrain’s history, 1954 saw the denationalization of Abdul Rahman Al-Baker, a political leader whose activities were not appreciated by the ruling powers.  There have been other situations where Bahrainis studying abroad were not allowed to return and their passports were not renewed.  Although in 2001 the country saw a spate of political reforms, amongst them the restoration of the nationality of many who had in decades before seen their nationality revoked, this does not seem likely to develop as a norm under the current political tensions.

If States continue to see denationalization as a powerful mechanism, the worry is that we may see an expansion of targeted withdrawal of nationality in response to all manner of broad security or public order concerns which many MENA countries face today. This concern is especially acute where we are now seeing problems developing from the polarization of states, such as Libya or Syria. 
Zahra Albarazi, MENA Nationality and Statelessness Project Coordinator, Statelessness Programme

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