Thursday, 16 May 2013

GUEST POST: Is Liberia’s nationality law sufficient for the 21st century?

As part of the course 'Nationality, Statelessness and Human Rights', taught every spring semester at Tilburg Law School, we ask students to analyse a country's nationality law against relevant international standards and then write a comment piece about it. Students who write the most compelling comments are invited to publish these here, on our blog site. Below is one of the three student pieces selected in 2013, we hope you enjoy it...

Is Liberia’s nationality law sufficient for the 21st century?

The most striking thing about Liberia’s nationality law is that it is out rightly racist. The first article explicitly states that only “A person who is Negro, or of Negro descent” can be considered a citizen of Liberia at birth. Furthermore, the same eligibility criterion applies for anyone who wishes to be naturalized as a citizen of Liberia. This is a law that blatantly violates international standards on so many levels, as it strips basic human rights from adults and children alike. This despite being one of the nation states which have acceded to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination(1965)

Just like its first article, the bulk of Liberia’s nationality laws fail to comply with international standards. For the most part, the laws may come off as restrictive in terms of access to nationality, rather than ensuring that it protects people. In a sense, Liberia’s nationality laws can be described as being extremely archaic, comparable to that of the early 20th century.

Other than being discriminatory based on race, the laws are also discriminatory against gender. In that, women do not have equal rights to nationality as men. This can be seen in article 21.31 of the nationality law, which basically says that a child can only obtain citizenship if the father is a citizen, or if the father is naturalized to become a citizen. This is so, even if the mother is a citizen. Which means that women do not have equal rights with men when it comes to the nationality of their own children. This violates many international norms which stress the importance of the equality of men and women, and in particularly article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), which says “States Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children”.

Imagine a hypothetical situation where a child is born to a citizen mother and a foreign father. If the father happens to be Negro, then perhaps it is well and good because the father can then be naturalized and pass on the nationality to the child, assuming all other criterions are met. However if the father happens to be Asian (or any other race without Negro descent), and is not able to pass on his nationality due to laws in his country for various reasons, or if he is stateless, then there would be no possible way that the child would be able to obtain citizenship, except later in his life. This however would mean that the damage would have already been done and a significant part of the person’s life would have passed. Not only is the woman stripped of equal rights as a citizen, she will be burdened with the inevitable situation of having a stateless child, which could lead to many other problems, including getting education and healthcare. Even though this is a hypothetical situation, it is one that has real consequences that could possibly happen because of Liberia’s biased laws. Therefore, it effectively encapsulates the flaws that plague Liberia’s nationality laws because many people, and children in particular can easily fall through the cracks to end up stateless.

Apart from being discriminatory, it is interesting to note that despite having acceded to the Convention on the reduction of statelessness (1961) in 2004, Liberia’s nationality laws still fall extremely short in its efforts to reduce the number of stateless people in its territory. An area that could be targeted is perhaps one that ensures that children in the state are not born stateless. For example, there are currently no laws that protect children against statelessness because the country does not guarantee citizenship to children born in the territory, or laws that ensure that foundlings do not end up stateless. Furthermore, the nationality laws also seem to lack safeguards and precautions, which could possibly prevent people from ending up stateless unnecessarily.

It is now the 21st century and the Liberia nationality laws could indeed do with a massive facelift that was due years ago. If nothing else, it should at least strive to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and in particular that of race and gender. In addition, they could also implement safeguards that would act as safety nets to protect people from becoming stateless, and children from being born stateless. There are also no laws in place that protect people from statelessness in the context of loss or renunciation of nationality. These steps in preventing the statelessness of people, and children should be put in place, as it will go a long way to ensure that the global stateless population does not continue to grow.

Noreen Mohammad, 20 years old and currently on exchange at Tilburg University from Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, part of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, where she is majoring in Communications

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