Every year, several countries are reviewed by committees – or ‘treaty bodies’– attached to the major UN human rights conventions to ensure that they are abiding by their international obligations, and to question them when they are not. This happens on a rotating basis for countries across all of the different UN committees. Before the committees address the countries, they ask review the report prepared by the relevant government about how the international norms are being implemented. They also collect and review submissions from NGOs and other organizations as to what they think are the most pressing human rights issues in the state and what is needed to address them. NGOs have an added opportunity of physically attending the pre-sessions, making a short oral statement on identified problems and answering any questions the committee would like further information on. This July, three countries in the Middle East and North Africa that still retain an element of gender discrimination in their nationality laws, came up for review before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Iraq, Qatar and Bahrain. Although Iraq’s law is now greatly improved, none of these states fully grant mothers the right transfer nationality to their children on an equal par to men – a situation which can lead to new cases of statelessness.
This issue tied in perfectly with our recent research with the Women’s Refugee Commission, “Our Motherland, Our Country”. Continuing our joint follow-up advocacy , we considered this to be an ideal opportunity to talk to the CEDAW committee about the consequences of gendered nationality laws, specifically the problems that emerged from the findings of this report. So, yesterday I was in Geneva to give the Statelessness Programme’s first ever briefing of a UN treaty body. After a mix-up of the starting times and length of session, things finally got going and I was invited to deliver a short presentation. This was followed by some questions from the committee, to help them fill any gaps in knowledge they had on the issue. The presentation we had prepared contained quotes from some of the testimonials compiled during the WRC research, contextualizing the issue as a real humanitarian problem, and highlighting how family unity is being destroyed because of this discrimination in nationality laws.
NGOs from around the world can come and talk about any state law or practise they feel is in violation of the convention, and they all do this together in the same briefing session. This provides a fascinating opportunity to understand more about other topics which often directly correlate to our own interests. A very active women's rights NGO from Iraq, for example, joined the same pre-session I attended and had a lot to say about Iraq’s flaws in adhering to its CEDAW obligations - they spoke about topics varying from the rise in cases of FGM to the lack of female representation in parliament. We also learnt from them of the phenomenon of men who are identified as 'terrorists' in Iraq, who are forced therefore to live without the protection of the law and unable to conduct any legal transactions. Some (informally) marry, have children and often eventually abandon their families without any legal trace - leaving a new generation of children with no form of identification and putting them at risk of becoming stateless.
My time at the CEDAW pre-session allowed me to witness some interesting presentations and a lively question and answer session. It was clear that the Committee was very eager to hear the voices of people working on the ground and it was also very satisfying to find that the application and the procedure itself of briefing such a committee is very simple and easy to navigate. I admit that I went in with some doubts about this form of advocating for change, which seemed a rather abstract mechanism of lobbying, far away from lives of those we had met during the field research. However, actually, experiencing the process and seeing the real interest and enthusiasm of the committee and the NGOs involved, I came away newly inspired and would now firmly vouch for the importance and necessity of continued international pressure and support – alongside national initiatives – for the promotion of universally gender neutral nationality laws. We are really looking forward to seeing how the information we provided will feed into the review and questioning of these three countries by the committee.
Zahra Albarazi, Researcher and MENA statelessness expert, Statelessness Programme