Saturday, 13 July 2013

UNHCR’s verdict on statelessness activities over last two years: “unprecedented”

Every other year, UNHCR produces a report summarising the progress made in addressing statelessness. It discusses important international trends and developments, as well as UNHCR’s own activities and achievements. In other words, it’s a very nice little snapshot of what has been happening and this time around there is more to report than ever before. UNHCR’s overall verdict on the current interest and momentum in addressing statelessness…? “Unprecedented”. Here are some of the most interesting highlights from the report:

UNHCR’s commitment to statelessness

Often criticised in the past for not engaging enough on its statelessness mandate, things have changed dramatically within UNHCR over the last few years and there are now some key institutional arrangements that will help the agency to work more effectively on statelessness. According to the report:

“UNHCR’s four pillar budget structure (which is broken down by particular population groups including pillar II for stateless persons), global strategic priorities and results-based framework for planning and reporting have permitted field offices to establish specific objectives and set budgets for activities relating to statelessness which are visible and distinct from those for refugees and other persons of concern. This has ensured that responses to the statelessness problem are given due attention in relevant operations. Progress made in this regard may be measured by the number of UNHCR operations which set objectives relating to statelessness: from 28 operations in 2009, the number rose to 51 in 2010 and 60 in 2011, remaining at this level in 2012. A similar rise occurred in budgets and expenditure. […] UNHCR has strengthened its global response to statelessness, both in terms of reach and also the quality of its interventions, through increased staffing capacity. The High Commissioner’s protection capacity initiative of 2011-2012 led to the creation of five dedicated regional statelessness posts covering Asia and the Pacific, Europe, West Africa, the Americas and the Middle East and North Africa. These posts were filled in 2012 and 2013, and they have significantly bolstered the capacity of field offices in these regions. […] Significant effort was made to bolster the capacity of staff through training and the provision of additional operational guidance. […] Statelessness workshops were organized in four regions for over 110 field staff, while workshops at headquarters reached more than 100 staff.”

Governments’ commitment to statelessness

While the actual reduction of statelessness or improvement of the lives of stateless people can be the only real measure of governments’ commitment to statelessness, it is also interesting to look at whether and how statelessness features on governments’ agendas. There are encouraging signs that statelessness is now being taken more seriously and that government commitment – on the surface at least – is increasing:

“The anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in 2011 proved to be a breakthrough in UNHCR’s efforts to achieve progress on statelessness around the world. At the Ministerial Intergovernmental Event, 61 States made a total of 105 specific and measurable pledges relating to statelessness. These pledges included: 32 on accession to the 1961 Convention; 22 on accession to the 1954 Convention; 12 to reform nationality laws; 12 to improve civil registration to prevent and reduce statelessness; 12 to conduct studies or awareness-raising campaigns; 11 to establish statelessness determination procedures; and 4 to address the problem through foreign policy initiatives. […] Currently, 22 per cent of the pledges made have been implemented. Significantly, there were 26 accessions to the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions during the two years covered by this report.”

Strengthening other partnerships to address statelessness

Building a comprehensive and successful response to statelessness is a task that cannot be left to governments and UNHCR alone, but in which many other partners can and must contribute. As with the progress statelessness has made in climbing the agendas of governments and within UNHCR itself, so too is it gathering further support from a broad range of stakeholders in every region:

“The Office worked to expand its partnerships and benefited from the increased interest in statelessness generated by the anniversary of the 1961 Convention in 2011. It supported a major symposium of the African Union in Nairobi, Kenya, which explored a range of statelessness issues and adopted a number of recommendations. This was followed by the adoption of a resolution on statelessness and the right to nationality by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. UNHCR also undertook two workshops with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Governmental Human Rights Commission on issues relating to the nationality of women and children and birth registration. In the Americas, UNHCR supported a workshop on statelessness for staff and permanent missions of the Organization of American States, as requested by its General Assembly. The Office briefed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and provided background information on statelessness to the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe. It also worked more intensively with the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, including on the organization of the Zagreb Conference on the Provision of Civil Status Documentation and Registration in South Eastern Europe, which took place in October 2011. To promote action on statelessness by parliamentarians, UNHCR provided a number of briefings to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. […] In 2012, UNHCR organized a session to promote information exchange, joint strategizing and coalition-building among NGOs. Twenty-six organizations from 13 countries attended, and a follow-up event will be held in 2013.” [= recent NGOconsultations and statelessness retreat which we reported about last month onthis blog]

Law reform to prevent and reduce statelessness

A pivotal component of the response to statelessness is to put in place legal frameworks that safeguard the right to a nationality. In other words, by reforming nationality laws to e.g. remove discrimination or incorporate special provisions that will help to prevent statelessness among children, the suffering that comes with statelessness can simply be avoided. Nationality laws around the world undergo regular amendments and the trick is to use these as opportunities to improve the safety-nets against statelessness and certainly to ensure that the legal framework does not deteriorate:

“During the reporting period, a total of 14 States amended their nationality legislation to strengthen safeguards against statelessness. UNHCR observed several broad trends in nationality laws during this period, including removal of legal provisions leading to loss of nationality for residence  abroad, removal of requirements to renounce nationality before applying for naturalization, and inclusion of safeguards to prevent statelessness owing to voluntary renunciation of citizenship. Consultations with governments in the lead-up to the Ministerial Intergovernmental Event provided an opportunity to discuss problematic elements of nationality laws and possible amendments to address them. Twelve governments made pledges on law reform to prevent and reduce statelessness.”

Resolving cases of statelessness

Millions of people are affected by statelessness around the world and some situations of statelessness have become so protracted that they have engulfed several successive generations, which has a massive social, political, psychological and economic impact on these communities. In 2012, UNHCR High Commissioner Guterres called on all states “to make a firm commitment to ending statelessness within the next decade”. For this to happen, finding ways to resolve statelessness is critical. Progress in this area is steady, but it needs to pick up speed if this goal is to be attainable:

“There was slow but steady progress in reducing statelessness in a number of countries, though no breakthrough that led to a major reduction in the global population. The data available to UNHCR showed that more than 115,000 people acquired a nationality or had it confirmed in 2011 and approximately 94,600 in 2012. This was similar to the progress achieved during the previous reporting period. […]The Office continued to advocate for solutions to a number of protracted statelessness situations. The anniversary of the 1961 Convention again allowed for significant consultations with governments on solutions. One encouraging development was the willingness of a small number of States to discuss their own successful efforts to resolve statelessness situations, thereby encouraging others to follow their example. There was also an increased understanding among States that prolonged statelessness can lead to displacement and unrest. This was underlined by the continuing outflows of Rohingya refugees without nationality from Myanmar and the spike in departures following communal violence there in 2012.”

The Statelessness Programme and UNHCR

Tilburg University’s Statelessness Programme – the hosts of this blog – was established in 2011, so at the beginning of the period which UNHCR has now reported on. It is encouraging to see that the cooperation between the Statelessness Programme and UNHCR throughout these two years is also noted and some of the activities get an explicit mention:

“With the goal of reaching a higher number of staff and partners, and with a related objective of building institutional capacity, the Office supported short courses organized by external actors, including Oxford University, Tilburg University, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, Mahidol University and the European Network on Statelessness. […] It worked with the universities of Tilburg, Maastricht and New South Wales as well as the Open Society Foundations to develop a global analytical database of nationality laws. [...] In collaboration with Tilburg University, the Office will hold the First Global Forum on Statelessness [in 2014] at which up to 300 representatives of academic and international institutions, governments NGOs and statelessness populations from around the world will present their research, responses and experiences related to statelessness.”

What is next?

This edition of UNHCR’s note on statelessness ends on an encouraging note. Rightly so, given in particular the institutional progress and the signs of increased – “unprecedented” – commitment and engagement by UNHCR and a range of other actors. At the same time, the report also correctly points out that turning this commitment and engagement into real change on the ground remains a challenge and there is much more to be done:

“UNHCR’s activities under its statelessness mandate were enhanced during the two years covered by this report. This was in part due to the organization-wide focus on statelessness during the anniversary of the 1961 Convention in 2011, but it also reflects a longer-term trend. There was an unprecedented impact in terms of action by States, including a significant number of accessions and the adoption of new determination procedures. The number of pledges made by governments at the 2011 Ministerial Intergovernmental Event suggests further progress will be made in the coming years. While impressive, these developments pale in comparison to the magnitude of the problem. There was only limited progress toward resolution of protracted situations. If the international community is to be successful in meeting the challenges posed by statelessness globally, the momentum of the past two years must be maintained and channeled towards acquisition of nationality by stateless persons.”