Friday, 3 January 2014

What connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein?

On the 10th of December every year, Tilburg University joins many other organisations and individuals around the world to celebrate Human Rights Day: the day on which, in 1948, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was signed and the modern human rights era was born. A symposium is convened on campus, where a human rights topic is explored and the ‘Max van der Stoel Award’ for best dissertation in the field of human rights is presented. In 2013, the Statelessness Programme was invited to provide the substance for the Human Rights Day symposium and give the audience an insight into the lives of stateless people. Honoured to be asked and excited by the challenge of summarising the experience of statelessness just half an hour, my colleague Zahra Albarazi and I set to work and came up with the following provocative question around which to construct our presentation: “What connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein?” For those who were unable to attend the Human Rights Day event in Tilburg, here’s a brief run-down of the answer to that question… 
[Click on the youtube links to watch the short clips we showed the audience on the day]


Now, it is important to note at the outset of this blog that these three names have been put together in a single sentence for the sole purpose of explaining about the different ways in which people can become affected by statelessness. We are not by any means suggesting that they are otherwise in any way alike or share anything else in common. Nor, to be entirely accurate, are we actually implying that Tom Hanks is or was himself a stateless person. Rather, in one of his film roles, he played the stateless Victor Navorski and it is with Victor’s story that we opened the symposium.

“Currently, you are a citizen of nowhere… You don't qualify for asylum, refugee status, temporary protective status, humanitarian parole, or non-immigration work travel. You don't qualify for any of these. You are at this time simply... unacceptable.” 

In the film ‘The Terminal’, after demonstrating the demise of his country by bursting a bag of crisps with an apple (really!), this is how the Director of Customs and Border Protection (played by Stanley Tucci) explains to Victor Navorksi (played by Tom Hanks) why he is stuck at JFK Airport. The extract from the film where this happens – a fascinating, entertaining and immediately heart-wrenching two and a half minute scene – is perhaps one of the best introductions to the world of statelessness and a fantastic teaching resource. Very quickly, it (roughly) explains how the break-up of a state can leave a person stateless without them asking for it, doing anything or even knowing that it has happened. This gives an immediate insight into one of the most significant causes of statelessness globally, state succession, which has left many hundreds of thousands of people stateless – including in Europe, following the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia. The same extract also provides a simple and compelling description of a stateless person: “a citizen of nowhere”, a reasonably sound summary of the international legal definition (i.e. “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”). But perhaps most importantly, the Director of Customs and Border Protection’s reels off in his little speech all the forms of protection status which a non-national may qualify for in order to be allowed to enter or reside in the US before being forced to conclude that Victor Navorski does not qualify for any of them. There is no tool in his arsenal for dealing with cases like Victor’s, which is why Victor is simply left to fend for himself in the international departures lounge of JFK Airport – prohibited from entering the United States but also unable to board a plane and leave. The JFK departures lounge becomes a very apt metaphor for the real-life limbo in which many stateless people are trapped precisely because many countries do not have a special protection status for stateless people who they encounter in the migration context. While most do not live at airports, the reality is that many are considered “unacceptable” and are forced to somehow find a way to survive without being allowed to enter, reside or work in the country they are in, but also without the alternative of return or onward travel to any other country. This problem lies at the heart of the debate about and emergence of dedicated statelessness protection regimes, as seen recently for instance in the United Kingdom.  

To take the story of statelessness out of the realms of fiction, we followed the extract from the Terminal with two short video clips about Mikhail Sebastian, whose predicament was once described as “a sweaty Pacific island version of ‘The Terminal’”. Mikhail became stateless following the break-up of the USSR and has lived in the United States since 1995. In December 2011, he travelled to American Samoa for what was meant to be a short holiday, but when it came time to go home to Los Angeles, he was prevented from doing so by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. In this video (first 2.20 minutes), Mikhail explains how he became trapped: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Dol2QbNWfs.
Eventually, after more than a year stuck on the island and after significant media attention was devoted to his story, student groups mobilised on his behalf and lawyers argued his case, Mikhail was allowed to return to the United States and pick up the threads of his life there. But his statelessness remains unresolved and he continues to face all sorts of restrictions and has to deal with tiresome bureaucracy. As he explains (minute 4.15 to 5.30) in this film, Mikhail would dearly love to become a citizen and officially belong somewhere: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4zELYdyXpY.

Back to the main question of the symposium: what connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein? Next up is Osama Bin Laden. A lesser-known fact about this now deceased, notorious international terrorist is that he was stripped of his Saudi Arabian citizenship in the 1990s, in response to his vocal criticism of the ruling regime, rendering him stateless. While Bin Laden’s case is unlikely to evoke concern or compassion, his story is nevertheless illustrative of another wider scenario in which statelessness emerges. Citizenship policy is, at times, used as a political tool: wielded in order to silence opposition voices or disqualify a political opponent from running for election. The latest backdrop against which such policy has emerged is that of the Arab Spring, where vocal critics of the ruling powers have become targets for denationalisation, often leading to statelessness. This 2-minute news item on Al Jazeera that we showed at the symposium illustrates the problem with the story of two Bahraini brothers who were stripped of their citizenship in late 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRiizGbNL24. The story of the Fairouz brothers is particularly compelling because they used to be Members of Parliament. From using their citizenship rights to the full – exercising the right to be elected and representing other citizens – they are now citizens of nowhere, stateless. There’s a lesson there about never taking your nationality for granted.

The final story of statelessness selected for our Human Rights Day symposium was introduced through the example of Albert Einstein. Einstein was stateless for five years at the end of the 19th century, after renouncing his German nationality. Although Einstein initiated his own statelessness and it was short-lived thanks to his naturalisation as a Swiss citizen (and later also as a US national), his story is inextricably tied to the plight of the German Jews under the Nazi regime. Einstein became a refugee in the 1930s and worked tirelessly on behalf of other German Jews. The large-scale denationalisation of Jewish exiles and refugees was one of the tools used by the Nazi regime in its persecution of this population, which brings us to one of the darkest manifestations of statelessness: that caused by the deliberate, discriminatory and en masse deprivation of nationality. In spite of the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of nationality, laid down 65 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights precisely because of the dangers inherent in the manipulation of nationality policy by those in power, instances of collective denationalisation have continued. Today, a key characteristic of a population commonly described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya, is that they were rendered stateless through arbitrary deprivation of their nationality. We used this two and a half minute video about the exhibition of a photography project on the Rohingya, by Greg Constantine, at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in November 2013 to explain the story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddu5VethFu4.


This is how, through the exploitation of loose affiliations to Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein, we demonstrated some of the ways in which statelessness can strike – affecting different people, for different reasons, with different consequences. Given the setting of a Human Rights Day symposium, we chose to end on the screening one further short video, from a project that the Statelessness Programme was involved in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ_Y0hW3DdA. The story of Um Chadi, who Zahra met in her home in Jordan and interviewed for a project with the Women’s Refugee Commission, says it all: if you are concerned about human rights, you should be concerned about statelessness. The human impact is real and significant.   

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager of the Statelessness Programme

2 comments:

  1. An interesting set, and I certainly find myself in strange company! Here are my quick comparative notes:

    1. Viktor Navorski (fictional) became involuntarily stateless by happenstance (or, involuntarily stateless via state inaction), as his home country was rendered extinct by conquest and the successor state failed to recognize him as a citizen. This was extremely problematic for Navorski, as he was in the "no-human's-land" aboard an international flight when the gang ("government") certifying him as a citizen dissolved. The template "stuck-at-the-airport" man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, however, was notably not stateless.

    2. Osama bin Laden became involuntarily stateless via state action. Your commentary here is spot on. It should be impossible for someone to be legally rendered an unperson via revocation of their citizenship without their consent.

    3. Albert Einstein became voluntarily stateless in order to avoid compulsory military service, a modern euphemism for slavery. He seems to have been a real cosmopolitan of citizenship and non-citizenship. His Wikipedia entry suggests that he acquired citizenship four times: W├╝rttemberg (1879, birth), Switzerland (1901), Austria-Hungary (1911), German Empire (1914, with Weimar Republic as successor) and United States (1940). He also renounced two citizenships: W├╝rttemberg (1896, becoming stateless in Switzerland) and the Weimar Republic (1933, still with Swiss citizenship, in the Netherlands). No doubt there have been other dual renunciants, but Einstein's the first I'm aware of.

    Another one to add to this oddball list is Friedrich Nietzsche, who actually volunteered for a year in the Prussian army a year before renouncing his Prussian citizenship and after establishing himself as a professor in Switzerland. Unlike Einstein, Nietzsche remained stateless until his death.

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