Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Every child belongs

When raising awareness of the importance of birth registration, organisations like Plan and UNICEF have done a good job of devising compelling slogans, like “Count every child” and “All children deserve to celebrate their birthday”. The message is that every child has the right to recognition of their existence and proof of the facts of their birth as provided through birth registration. This can be critically important for the enjoyment of all sorts of child rights, from protection against early marriage to access to childhood immunisations. These kinds of slogans have the power to portray the importance of what is really a rather dry and technical administrative act to a wide audience in just a few words. Impressive.

Last week I was in Geneva to help teach a specialised short course on Statelessness and Child Rights – a collaborative project of the Statelessness Programme of Tilburg University, UNHCR and UNICEF, piloted for the first time. While I was there, I spent quite a bit of time pondering whether and how we could adopt a similar technique to that above to communicate core messages around statelessness. Just as the human rights language “every child has the right to birth registration” has been translated into the demand to “Count every child”, can we turn the “right of every child to acquire a nationality” into a more meaningful call to action?

Unfortunately, many of those who work on statelessness – including myself – are lawyers by training, rather than communications or public information experts. Yet, as governments, UNHCR, other UN agencies and civil society groups start to engage on the issue more actively, knowledge of statelessness is quickly spreading beyond the lawyerly circles and other expertise is being brought in to operationalise policies to fight statelessness. So, no doubt we will start to see the emergence of increasingly sophisticated ‘marketing’ techniques and hopefully a simplification of the language around statelessness. Already, we see a move away from the message – sadly all too common in older publications – that “statelessness is a highly complex legal issue”. Because, quite frankly, birth registration is a highly complex legal, social, economic and sometimes political issue, but that’s not a particularly helpful way to introduce it to a new audience, which is why Plan and UNICEF have found a different approach.

The challenge then, is to work harder to explain statelessness, or at the very least the importance of fighting statelessness, in a way that any audience could understand and internalise it. This is a vital first step, because without some sense of what the problem is – and that it is a problem at all – no-one will be very motivated to invest the time to learn more about it or take action to address it. For this, we need to take a step back from the legal complexity and look at it from a more down to earth perspective.

One fact that I find particularly compelling and which was emphasised throughout the course on Statelessness and Child Rights is that, in any given year, the vast majority of new cases of statelessness are amongst children. Stateless parents are often powerless to prevent their plight from being transmitted to the next generation. If we are ever to crack this problem and realise the right to a nationality for all, we must stop this senseless spread of statelessness.

What’s more: children affected by statelessness did not choose to be outsiders. Nor do they somehow exist as free radicals without any attachments to a family, a community, a place or a home. They have the same connections as anyone else. They have a country. They belong. Yet their government is letting them down, right from the start, by failing to ensure that this belonging translates into a nationality – a legal bond which formalises their membership of the community and provides protection, rights, empowerment, a sense of acceptance and inclusion. As momentum grows to address statelessness and people from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, with different skills to offer, join the cause, I hope that there will be a greater effort to distil these types of simple messages and that someone with the know-how to do so will translate them into clever and compelling slogans to help spread the word.

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

[This blog was originally drafted for and posted on the website of the European Network on Statelessness, see

Monday, 3 February 2014

GUEST POST: Jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court of Nepal regarding the right to Citizenship

Courts play an important role in defining law in Common law legal system. This is considered good as it is supposed to bridge a gap in law. If prevailing laws prove inadequate to address the issues at the hand, then the Court plays some proactive role to address such problems through the interpretation of the law under its jurisdiction. The rulings are based on universally accepted legal and judicial principles, norms and standards. This can also be called judicial activism.

The Nepalese Court has played a significant role in making the country’s laws clearer and in the quest of justice. The Supreme Court of Nepal, as a head of the Judiciary has been playing a particular role in setting principles and norms for the protection of people's rights. This blog discusses the jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court of Nepal regarding the interpretation of nationality law and constitutional provisions relating to nationality/citizenship, against the backdrop of international human rights law. Since, citizenship has been remained as one of the most contentious issues in Nepal for a long time, this piece aims to shed light on some positive aspects of the developments in this regard. 

One leading case related with discrimination against women to confer nationality to her daughter is centre-stage in this blog: the 27 February 2011 decision of the Supreme Court in the petition Sabina Damai v. Government of Nepal et. al., Writ No. 067-WO-0703 of the year 2067 BS (2010 AD).

Fact of the case:

Ms. Sabina Damai is a daughter of Ms. Gangamaya Damai but her father is still unknown. Ms. Gangamaya Damai left her birthplace Dolkha district (one of Nepal’s 75 districts) at the age of 22 and came to the capital city Kathmandu in search of employment. There, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter called Sabina. Ms. Gangamaya doesn't know who the father of her daughter is, as she had a sexual relationship with different men at that time.

When Sabina reached an age of 18 years (eligible age for citizenship is 16 years), she submitted an application to the District Administration Office (DAO) in Dolkha to get a citizenship certificate – this being the place where her mother is from and Sabina claiming the citizenship certificate by descent. But the Chief District Officer (CDO) denied her the citizenship certificate on the ground that her father is unknown and rejected her application through verbal notice.

Summary of the Court's Ruling:

In a writ petition filed by Ms. Sabina Damai, she asks for the court to review the decision by the Chief District Officer (CDO) to reject her application for a citizenship certificate and to order the Government of Nepal to issue such a certificate. She claimed that she was denied the citizenship certificate despite of fulfilling all of the requirements set by the law.

The Supreme Court maintained that citizenship certificates have a vital importance for every person. The citizenship certificate identifies one as a citizen of a country. It is also a prerequisite to enjoy civil, political as well as economic rights. One must qualify under the laws and constitution of Nepal as a citizen, in order to get a citizenship certificate.

Since Article 13 of the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2063 (2007) guarantees the right to equality, which means all of the citizens are equal before the law regardless of their sex, gender and other statuses Therefore women should not be the subject of discrimination at all, in issues relating to the citizenship certificates as well. In fact, the court stated, the law clearly provides that it is the right of the child to get a citizenship certificate in the name of mother who is already a citizen of Nepal, in case of unidentified father or missing one, as per article 8(2) of the Interim Constitution of Nepal. The court maintained that it is the fundamental as well as human rights of the child to get her nationality from mother.

In its ruling, the court also pointed out that Nepal is a State party to the Convention on Rights of Children (CRC), which provides that every child has right to nationality and his/her best interest, should be protected. As such, the court concluded, the Government of Nepal is bound to respect its commitments towards child rights and observe the treaty obligations.

On the basis of these considerations, the court ruled that since available evidence and proof establish that Gangamaya Damai, mother of Sabina Damai (the plaintiff) is a Nepali citizen by descent, and Sabina Damai has also born in Nepal, Sabina is entitled to get a Nepalese citizenship certificate by descent in accordance with the prevailing citizenship laws, as well as constitution of Nepal. The Supreme Court then ordered the District Administration Office of Dolkha to provide a citizenship certificate to the applicant.


The above decision of the Supreme Court has major significance to the situation in Nepal for three reasons: i) in maintaining gender justice; ii) providing citizenship certificates to the thousands of eligible children whose father are missing/unknown; and iii) observing the treaty obligations and reducing statelessness. More importantly, in its ruling, the Court indicated the need for the state to adopt essential measures in addressing the problem of citizenship certificate as well as statelessness in Nepal.

In its verdict, the Supreme Court has emphasized on the principle of equality before the law as well as the right to nationality for all. In addition, it reaffirmed the principle of non-discrimination which includes the right to equal protection of the law for women and children, regardless of their status in society. Furthermore the Court added that it is the duty of the State to abolish all forms of ill and inhuman tradition and practices, customs, etc. against women through the enactment of proper laws. The traditional and conservative mindset which considers women as inferior to men need to be changed. Being two sides of the same coin, men and women are equal  in dignity and rights.

Today, the letter of the law doesn't restrict a woman from conferring citizenship to her children [(Article 8 (3) of Nepal Citizenship Act 2006]. However, it is not a well accepted practice in Nepal – that of granting citizenship in the name of mother, by descent. By descent is always interpreted to mean from the father or male, reflecting the still largely patriarchal mindset in society. Indeed, the criteria set in implementing rules under the citizenship law, namely the Citizenship Regulation and Directives, present a there is a particular obstacle to getting citizenship in the name of mother. These will now need to be amended as per the Supreme Court ruling.. It is a matter which needs to be addressed soon for a more just, peaceful and prosperous society. The decision of the Supreme Court has therefore been welcomed by human rights community, civil rights activists and all.
This guest post was written by Laxman Lamichhane, who is an Advocate in Nepal. He holds an LLM in International Human Rights and Refugee Law from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal.