January 17, 2022

Theory of Statelessness of Individuals under International Law

International Law

“To be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of worldliness; it is like returning to a wilderness as cavemen or savages… A man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man… they could live and die without leaving any trace, without having contributed anything to the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Those who are the citizens of the country enjoys the status of nationality, they have certain basic rights and obligations provided to them by the state. The Nationality of a person is a domestic issue, but to put some restrictions laws of other states and international laws can be applied. So, nationality is not alone a domestic issue. In the first attempt to ensure that all persons have the Nationality, the Hague Convention of 1930 held in the assembly of League of Nations, article 1 of the convention states:

“It is for each State to determine under its own law who are its nationals. This law shall be recognized by other States in so far as it is consistent with international conventions, international custom, and the principles of law generally recognized with regard to nationality.”

Those who are not able to show their legal connection with the state, they are deprived of very basic rights like the right to education, medical care, employment, etc. They do not have even the right to vote.

Article 15 of 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states :

“Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

The Nationality of a person is a bond between the state and person. First time this bond was discussed in the case of the International Court of Justice in 1955, the Nottebohm Case.

In that case, the Court stated that:

“According to the practice of States, to arbitral and judicial decisions and to the opinion of writers, nationality is a legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interest, and sentiments, together with the existence of reciprocal rights and duties.”

The 1954 Convention on Status of Stateless Persons defines ‘stateless person’ as

-a person who is not considered by any state under its operation in the law.

This convention was the primary international instrument that aims to improve and regulate the status of stateless persons.

The phrase ‘considered to be national by operation of law’ means:

Individuals considered to be citizens by the laws enacted by the states.

People are considered to be nationals either-

  1. when that person is born in the state only- jus soli
  2. when individual was born parents were nationals- jus sanguinis

This type of statelessness is called as de jure, where nationality is not received through the operation of law. People are stateless with reference to the law applicable in the state.

The definition of stateless persons in the 1954 convention was criticised as it was limited to a specific set of people only.

There is another kind of statelessness-de fact, where persons are unable to establish their nationality.

The convention of 1954 covered only the de jure statelessness. The drafters of the convention were of the mind that persons not having effective nationality, those who were de facto stateless persons, they were refugees. After a few years it was made clear that de facto stateless persons are the persons who are not the citizens in their country of habitual residences, they were neither refugees nor de jure stateless persons.

Causes of Statelessness

There are many reasons because of which state can deprive people of nationality. State by certain actions can deprive persons of their citizenship.

Introduction of Discriminatory laws:

A state can make laws that are discriminatory in nature. They can target minor communities. they can discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, race, colour, etc which are against the standards of International Laws. Some of the states do not give citizenship to the children whose father is unknown or deceased. Widely cited cases of discrimination against minority groups to exclude them from their right to nationality. For example- Rohingyas in Myanmar, ethnic Ethiopians in the horn of Africa.

Conflicts and gap between laws

Nationality can be acquired in various ways- by birth, naturalization, descent, marriage, registration, etc, all countries have their own nationality laws. Most common ways in which nationality can be acquired are:

  1. where nationality is acquired by way of birth in a country
  2. where nationality is acquired or determined if one or both parents of a child belong to a certain country

If a person is unable to show its link with the country then he will have a great risk of becoming stateless.

State succession

Statelessness can also occur when the people from one country moved to another as their own country ceases to exist.

By Renunciation

When the person voluntarily renounces, revokes the citizenship, losses the nationality.

Consequences of statelessness

Stateless persons are deprived of very basic rights. It also affects socio-economic rights such as- education, employment, health care, housing as well as civil political rights including; freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary detention and political participation.

Legal Framework to address the problem

The convention of 1954 laid down that protection should be given to stateless persons. It defines the term ‘stateless persons’ and provides minimum standards of treatment and the rights that should be provided to those persons. Those rights include, though not limited to- the right to education, employment, housing. This convention also provide the right to identity, travel documents, and administrative assistance.

Another convention of 1961, which was to prevent and reduce the number of stateless persons. 1961, Convention on Prevention and reduction of statelessness established safeguards to address the issue of statelessness occurring at birth or later in life. It also prevents statelessness due to loss, renunciation of nationality, or state succession.

This convention give effects to Article 15 of Universal Declaration on Human Rights

”Everyone has right to nationality”.

On 4 November 2014, UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024. To achieve the goals of the #IBelong Campaign, the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness: 2014 – 2024 establishes a guiding framework comprising 10 Actions to be undertaken by States, with the support of UNHCR and other stakeholders. The Global Action Plan is intended to resolve existing major situations of statelessness and prevent new cases from emerging. (UNHCR report)

The 10 Actions to End Statelessness Are:

  1. Resolve existing major situations of statelessness.
  2. Ensure that no child is born stateless.
  3. Remove gender discrimination from nationality laws.
  4. Prevent denial, loss, or deprivation of nationality on discriminatory grounds.
  5. Prevent statelessness in cases of State succession.
  6. Grant protection status to stateless migrants and facilitate their naturalization.
  7. Ensure birth registration for the prevention of statelessness.
  8. Issue nationality documentation to those with entitlement to it.
  9. Accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions.
  10. Improve quantitative and qualitative data on stateless populations.


Statelessness is the most important problem almost every country has stateless persons. These persons live most of their life unrecognized and deprived of basic rights. This problem needs urgent attention. Many international bodies specially the UN is working on this problem to resolve. Action to address the plight of the stateless is clearly pressing from a human rights perspective. A lot has to be done in this field. We need to come up with more effective ways to tackle this situation and protect these people.

Author Details: Ankita Sharma is a student at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

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