Plans to strip terror suspects of their nationality rock French politics

A demonstration in Paris, protesting the Charlie Hebdo attacks. 11 January, 2015. [JEREMY DUMOND/Flickr]

Should terrorists be deprived of their nationality? France’s Socialist government has made waves in the political establishment with a plan to write this idea, once the territory of the National Front, into the constitution. EURACTIV France reports

The French government wants the right to strip terror suspects of their French nationality if they are dual nationals, including those born in France. The bill will be put to parliament in February.

With the exception of the National Front, which firmly supports the bill, the issue has divided political parties and raised a great deal of objection.

One rule for all, without discrimination

The idea, first proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, has the major flaw of targeting a specific part of the population: the majority of France’s 8 million dual nationals have links with the former French colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and many of them are Muslims.

To sidestep the problem of differential treatment, some Socialists, including Bruno Le Roux, the leader of the French Socialist MPs, have suggested that the system be applied to the whole population, with both dual and single nationality. He hopes this measure will convince a broader majority to support the bill.

A departure from international law

For specialists in international law, the idea of making people stateless, a phenomenon that international organisations have been struggling to bring to an end since the 1954 Convention on Statelessness, is a departure from the rule of law.

But legally, there is no reason why France cannot introduce this law, as it did not ratify the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and even stated reservations on the issue at the time.

“But these reservations were not an objection; and from the moment the treaty was signed, it became part of international law,” said Manuel Lafont-Rapnouil, the director of the ECFR think tank in Paris.

Nationality as a cornerstone of the rule of law

Beside the legal debate, the question is largely political: the right to a nationality is stated in article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

France’s negotiator on the text, the former resistance fighter and Nobel Peace Prize winner René Cassin, had tried unsuccessfully to have the principle of ending statelessness placed in the text.

The idea developed by the philosopher Hannah Arendt that the stateless have no “right to have rights” was clearly observed at the end of the Second World War. It was this situation that France was trying to tackle. “That was the French position,” said Lafont-Rapnouil.

While the debate rages in France, the question has also been raised elsewhere in Europe. But so far only the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have really cleared the way for stripping the nationality from those with only one passport.

The transposition of UN resolution 2178 on foreign fighters has also led to legal modifications that fall short of depriving citizens of their nationality.

In Germany, citizens judged to be potential jihadists may have their identity card cancelled for a period of three years and exchanged for a substitute, which Andra Vosshoff, the German Commissioner for Data Protection, says has a stigmatising effect.

In the United Kingdom, at least 53 British citizens have been deprived of their nationality since 2006, according to Patrick Weil. The scholar wrote in the Humanity Journal that some of these people had even been killed in targeted attacks abroad, without raising any objection from the British public.

Aymeric Chauprade, a French National Front MEP, had raised the idea of eliminating possible French jihadists in September 2014.

>>Read: National Front MEP calls for the ‘elimination’ of French Jihadists

At the time, his colleague Florian Philippot had also called for measures to strengthen the rule of law. Including… the right to strip citizens of their nationality.

No right to nationality in Europe

The right to a nationality as such is not protected in Europe; it does not feature in the European Convention on Human Rights.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, Article 8 of the Convention, which proclaims the right to a private life, can be interpreted as implying the right to a nationality, as there is no private life without identity.

If the French constitution is changed, the Court may be asked to rule on its legality.

But the question of statelessness remains a burning question in Europe, particularly in light of the refugee crisis. In 2014, the UN High Commission for Refugees launched a campaign to reduce the number of stateless people by 2024, under the hashtag #IBelong.

Within the EU, the largest number of stateless people is in Lithuania, where 400,000 Russians from the former USSR are considered as non-citizens.

>>Read: Upcoming Latvian EU presidency slammed for anti-Russian bias

Emmanuelle Cosse and Julien Bayou from Europe Ecologie - Les Verts, said, "The Ecologists stress that the right to a nationality is one of the fundaments of the rule of law. In good conscience, the Ecologists call on the whole of the political class and the media to show responsibility and reject this madness." 

The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the key international conventions addressing statelessness. They are complemented by international human rights treaties and provisions relevant to the right to a nationality.

The 1954 Convention is designed to ensure that stateless people enjoy a minimum set of human rights. It establishes the legal definition of a stateless person as someone who is "not recognized as a national by any state under the operation of its law." Simply put, this means that a stateless person is someone who does not have the nationality of any country. The 1954 Convention also establishes minimum standards of treatment for stateless people in respect to a number of rights. These include, but are not limited to, the right to education, employment and housing. Importantly, the 1954 Convention also guarantees stateless people a right to identity, travel documents and administrative assistance.

There were 83 States party to the 1954 Convention in November 2014 when UNHCR launched the Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 Years.

The 1961 Convention aims to prevent statelessness and thereby reduce it over time.

It establishes an international framework to ensure the right of every person to a nationality. It requires that states establish safeguards in their nationality laws to prevent statelessness at birth and later in life. Perhaps the most important provision of the convention establishes that children are to acquire the nationality of the country in which they are born if they do not acquire any other nationality. It also sets out important safeguards to prevent statelessness due to loss or renunciation of nationality and in the context of state succession. The convention also sets out the very limited situations in which states can deprive a person of his or her nationality, even if this would leave them stateless.

There were 61 states party to the 1961 Convention in November 2014 when UNHCR launched the Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 Years.

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