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The Maastricht Diplomat

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[Al Jazeera] UNHRC on Statelessness: Surface-level agreement and deeply-rooted nationalism

The United Nations Human Rights Council has met today to launch a debate on the issue of statelessness. Recent numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicate that more than 10 million people are "not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law". Delegates of UN member states including Argentina, India, Madagascar, France, Germany, Ukraine and Israel presented, in their opening speeches, positions that may seem consensual at first glance. Western powers are “willing to cooperate” and “willing to change” the situation, while China “recognises the urgency of the issue” and India gave a heartfelt description of the desperate conditions of stateless people.

Despite repeated — and at times headaching — table-knocks of approval to those affirmative statements, the debate has already been marked by expressions of disagreement. First, a demand from Argentina to enhance international collaboration has been met with rather neo-realist reactions from other delegates. In the anarchic arena of international politics, it seems that having overarching efforts to tackle statelessness gives cold feet to certain countries such as India and the United States that would like to ensure the preservation of national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, India, priding itself in their 2019 citizenship Act — which nonetheless was highly controversial due to its negative effect on Muslim communities —, called for a specific definition of statelessness to establish a precise framework. Western countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom showed satisfaction with the hitherto broad definition, appalling Israel and other Global Southern states. “How has it helped?”, the Israeli delegate asked, mentioning the “loophole” left by the definition, failing to decrease the number of stateless people in all member states present in this debate.

In some instances, the discussion resembled a competition to determine who is the-best-advocate-for-stateless-people. “We did a good job, so do as we do”, Costa Rica satisfiedly said, while Argentina decided to call out Madagascar and Israel. The former gave a rather polite answer, acknowledging the efforts yet to be made to address stateless newborns. The latter, in an outraged monologue, centred their reading of statelessness on the narrative of the Jewish nation, “stateless for 2000 years”. Israel was among the member states asking for a narrowing of the definition of statelessness; by calling Palestinians “terrorists” and, in an interesting syllogism, a threat to the Israeli state, their delegate may have signalled that they do not include stateless inhabitants of occupied Palestinian territories within a prospective narrowed-down definition.

It is hard for anyone to claim that statelessness is not a tragedy, so there is at least consensus on that observation. But as it’s the case everywhere, national interests arise again as a hindrance to further progress. When the Indian representative highlighted that international cooperation could be slowed down by countries refusing to recognise the stateless people residing within their boundaries for a variety of reasons, ironically, the Israeli delegate knocked on their table.

— Suresh Aluthgama, Political correspondent


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