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‘Legal identity’, statelessness, and private international law

Guest post by Bronwen Manby, Senior Policy Fellow and Guest Teacher, LSE Human Rights, London School of Economics.

In 2014, UNHCR launched a ten-year campaign to end statelessness by 2024. A ten-point global action plan called, among other things, for universal birth registration.  One year later, in September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious set of objectives for international development to replace and expand upon the 15-year-old Millennium Development Goals.  Target 16.9 under Goal 16 requires that states shall, by 2030, ‘provide legal identity for all, including birth registration’. The SDG target reflects a recently consolidated consensus among development professionals on the importance of robust government identification systems.

Birth registration, the protection of identity, and the right to a nationality are already firmly established as rights in international human rights law – with most universal effect by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which every state in the world apart from the USA is a party. Universal birth registration, ‘the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording within the civil registry of the occurrence and characteristics of birth, in accordance with the national legal requirements’, is already a long-standing objective of UNICEF and other agencies concerned with child welfare. There is extensive international guidance on the implementation of birth registration, within a broader framework of civil registration.

In a recent article published in the Statelessness and Citizenship Review I explore the potential impact of SDG ‘legal identity’ target on the resolution of statelessness. Like the UNHCR global action plan to end statelessness, the paper emphasises the important contribution that universal birth registration would make to ensuring respect for the right to a nationality. Although birth registration does not (usually) record nationality or legal status in a country, it is the most authoritative record of the information on the basis of which nationality, and many other rights based on family connections, may be claimed.

The paper also agrees with UNHCR that universal birth registration will not end statelessness without the minimum legal reforms to provide a right to nationality based on place of birth or descent. These will not be effective, however, unless there are simultaneous efforts to address the conflicts of law affecting recognition of civil status and nationality more generally. UNHCR and its allies in the global campaign must also master private international law.

In most legal systems, birth registration must be accompanied by registration of other life events – adoption, marriage, divorce, changes of name, death – for a person to be able to claim rights based on family connections, including nationality. This is the case in principle even in countries where birth registration reaches less than half of all births, and registration of marriages or deaths a small fraction of that number. Fulfilling these obligations for paperwork can be difficult enough even if they all take place in one country, and is fanciful in many states of the global South; but the difficulties are multiplied many times once these civil status events have to be recognised across borders.

Depending on the country, an assortment of official copies of parental birth, death or marriage certificates may be required to register a child’s birth. If the child’s birth is in a different country from the one where these documents were issued, the official copies must be obtained from the country of origin, presented in a form accepted by the host country and usually transcribed into its national records. Non-recognition of a foreign-registered civil status event means that it lacks legal effect, leaving (for example) marriages invalid in one country or the other, or still in place despite a registered divorce. If a person’s civil status documents are not recognised in another jurisdiction, the rights that depend on these documents may also be unrecognised: the same child may therefore be born in wedlock for the authorities of one country and out-of-wedlock for another. On top of these challenges related to registration in the country of birth, consular registration and/or transcription into the records of the state of origin is in many cases necessary if the child’s right to the nationality of one or both parents is to be recognised. It is also likely that the parents will need a valid identity document, and if neither is a national of the country where their child is born, a passport with visa showing legal presence in the country. A finding of an error at any stage in these processes can sometimes result in the retroactive loss of nationality apparently held legitimately over many years.  Already exhausting for legal migrants in the formal sector, for refugees and irregular migrants of few resources (financial or social) these games of paperchase make the recognition of legal identity and nationality ever more fragile.

These challenges of conflicts of law are greatest for refugees and irregular migrants, but have proved difficult to resolve even within the European Union, with the presumption of legal residence that follows from citizenship of another member state. The Hague Conference on Private International Law has a project to consider transnational recognition of parentage (filiation), especially in the context of surrogacy arrangements, but has hardly engaged with the broader issues.

The paper urges greater urgency in seeking harmonisation of civil registration practices, not only by The Hague Conference, but also by the UN as it develops its newly adopted ‘Legal Identity Agenda’, and by the UN human rights machinery. Finally, the paper highlights the danger that the SDG target will rather encourage short cuts that seek to bypass the often politically sensitive task of determining the nationality of those whose legal status is currently in doubt: new biometric technologies provide a powerful draw to the language of technological fix, as well as the strengthening of surveillance and control rather than empowerment and rights.  These risks – and their mitigation – are further explored in a twinned article in World Development.