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Every individual has the right to citizenship

  • Published at 12:07 am September 13th, 2019
Assam-India
Their fate remains uncertain REUTERS

Downtrodden people are now at the mercy of exploitation by a sinister, cynical, and fascist agenda

Today, there is much controversy in our South Asian neighbourhood regarding the protection of human rights. In recent years, most South Asian countries -- particularly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka -- have seen a grave deterioration of the protection of human rights.

 The constitutions of South Asian states are imbued with principles of universal human rights and civil liberties. Yet, the reality is a stark contrast to our shared values and commitments for a free and democratic neighbourhood. 

Bangladesh has many internal challenges in consolidating its democratic order. Yet, Bangladesh also faces external challenges arising out of the deprivation of human rights. 

The Rohingya crisis has caused Bangladesh to host one of the largest refugee populations in the world. With no sight of a sustainable return to Myanmar, the stateless Rohingya are stuck in a limbo in Bangladesh. 

The controversial National Register of Citizens in the northeast Indian state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, has caused concern again. Last year, an estimated four million inhabitants in the Indian state were excluded from the controversial list. 

The revised list in 2019 has excluded an estimated 1.9 million inhabitants. There are fears that the excluded may be deported to Bangladesh, despite assurances from the Indian foreign minister that the Assamese process is an internal Indian affair. 

Among those excluded in the process are former servicemen in the Indian military, the family of a former Indian head of state, and the first female chief minister of Assam. Many of those excluded are inhabitants of remote villages. 

Despite living in the backwaters of Northeast India for generations, they often lack adequate paperwork to prove their citizenship. Many of these downtrodden people are now at the mercy of exploitation by a sinister, cynical, and fascist agenda.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” Article 7 calls for equality before the law and equal protection of the law. The first two articles of the declaration state that all human beings are born free and equal, and they are entitled to enjoy rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness requires state parties to establish the right to citizenship at birth, or jus soli (law of the soil). Article 1 states that a state party shall “grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.”

Article 1 (2) (b) states that a person who has resided in a country’s territory for over five years is entitled to be granted the nationality of that country. 

Article 8 outlines that a person shall not be deprived of nationality if such deprivation would render the person stateless. 

Article 9 outlines that no person or group of persons should be deprived of nationality based on racial, ethnic, political, or religious grounds. 

While neither Bangladesh nor India is a state party to this convention, the principles of customary international law may dictate that the two countries should take note of the convention.

The discourse in India has been polluted with the term “illegal immigrant.” A human being cannot be declared illegal. To do so would be to deny their humanity. The more appropriate terms are “undocumented migrant” or “irregular migrant.” 

Moreover, while there may be criminal offenders among undocumented or irregular migrants, the vast majority of these migrants are law abiding and peaceful human beings who should face an administrative rectification.

Migrants are entitled to rights set forth in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, to which Bangladesh is a state party but India is not. 

Bangladesh and India are both state parties to other relevant treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the conventions of the International Labour Organization; and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment and Treatment.

The proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill in India discriminates on the basis of religion and falls short of standards set by relevant international law. In this respect, India should harmonize its laws with the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.

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