‘Statelessness’, in a strictly legal sense, refers to individuals or groups who are not considered nationals by any state. Such persons have few rights in a state-driven international system. Individuals and groups may become stateless through forced migration, during periods of violent conflict and/or political transition. Their statelessness may persist from the absence of rule of law in weak states with poor governance. Citizens can also lose citizenship through revocation or withdrawal. This can stem from exclusive nationalist ideologies during periods of political unrest and can be used as a tool of war.
Statelessness can also result from the denial of ‘effective’ exercise of citizenship rights even where individuals and groups hold legal citizenship. Discrimination against specific minority groups through exclusionary state rules, norms and practices can deny them from accessing their rights. Ethnic identity or gender, for example, rather than citizenship identity, can determine access to state entitlements and social rights.
The irregular distribution of citizenship and the failure of the state to represent the interests of all citizens is likely to impact upon societal stability and the probability of conflict. Denial of citizenship and exclusion deprives the stateless and marginalised of key goods and may result in lack of trust in state institutions. It may also result in a sense of humiliation and alienation that can transform into group mobilisation and fuel violent conflict.
Sub-state level institutions can also be exclusionary. In some cases, citizenship may be inclusive at the national level while local-level governance may remain exclusive – resulting in a multi-tiered citizenship structure. In many African countries, for example, women have little contact with the formal state and are constrained in their exercise of citizenship rights. Many aspects of their lives are governed instead by local, customary systems that often limit their rights. They are unable to hold the state accountable in these areas.
Statebuilding and peacebuilding processes in situations of conflict and fragility can allow for changes in power relations, state structures and institutions, and the relationship between the state and citizens. In order to achieve peace and stability, it is important to ensure that specific groups are not deliberately and unfairly excluded from citizenship or from exercising their right to citizenship. It is necessary to understand and address not only the mechanisms that create statelessness but also those that perpetuate deprivation. In the shorter to medium-term, donors need to ensure that stateless groups are not neglected in assistance programmes.
Blitz, B. K. and Lynch. M. eds., 2009, Statelessness and the Benefits of Citizenship: A Comparative Study, Oxford Brookes University, UK
Statelessness undermines the promotion of human security understood not only as violent threats to individuals but also in the context of vulnerabilities caused by poverty, lack of state capacity and various forms of inequity. Yet, statelessness and the value or acquiring or re-acquiring citizenship has received minimal attention from scholars, development agencies and monitoring bodies. This book presents research on the benefits of citizenship as a means of countering human rights violations and social, economic and political instability. It stresses that if stateless groups are not given particular attention by donors in social assistance programmes and if issues of citizenship are not addressed, it is unlikely that aid policies will reach them.
Adejumobi, S., 2001, ‘Citizenship, Rights, and the Problem of Conflicts and Civil Wars in Africa’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 148-170
How central has the issue of citizenship and rights been to internal conflicts in Africa? This article moves away from political and economic explanations of conflict and argues that underlying most of the civil wars in Africa are issues of citizenship and rights. Often the state institutionalises ethnic differences and privileges through a divided and exclusionary definition of citizenship. Negotiating peace and stability will require reframing citizenship from a group to a national or ‘universal’ perspective.
Castillejo, C., 2008, ‘Strengthening Women’s Citizenship in the Context of State Building: The Experience of Sierra Leone’, Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE), Madrid
How can women’s citizenship in developing countries be strengthened? In many African countries women have little contact with the formal state and their lives are governed by customary governance systems that seriously limit their rights and opportunities for political participation. This is particularly true for women in fragile states, where the formal state is weak and inaccessible. Based on field research in Sierra Leone, this paper examines how processes of post-conflict statebuilding have redrawn the boundaries of authority between the formal state and customary governance systems, and thereby provided new citizenship opportunities for women. The paper explores the changes that are taking place in women’s rights, women’s political participation and women’s mobilisation in Sierra Leone, in the context of statebuilding. It also makes recommendations on how donors can support the strengthening of women’s citizenship within their support for statebuilding in Africa.
The project, ‘Citizenship and Displacement in the Great Lakes Region’, run by the The International Refugee Rights Initiative in partnership with Rema Ministries and the Social Science Research Council, has published a series of case studies on citizenship and belonging in the Great Lakes region and forced displacement.
For discussion and resources on social exclusion and inclusiveness, see:
- Exclusion, rights and citizenship in the Social Exclusion topic guide.
- Inequality, exclusion and marginalisation in Chapter 1 (Understanding Violent Conflict) of the Conflict topic guide.
- Social exclusion and horizontal inequalities in Chapter 2 in the fragile states topic guide.
- Social capital, social cohesion and inclusiveness in Chapter 4 in the conflict topic guide.