Nationality is one of the most consequential, though often overlooked, earthly possessions.
It provides the legal link between a person and a country by granting official recognition within the global system of nation-states. Nationality tells the world where you belong and, to a large extent, who you are.
It is formative to one’s personal sense of identity – to be American or Brazilian or Japanese or anything else is to be something very meaningful – and its practical implications are immense.
Nationality’s importance can be seen in the following imagined scenario.
While traveling in a foreign country, you lose your passport and all forms of identification. You no longer have any documentation to verify who you are, and a myriad of complications prevent you from acquiring a new passport or replacing lost identity papers. For the time being, you must face the world without anything determining that you are someone from somewhere.
This thought exercise captures the essence of an unending nightmare faced by more than 10 million stateless individuals in our world today. Statelessness is the condition whereby an individual is not considered a national by any state.
The stateless are left off the global roll call of national populations and live in the world without being accepted in any part of the world. They have no citizenship, no passports and, in many situations, no form of identity documents.
Stateless men, women and children exist absent of a recognized existence, and the ramifications of this tragedy are harrowing.
Consider all the parts of life that require some form of identification. These are impossible or extremely complicated for the stateless who are prevented, or largely hindered, from:
- Attending school and university
- Gaining legal employment
- Traveling across borders
- Accessing healthcare services
- Banking and engaging in commerce
- Renting, owning or inheriting property
- Certifying a marriage and registering children
In the absence of a nationality, the stateless are denied essential protections and left vulnerable to severe violations.
From Black and Indigenous populations in early U.S. history to Jews in Nazi Germany to the Rohingya of Myanmar today, history has been severe to those robbed of their right to nationality.
Numerous factors contribute to statelessness.
It can emerge when entire people groups are excluded from a national community, when women are denied the right to transmit nationality to their children, when marriages or births are not registered, when new states are created leaving some excluded from its citizenry, or when children fall through gaps in nationality laws.
Too often, statelessness is inherited as stateless generations produce stateless generations. Despite doing nothing wrong, they are rejected by their home countries and excluded from the world.
The stateless are widely invisible to the world around them, their suffering disregarded.
Nationality is imperative to upholding human dignity, and the drafters of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (UDHR) were very aware of this. Article 15 of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to a nationality,” and no one shall be deprived of a nationality or the right to change their nationality.
It is a foundational element of human rights theory since nationality is the right on which all other rights hinge. Political theorists Hannah Arendt described nationality as “the right to have rights” in her book, Origins of Totalitarianism.
If someone is denied a nationality, then a host of additional human rights violations are bound to result.
We live in a world where everyone is meant to be a type of person, be it Canadian or Filipino or Egyptian or the like.
Those who are stateless are essentially dehumanized and rendered a non-human status. Arendt rightly identified it as “expulsion from humanity altogether.”
The human right to nationality is full of faith dimensions. It determines who someone is and where they belong within the political realities of our world.
The Bible is highly concerned with honoring human dignity and recognizing the need to belong in places. These truths are vividly illuminated in the manifestation of God’s kingdom – the ultimate of entities, the most endearing of homelands, to which all are invited to enjoy membership.
The reality of this kingdom does not negate the need for nationality but rather reinforces it. We celebrate the truth that “our citizenship is in heaven” and should live in anticipation of this hope as fully-fledged nationals on earth.
It is the highest form of a dual nationality, and it should motivate us to see every individual honored as a member of this world.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The previous articles in the series are:
No Room for Debate: Trans People Have Rights | Junia Joplin
Do We Observe Human Rights or Practice Hypocrisy? | Wendell Griffen
Programs coordinator at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.