The right to citizenship is a basic fundamental human right to which human beings living in the modern world are entitled. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that all people are entitled to possess a nationality, to have the ability to change their nationality if they so choose, and to not be “arbitrarily denied” a nationality by their respective government (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). Despite this, there have been a concerning number of instances where national governments have used the institution of citizenship as a weapon to persecute their opponents, including both democratic and authoritarian governments.
In February 2023, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent 222 political opponents and other dissidents into exile in the United States (Maria Abi-Habib, 2023). Following the exiles’ arrival in the United States, the Ortega government announced that it would be denying them their continued rights to Nicaraguan citizenship, rendering the vast majority of them stateless. This was followed a week later by news from a Nicaraguan appeals court justice that a verdict had been reached, stripping an additional 94 dissidents of their citizenship, bringing the overall tally of Nicaraguans rendered stateless to over 300 in just a month (Alan Yuhas, 2023).
This signifies that the Ortega government has weaponized the concept of citizenship itself as a means to target its political enemies. As previously stated, the UDHR explicitly grants all people the right to a nationality and to not have said nationality be infringed upon for arbitrary reasons, a right which the Ortega government is violating in this case. Though the Spanish government has stated that it would be offering those expelled a path towards Spanish citizenship and the Biden Administration has also put forth offers of asylum to those who have arrived in the country, the fact remains that their human rights and civil liberties have been clearly and deliberately infringed upon as a punitive measure by their government (Elena Rodriguez et al., 2023). Further, not all of those targeted are outside of Nicaragua – making it so that those who remain in the country are now unable to obtain a passport to travel nor are they able to participate in their country’s political system with the rights that they are entitled to (Alan Yuhas, 2023).
Though it is particularly notable for its sheer numerical scale, the actions of the Ortega government are not unique. The usage of denaturalization as a tool to persecute and disenfranchise citizens deemed problematic is far from a new phenomenon, particularly among authoritarian governments. For example, the Bahraini government stripped 72 people of their citizenship in 2015 to “protect the security and stability” of the Kingdom (The Associated Press, 2015). The Saudi Arabian government also famously revoked Osama bin Laden’s citizenship in 1994 at the request of King Fahd (Wright, 2007, p. 195).
Worryingly, however, the practice of denaturalization has become more prevalent in some democratic countries as well. A prominent example of this is the United Kingdom, which has recently been embroiled in controversy surrounding its usage of similar tactics. The British Nationality Act of 1981 allows for the deprivation of British citizenship from specific individuals if their citizenship was obtained fraudulently or if doing so can be deemed as “conducive to the public good.” The law was further amended by the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act in 2022, which includes language giving the British government the power to strip dual nationals of their citizenship without any prior notice (Haroon Siddique, 2021; Nationality and Borders Act 2022, 2022).
A prominent example of this policy being implemented would be the case of Shamima Begum, a British woman of Bangladeshi origin who left the United Kingdom in 2015 for Syria to join the Islamic State. Begum, who was 15 when she left the U.K., had her citizenship revoked by the British government in 2019, with the government claiming that her Bangladeshi heritage would entitle her to citizenship in Bangladesh, therefore not technically rendering her stateless (Shamima Begum -v- Home Secretary, 2021). However, the Bangladeshi government has denied her claim to citizenship, leaving her in legal limbo as a stateless refugee living in a camp in Syria. Despite numerous protests regarding the morality of its decision, featuring such prominent voices as Johnathan Sumption, a former Senior Judge at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the British government has reaffirmed its stance as of February 2023 (Vikram Dodd, 2023).
The point of this is to emphasize that all citizens of a country should be treated equally under the eyes of the law, regardless of how heinous their crimes may be. Though the British government undoubtedly has the right to prosecute Begum for what she has done, its actions in this case set a very bad precedent for human rights going forward. The institution of citizenship should remain static and any legal proceedings that a government wishes to engage in against a citizen should be done through those existing parameters. With the precedent these laws set, the potential now exists for these laws to be abused to deprive additional citizens of their right to their nationality if those in power see it fit to do so.
Jad Vianu is a student in the class of 2023 at the School of International Service at American University. He is majoring in International Relations with an emphasis on foreign policy and national security and justice, ethics, and human rights.
Alan Yuhas. (2023, February 17). Nicaragua Strips Citizenship From Hundreds Days After Prisoner Release. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/17/world/americas/nicaragua-strips-citizenship-dissidents.html?searchResultPosition=2
Elena Rodriguez, Andrei Khalip, & Raul Cortes Fernandez. (2023, February 10). Spain Offers Freed Nicaraguans Citizenship After Move to Make Them Stateless. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/spain-offers-citizenship-222-freed-nicaraguan-political-prisoners-2023-02-10/
Haroon Siddique. (2021, November 21). New Bill Quietly Gives Powers to Remove British Citizenship Without Notice. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/17/new-bill-quietly-gives-powers-to-remove-british-citizenship-without-notice
Maria Abi-Habib. (2023, February 9). Nicaragua Frees Hundreds of Political Prisoners to the United States. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/09/world/americas/nicaragua-prisoner-release.html?searchResultPosition=3
Nationality and Borders Act 2022, no. 152, Parliament: House of Commons (2022). https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3023
Shamima Begum -v- Home Secretary, SC/163/2019 (Supreme Court of the United Kingdom February 26, 2021). https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2020-0156-judgment.pdf
The Associated Press. (2015, January 31). Bahrain: 72 People Are Stripped of Their Citizenship. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/world/middleeast/bahrain-72-people-are-stripped-of-their-citizenship.html
United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). United Nations.
Vikram Dodd. (2023, February 27). Shamima Begum Should Be Allowed to Return to UK – Terrorism Adviser. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/feb/27/shamima-begum-should-be-allowed-return-uk-terrorism-adviser
Wright, L. (2007). The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (1. Vintage Books ed). Vintage Books.