Deprivation of Citizenship in Bahrain | By Davin Kenney, Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher

By Davin Kenney, Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher

  • I was asked to deliver remarks on two questions: (1) “To what degree does the deprivation of citizenship in Bahrain adhere to international standards?”; and (2) “What have domestic and international mechanisms done to address deprivation of citizenship in Bahrain?” I’m going to answer the second question first, and then circle back to the first question.
  • International mechanisms have not done much, but that’s not necessarily a criticism because there are not legally empowered mechanisms to address the problem of statelessness in the world. There is the U.N. human-rights machinery centered in Geneva – the Human Rights Council, the so-called “special procedures,” and all that – and those bodies have, appropriately enough, expressed criticism and concern.  However, these bodies are nowhere even close to having a mandate to do something like awarding nationality to those who don’t have it.  In the current international legal order, sovereign states determine for themselves who to grant citizenship.  Some countries, including in Europe, have granted asylum possibly leading to naturalization to exiled Bahrainis who have lost their citizenship.  That’s a good thing as far as it goes, but it hardly rises of the level of an international mechanism to address the problem.  I’m aware from the seminar program that the European Parliament and the European Commission have debated the problem of statelessness recently.  Again, that’s all to the good, but it’s not yet close to an actual mechanism to address the problem.
  • As for domestic mechanisms, if we mean domestic to Bahrain, they have done nothing to address the problem as they are themselves the source of the problem. The best-known discussion about how to resolve statelessness domestically in the Arab Gulf comes from the case of the bidūnof Kuwait, which is a self-inherited problem from the days of state formation.  But in Bahrain, you have a very different situation in that a state that had a native population whose nationality was settled is now creating for itself a new bidūnproblem, by fairly large-scale denaturalization of native-born Bahrainis.
  • Bahrain has actually had aggressive options for denaturalization in its legislation since even before independence. The Nationality Law of 1963 allowed the King to strip Bahraini nationality from those who took a second nationality or from anyone “help[ing] … an enemy country” or “causing damage to state security.”  These provisions were procedurally updated, and the state-security one was made even looser, by amendments to the Nationality Law in 2014, so that now the threat of royal denaturalization applies to anyone who “causes damage to the interests of the Kingdom or engages in behavior contrary to his duty of loyalty.”  In addition, in a 2013 amendment to its counterterrorism law, Bahrain allowed its courts to denaturalize people for, among other things, “incit[ing] another to commit a crime in execution of a terrorist purpose, even if no effect results from his action.”  And Bahrain’s definition of “terrorism” is so loose that this can mean anyone encouraging others to protest.
  • But, even though Bahrain has always had the legal tools to denaturalize citizens, it has only started doing so in large numbers since the 2011 uprising. The total number of those denaturalized, per Amnesty’s tracking, is now in the upper hundreds.  Our exact count is 742 since 2012, and Amnesty has tracked 255 people who have been stripped of their nationality so far this year.  We don’t have an exact sectarian breakdown but it’s clear that the vast majority of those denaturalized are Shia.  Since the total citizen population is over 700,000, this is not a large enough number to substantially affect the demographic balance, but it is enough to create a major human-rights crisis for the group affected.  Statelessness is a sentence to permanent legal disability, which usually means permanent economic marginalization as well, and stateless populations, once established, only tend to grow as they have children who inherit the disability of statelessness.
  • Coming back now to the starting question, “To what degree does the deprivation of citizenship in Bahrain adhere to international standards?,” to answer we first have to point to a standard. A good starting point is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and specifically Art. 8.1, which says that states should not deprive people of their nationality if doing so would render them stateless.  We have the legal problem that none of the Arab Gulf countries is a party to this Convention, and here one could enter into a long debate about whether or not this rule is customary international law and therefore applies to all states.  This debate exists in the legal literature, but, speaking as a representative of Amnesty International, Amnesty’s public position is that “the obligation to avoid statelessness has been recognized as a norm of customary international law.”
  • Given that, it’s easy to state that Bahrain’s policy of denaturalization is not adhering to the international standard in any way. Almost all those denaturalized are now stateless, and the primary function of denaturalization in Bahrain is as a tool for suppression of dissent, especially public protest, which is of course totally illegitimate under international law.
  • In short, if prior to 2011 we could say that Bahrain was one of the Arab Gulf countries that did not have a notable bidūnproblem, it seems likely that in the years to come Bahrain will have a substantial and growing problem of statelessness which is entirely of its own making.

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