Fri, Jun 16, 2017 - Page 9 News List

May’s nationalist policies are making ‘citizens of nowhere’

By Jan-Werner Mueller

British Prime Minister Theresa May has, of her own volition, stripped her Conservative Party of its governing parliamentary majority by calling an early election. If she stays on as prime minister, she will also strip British citizens of the political and economic rights conferred by membership in the EU.

However, May’s habit of stripping away people’s rights and powers is not new. For years, she has been normalizing the practice of stripping certain Britons of their citizenship altogether, even at the risk of rendering them stateless “citizens of nowhere.”

During the UK’s just-concluded election campaign, May promised to change or nullify any human-rights laws that “get in the way” of fighting terrorism.

This is a credible threat. May herself has pioneered the practice of revoking individuals’ citizenship, usually in the name of national security, but sometimes as a form of symbolic punishment.

Depriving people of their citizenship is immoral — and ineffective. It has a dark history.

During the 20th century, totalitarian states set records in denationalization — 1.5 million people in the Soviet Union alone were stripped of their citizenship.

However, this practice was not confined to undemocratic regimes.

As French academic Patrick Weil has shown, laws passed in the US in the early 20th century led to at least 140,000 cases of denationalization.

Officially, these laws were meant to prevent people from acquiring citizenship through fraud; in reality, they were also used to enforce loyalty to the state.

In 1909, anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman became the first American to be denaturalized for essentially political reasons.

Before World War II and the Holocaust, few were overly concerned about the fact that denationalization could leave people stateless and without what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights.”

However, after 1945, new international legal instruments were forged to eliminate statelessness.

In a series of landmark decisions, the US Supreme Court made it effectively impossible for the government to remove a person’s US nationality against their will.

As US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said in 1967: “In our country, the people are sovereign and the government cannot sever its relationship to the people by taking away their citizenship.”

Yet calls for denationalization have proliferated across the West, with many politicians coming to regard it as a legitimate counterterrorism policy.

For example, after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, then-French president Francois Hollande tried, but failed, to insert a denationalization provision into the French constitution — an effort he came to regret, because it proved to be more divisive than unifying for the country.

However, no nation has gone further than the UK in making denationalization a routine counterterrorism measure.

According to Weil, between 2006 and 2015, the Office of the UK Home Secretary stripped 53 British citizens of their nationality; at least two were subsequently killed by US drone strikes.

Today, the UK has an extremely low bar for revoking citizenship. The home secretary need only be “satisfied that such deprivation is conducive to the public good.”

Since 2014, the home secretary has been able to denaturalize British citizens even if doing so immediately renders them stateless, as long as there are “reasonable grounds” for believing that the person could possibly acquire citizenship elsewhere.

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