The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a “stateless person” as a person whom no state considers to be a national under the operation of its law (Article 1(1)). UNHCR Guidelines adopted in 2012 elaborate that deciding if a person is stateless is a “mixed question of fact and law”, so that “Where the competent authorities treat an individual as a non-national even though he or she would appear to meet the criteria for automatic acquisition of nationality under the operation of a country’s laws, it is their position rather than the letter of the law that is determinative in concluding that a State does not consider such an individual as a national”.
The international norm that statelessness is to be avoided has been steadily strengthened in the international and African human rights regimes. In the African system, the General Comment No.2 adopted by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child emphasises these protections.
Among the countries in Africa where UNHCR recognises that there are major populations at risk of statelessness are Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe. In Côte d’Ivoire and DRC the failure to recognise the nationality of large populations belonging to particular ethnic groups has been one of the main causes of conflict in those countries.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has heard complaints in several cases where people have been rendered stateless by individual and arbitrary decisions to deprive them of their nationality. Most cases, of course, never reach the national courts, still less a hearing by the African Commission.
Statelessness and lack of recognition of nationality have a devastating effect on respect for other rights. Without proof that a person is a national of the country where they live – or of any other country – a person may be unable to work, to access health care and education, to hold secure rights to land and other property, or to enforce any of these claims in court.