Don't trust the government's citizenship-stripping policy

Even if depriving dangerous individuals of their citizenship can be right in principle, can we really trust governments to use such a power prudently in practice?

Should British nationals suspected of terrorist offences or other serious international crimes be stripped of their citizenship? The British government thinks so. Over the past ten years, UK governments have passed legislation that makes it easier to strip citizenship from UK dual nationals when the home secretary deems their citizenship to be “not conducive to the public good”.

Now things have taken a more radical turn. In an amendment just passed by parliament, the government intends to extend denaturalisation powers to naturalised citizens even if it would make them stateless. This is no idle threat. No fewer than 37 UK nationals have been stripped of citizenship since the Conservative government came to power in September 2010, a figure that dwarfs the handful of people who lost citizenship when Labour was in power.

The moral case for such powers is easy to summarise. At first glance, it hardly seems right that an individual who threatens to destroy or undermine a society’s basic institutions should continue to enjoy citizenship of that society. If we presume —- as “contractualist” theories of the state would have it —- that the state is analogous to civil society associations, withdrawal of membership seems particularly appropriate. Virtually all organisations, from golf clubs to churches, have a recognised right to kick out members who set themselves at odds with the key principles of the association in question. We have a rich vocabulary to capture such procedures: associations “expel”, “excommunicate”, or “strike off the register” members who threaten their continued existence or basic norms.

The problem is that the state is not like other organisations, because individuals have no choice but to live under the authority and power of a state. If they are deprived of citizenship and made stateless, they continue to be subject to state power but without the basic protections against it offered by citizenship, including security of residence (protection from deportation), political rights, and a host of entitlements and privileges (including access to education and employment) often reserved solely for citizens.

It was for this reason that, in 1954, the US Supreme Court struck down a law which allowed the American government to take away citizenship as a punishment. Judging denaturalisation to be cruel and unusual, the court argued that “the punishment strips the citizen of his status in the national and international political community. His very existence is at the sufferance of the country in which he happens to find himself… [He] has lost the very right to have rights].”

Unequal treatment

Another concern is that laws to strip citizenship often apply only to some citizens. In the UK, for example, only naturalised citizens could lose their citizenship before 2002; after that, only dual nationals could (because only they would not become stateless). This means that under current British law, if a dual national and a single national commit the same offence (or more accurately, are suspected of committing the same offence), only the dual national could lose her citizenship. This kind of differential treatment undermines the fundamental concept of citizenship as a status with no gradations or rankings.

Even the British government accepted this idea when it introduced new denaturalisation legislation in 2002. Ministers argued, albeit somewhat disingenuously, that by making native-born British nationals (with a second citizenship) subject to the same denaturalisation powers as naturalised citizens, they were ensuring the equal treatment of naturalised Britons.

But even if denaturalisation powers were evenly applied to all, they would still be morally questionable. This is because it may be wrong to conceptualise citizenship simply as a “privilege” dependent on good behaviour. Long-term residents of a state (including those who entered illegally as children) have a moral right to be recognised as citizens based on the social ties and connections they have established in the course of their stay. As the political theorist Joseph Carens writes, there is “something deeply wrong in forcing people to leave a place where they have lived for a long time. Most people form their deepest human connections where they live. It becomes home.”

If social connections and ties constitute a reason for admitting people into citizenship, they are also a reason for not taking citizenship away once it has been acquired. We recognise this principle when we punish common criminals, who may well pose a threat to society, without withdrawing their citizenship.

An unjust policy

A different concern is that denaturalisation laws like the ones active in the UK are simply arbitrary, and for that reason unjust. Our legislation does not require that an individual be convicted of a crime in a court of law; indeed, one of the attractions of the current legislation for British governments is that it allows the home secretary to get rid of individuals without going through the difficult process of providing the evidence necessary for criminal conviction. To be sure, there is a statutory right of appeal, but given that most Britons are stripped of their citizenship when outside the UK, the chances for an effective appeal are minimal. Current laws define the grounds for deprivation so broadly that a successful appeal on the merits of a decision is highly unlikely.

If these moral concerns about stripping of citizenship fail to convince, there is one final and compelling reason why we should look askance at this power. Even if depriving dangerous individuals of their citizenship can be right in principle, can we really trust governments to use such a power prudently in practice? I think not.

Since the Conservative government came to power, they have denaturalised more people than any UK government since before World War II, and they now propose to extend powers so that even statelessness is not a bar. Initial government assurances that this power would be used sparingly and constrained by human rights considerations now seem risible. The key question supporters of denaturalisation need to ask is not whether it can in principle be right to strip citizenship (on that there may be room for debate), but whether it is wise to entrust denaturalisation to a government that has not hesitated to broaden the scope of its use

Matthew J. Gibney does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Home secretary Theresa May. Photo: Getty

Matthew J Gibney is Associate Professor of Politics and Forced Migration at University of Oxford.

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Hate Brexit Britain? 7 of the best places for political progressives to emigrate to

If you don't think you're going to get your country back, time to find another. 

Never mind the European Union, the UK is so over. Scotland's drifting off one way, Northern Ireland another and middle England is busy setting the clocks back to 1973. 

If this is what you're thinking as you absentmindedly down the last of your cheap, import-free red wine, then maybe it's time to move abroad. 

There are wonderful Himalayan mountain kingdoms like Bhutan, but unfortunately foreigners have to pay $250 a day. And there are great post-colonial states like India and South Africa, but there are also some post-colonial problems as well. So bearing things like needing a job in mind, it might be better to consider these options instead: 

1. Canada

If you’re sick of Little England, why not move to Canada? It's the world's second-biggest country with half the UK's population, and immigrants are welcomed as ‘new Canadians’. Oh, and a hot, feminist Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau's Cabinet has equal numbers of men and women, and includes a former Afghan refugee. He's also personally greeted Syrian refugees to the country. 

2. New Zealand 

With its practice of diverting asylum seekers to poor, inhospitable islands, Australia may be a Brexiteer's dream. But not far away is kindly New Zealand, with a moderate multi-party government and lots of Greens. It was also the first country to have an openly transexual mayor. 

Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Zealand since 2013, and sexual discrimination is illegal. But more importantly, you can live out your own Lord of the Rings movie again and again. As they say, one referendum to rule them all and in the darkness bind them...

3. Scandinavia

The Scandinavian countries regularly top the world’s quality of life indices. They’re also known for progressive policies, like equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. 

Norway ranks no. 2 of all the OECD countries for jobs and life satisfaction, Finland’s no.1 for education, Sweden stands out for health care and Denmark’s no. 1 for work-life balance. And the crime dramas are great.

Until 24 June, as an EU citizen, you could have moved there at the drop of a hat. Now you'll need to keep an eye on the negotiations. 

4. Scotland

Scottish voters bucked the trend and voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Not only is the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament a woman, but 35% of MSPs are women, compared to 29% of MPs.

If you're attached to this rainy isle but you don't want to give up the European dream, catch a train north. Just be prepared to stomach yet another referendum before you claw back that EU passport. 

5. Germany

The real giant of Europe, Germany is home to avant-garde artists, refugee activists and also has a lot of jobs (time to get that GCSE German textbook out again). And its leader is the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel. 

Greeks may hate her, but Merkel has undoubtedly been a crusader for moderate politics in the face of populist right movements. 

6. Ireland

It's English speaking, has a history of revolutionary politics and there's always a Ryanair flight. Progressives though may want to think twice before boarding though. Despite legalising same-sex marriage, Catholic Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws of the western world. 

A happier solution may be to find out if you have any Irish grandparents (you might be surprised) and apply for an Irish passport. At least then you have an escape route.

7. Vermont, USA

Let's be clear, anywhere that is considering a President Trump is not a progressive country. But under the Obama administration, it has made great strides in healthcare, gay marriage and more. If you felt the Bern, why not head off to Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont?

And thanks to the US political system, you can still legally smoke cannabis (for medicinal reasons, of course) in states like Colorado.