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12 December 2011

UNHCR’s Ministerial Meeting – A normative breakthrough for Stateless People

On 7-8 December 2011, in the context of the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) held a high-level ministerial meeting to highlight what is urgently needed to improve the situation of refugees and stateless people. Opening the meeting in Geneva, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, urged senior government officials to reinforce the international system that deals with the millions of stateless people and forcibly displaced people around the world. Various countries presented concrete pledges and recommendations to address specific issues related to forced displacement and/or statelessness, such as sexual and gender-based violence; resettlement; improving national refugee legislation; climate change; voluntary repatriation; alternatives to detention; protection for children and women; and integration.

Guterres warned for the effects of the political and economic crises, which offers opportunities for populist politicians and elements of the media to feed intolerance towards refugees and stateless peoples. “Refugees are not a security threat, but rather the first victims of insecurity,” he underlined. United States’ Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, drew particular attention to the discrimination of women, which is one of the causes of statelessness. “At least 30 countries around the world prevent women from acquiring, retaining, or transmitting citizenship to their children or their foreign spouses. And in some cases, nationality laws strip women of their citizenship if they marry someone from another country,” she explained. She called upon Member States to support efforts to end or amend such discriminatory laws. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari defined “refugeeism is a man-made problem” and underlined that in conflict situations “those in power can end the plight of refugees,” stressing that “it is a question of will.”

Calling statelessness “one of the most forgotten areas of the global human rights agenda” and a kind of “stepchild” of UNHCR’s mandate, António Guterres praised the outcome of the meeting, which he described as a “real breakthrough, a quantum leap” in relation to the protection of stateless people. Within the context of the meeting, two countries (Serbia and Turkmenistan) became States parties to the 1961 and 1954 stateless conventions respectively; and twenty countries had made commitments to ratify the conventions, while another 25 countries made pledges to improve the protection of stateless people. Over the course of 2011, Panama, Nigeria, and Benin also became parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and, together with Croatia, to 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Various participants emphasized the importance of the Conventions to protect the fundamental rights of refugees, to provide standards for their treatment and to provide UNHCR with a legal framework to offer those in need assistance and protection. At the end of the two-day meeting, ministers adopted a communiqué – a short, non-binding, political statement capturing the main challenges relating to statelessness and refugee protection. Click here to access the draft communiqué.

For more background information, click here.

Photo credits:
© UNHCR / Jean-Marc Ferré

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