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ECOWAS on verge of becoming first region to end statelessness

By Kemo Cham

West Africa is on the verge of becoming the first region to end statelessness after ministers from the 15-member ECOWAS group announced the adoption of an ambitious plan this week.

The regional action plan adopted at a ministerial meeting in the Gambian capital, Banjul tasked individual member countries to undertake polices in line with international standards to end a rising phenomenon human rights groups say has led to the marginalisation of millions of people across the world.

According to international law, statelessness is the lack of citizenship. A stateless person is not considered as a national by any state under its law. Statelessness is common among refugees, although very many stateless people are not necessarily refugees.

Conflicting nationality laws and Gender discrimination are two major factors thought to be fueling statelessness. And the effects include denial of access to education, healthcare, and job, among others.

The Banjul meeting, which is the 2nd ministerial conference on statelessness in West Africa, was preceded by a similar one in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan in 2015, where the initially declaration was made.

The Abidjan Declaration recognised statelessness as a scourge in the region and committed to end it by 2024, the target of the UNHCR’s 10-year campaign.

The Banjul Plan of Action, as the outcome of the Gambian meeting is dubbed, is an endorsement of the Abidjan declaration, explain officials. It entails six strategic support measures to tackle statelessness, according to a statement by the ECOWAS Commission, which organized the conference with the support of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR). The document calls for reform of nationality laws and the establishment of legal guarantees to ensure that all children have a right to a nationality at birth. It also details support measures that ECOWAS and UNHCR can provide to member states, and spells out mechanisms for monitoring its implementation.

The Plan of Action is underpinned by three pillars: identifying stateless people and the risk of statelessness; preventing and reducing statelessness; and raising awareness among the general public.

According to UHNCR, there are at least 10 million people around the world who are stateless. West Africa is thought to be home to an estimated one million of these.

The UN agency says in many parts of the world several nationality laws do not yet provide equal rights for women to pass their nationality on to their children, and some limit nationality on the basis of race or ethnicity. Both cases are true for Sierra Leone under the 1991 constitution which is under review.

Volder Turk, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, told the Banjul meeting that studies have linked statelessness in West Africa to lack of legal safeguards in nationality laws, and administrative obstacles to accessing prove-of-nationality documentation. He said up to 30 per cent of people in the ECOWAS region do not have sufficient documentation proving their identity claim to a nationality.

“This problem will grow as long as there continues to be a high number of children born in the region who do not have access to birth certificates,” he added.

But the UN official noted that the strong engagement of West African countries on the issue underscored the increasing awareness of the extent and the causes of the problem in the sub-region. He noted that the “unique and inspiring” ECOWAS plan positions the bloc as the first regional entity to adopt a plan.

“ECOWAS has set an example not only for the rest of the continent, but for the world and the UNHCR would do whatever it can to support the sub-region in this regard,” he said.

“Through these bold efforts, West Africa is positioning itself as the world leader in the fight to end statelessness.”

The UN has passed two conventions against statelessness – 1954 Convention and 1961 Convention. The first was designed to ensure that stateless people enjoy a minimum set of human rights, while the second aims to prevent statelessness and reduce it over time.

As of November 2014, when the UNHCR launched the Campaign to End Statelessness within 10 years, there were 83 states parties to the 1954 Convention and 61 states parties to the 1961 Convention.

Only 12 of the 15 member ECOWAS countries have ratified the 1954 convention, and eleven are party to the 1961 Convention, according to the Commission.

“Statelessness has a devastating impact on the lives of individuals, as having a nationality is essential to the full participation in society and a precondition to enjoy fundamental human rights,” says Dr Fatmata Dia-Sowe, Commissioner for Social Affairs and Gender at the ECOWAS Commission.  She assured of the Commission’s commitment to realize the goal of ending statelessness.

Ahead of the Banjul ministerial conference, a two-day technical experts meeting formulated the plan, which was adopted by the ministers. The document is now expected to be presented for approval by an ECOWAS statutory meeting to make it binding on member states.

The UN, under its new leadership, considers the eradication of statelessness as a priority in line with efforts to promote human rights.

“This meeting represents a crucial landmark in the progress being made by ECOWAS, the UN in general and UNHCR in particular towards the implementation of February 2015 Abidjan Declaration of Ministers of ECOWAS member states on the eradication of statelessness,” said Mohamed Ibn Chambers, UN Secretary General special representative for West Africa and the Sahel. He urged member countries to ensure the successful implementation of the plan which he said will redeem millions of West Africans from being vulnerable to marginalised living, exploitation by criminal groups, risk of human trafficking and political and religious radicalisation. 

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