Denial of citizenship rights and the link to atrocity crimes: Calling for greater recognition to be made of the need for inclusive approaches to citizenship


Published: 11 Sep 2013
By: Lucy Hovil

Today, the UN General Assembly is having a dialogue to discuss the Secretary-General’s latest report on the implementation of the responsibility to protect – otherwise known as R2P. The idea behind the responsibility to protect – which effectively affirms the responsibility of states to protect populations within their borders from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity (so-called ‘atrocity crimes’), and affirms the right of the international community to act if they fail to do so – is a good one. However, in practice the potential of this relatively new norm has yet to be realised: too often it has either been seen as nothing more than presenting the justification for military action, or it has been conflated with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention – or both.

Against this background, the Secretary General’s recent report on “The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention” is a welcome development. It demonstrates a far more nuanced understanding of the wider contextual issues surrounding the idea of state protection – or the lack thereof. In particular, the report asserts that the denial of citizenship rights is a serious risk factor for marginalisation, exclusion and, ultimately, the commission of atrocity crimes. As it states, atrocity crimes often deliberately target specific groups, communities or populations. Indeed, by definition, genocide is the targeting of a group on the basis of their identity. Therefore these crimes resonate around the allegation that certain people, or groups of people, do not have the right to belong – or even, in the case of genocide, to exist.

The extent to which equitable citizenship is relevant to broader understandings of the responsibility to protect has been demonstrated repeatedly by IRRI in our ongoing research on citizenship and displacement in the Great Lakes region. Of course, it would be naïve to claim that citizenship is some kind of silver bullet that has been previously overlooked. However, what is certainly true is that its failure is often a root cause of conflict, just as its proper realisation can be an antidote to such conflict. And this key issue, we believe, has not received enough attention to date.

At a formal level, the denial of citizenship and citizenship rights has been a driver of conflict and mass atrocity in a number of crises in Africa, from Cote d’Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Zimbabwe. Given that citizenship is, as Arendt so famously said, ‘the right to have rights’ it is a crucial means of accessing other rights – whether the ability to participate in the political activities of the country, or simply in being able to legitimately have access to land and livelihoods.

And at a more informal or local level, national citizenship inevitably interacts with the ways in which individuals and groups are accepted – or rejected – in the specific locality in which they are living. At both these levels – the national and the local – the international community needs to do far more to recognise that access to citizenship is a core human rights concern; and it needs to elaborate far clearer international standards relating to citizenship law and practice.

Therefore we hope that the discussion that takes place today will recognise the usefulness of viewing both causes and solutions to atrocity crimes through the lens of citizenship. At the end of the day, building inclusive and durable frameworks for meaningful access to citizenship is vital to building resilience against mass atrocity.

Programmes: Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative
Regions: Great Lakes Region
Type: IRRI Blog