By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson
During the last few years, the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain has seen an unprecedented number of its citizens getting their citizenships revoked by their own government. Although Bahrain is by far the worst offender, this measure – a violation of international law – has been discussed and implemented elsewhere. In this post, we take a look at the reasons for and consequences of a state denaturalising its own citizens.
According to Amnesty International, citizenship revocations have become the Bahraini regime’s ‘weapon of choice.’ In a way, it almost seems unfair to the Bahraini regime to single out only one of the brutal measures they use to curb public opposition (torture, arbitrary arrests, abductions and murder are just a few others), but nationality revocations have undoubtedly escalated quickly in recent years in comparison to other human rights abuses.
Bahrain has seen continuous uprisings and protests since the Arab Spring of 2011, when people rose up against the ruling Al Khalifa family. Despite this, the protests in the country have been sparsely covered by global media. Many blame the fact that Al-Jazeera Arabic so extensively covered the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but neglected the Bahraini uprisings. The reason is allegedly that the Qatar-owned channel did not wish to upset a local ally. However, the Al-Jazeera English Channel did produce this documentary on the protests, which both serves as a quick guide to how the uprisings started as well as capturing the brutality with which the Bahraini regime responded to them.
Although several people have been imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Bahraini security forces, the Bahraini government has lately escalated revocations of citizenships. People whose citizenships are revoked are often deported, meaning that they often end up stuck in a foreign country without a passport and banned from returning to Bahrain. The Bahraini regime has thus found a convenient way of dealing with the political opposition; instead of fighting or jailing them, they just put them somewhere else.
This is a practice that has been going on in Bahrain for a while, as the government stripped opposition members of their citizenships and barred them from returning to the country throughout the second half of the 20th century. As part of hostilities towards Iran, many of the country’s citizens of Persian heritage were expelled, with the regime using racist justifications for the decision to define this portion of the population as ‘un-Bahraini’. That justification is quite hypocritical, bearing in mind that the ruling Al Khalifa family did not arrive in Bahrain until 1783, which is well after many of the naturalised Persian immigrants arrived.
This denaturalisation tactic has come into use more and more extensively after the Arab Spring. London-based human rights organisation BIRD (Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy) has put together a timeline of the spike in citizenship revocations of the past few years. This timeline shows a pattern of how the Bahraini regime strips nationalities: victims are often announced in large groups and almost exclusively belong to political opposition. In early 2015, the Bahraini government released a list of people whose citizenships were to be revoked. In this list, 20 of the 72 people denaturalised were alleged ISIS supporters, but they were lumped together with human rights activists, academics and one blogger. The Bahraini government is thus drawing an unsettling parallel between those who support beheadings and mass killings and those who support a state that respects human rights.
Unfortunately, as with other Gulf countries, these (and other) abuses of human rights and international law are being committed with the blessing of large parts of the international community. The United States, for example, have important strategic interests in the Gulf, as well as a naval base in Bahrain, and are therefore not likely to criticise the country’s human rights record. The UK are no better with David Cameron, who allegedly cares enough about the Syrian people to take action for their cause (ironically by bombing their country rather than letting them find refuge in his own), seeming content to support a regime that kills and tortures its own people.
In November 2015, the construction of a new British naval base in Bahrain began. This is the first British naval base to be opened east of the Suez since 1971, which suggests that the United Kingdom, due to their new strategic interests, are not going to start criticising the Bahraini regime any time soon. Quite the opposite, as reports surfaced earlier this year stated that the UK had even actively lobbied the UN, together with Bahraini and UK ally Saudi Arabia, in order to water down criticism of Bahrain over police abuse. Indeed, there will be no stopping Bahraini human rights abuses unless its major allies speak out against the brutal practices that take place in the country.
Not only Bahrain
It would be wrong, however, to think that Bahrain is the only country that engages with the idea, and act, of citizenship revocations. The UK itself, for example, infamously denaturalised the prisoner known as “M2”, who then snuck back into the country using his Afghani passport. In 2014, a poll showed that the British public supported stripping British ISIS members of their citizenships, something which was also supported by Tory parliamentarians and UKIP. Although we are talking about terrorists and not democratic and non-violent protesters (unlike the Bahraini government, I am not keen to make that connection), rendering someone stateless is still a violation of international law.
This is something that the French government had in mind when they announced a new set of anti-terrorism laws in the wake of the Paris attacks of November 2015. Most likely keeping in mind that rendering someone stateless was in violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, France opted to only strip those of dual nationality who had been involved in terrorist activities of their French citizenship, attempting to add this measure as an amendment to the constitution. Therefore, this measure very much resembled what Australia implemented last year.
However, the initiative led to widespread controversy, with Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigning in protest over the new law. The measure was seen as controversial because, besides its rather draconian character, it disproportionally affects people of Arab background in France, a group which represents the biggest percentage of binationals in the country. The French government ended up scrapping the law in late March.
Lately, Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdoğan – continuing his quest of becoming the world’s most disliked head of state – declared that he wanted to strip PKK supporters of their Turkish nationalities. Erdoğan justified this by stating that supporters of the PKK are traitors and supporters of terror, whilst acknowledging that this measure would not only include those involved in terror activities, but also vocal supporters of the PKK such as academics and journalists. This would in some way be the ultimate step in Turkey’s plan for eliminating all public support, whether real or imagined, for the PKK, as the country already prosecutes and jails journalists and academics for their alleged PKK ties.
Consequences of exclusion from nationhood
That internal conflicts entail language evoking ideas of treason and values ‘foreign to the nation’ is neither new nor unexpected. This is something we can see today in both Syria and Yemen, and something we have seen in previous conflicts. Resorting to this rather petty language even occurs at the political stage in peacetime, which is something that both the UK and the US have experienced in recent months in the run-up to the EU referendum and the presidential election.
However, there is quite a difference between removing someone from the national community in an abstract sense and doing it in an actual sense. Although terrorism should be punished, solving the issue by stripping convicted terrorists of their citizenships, as was discussed in France and suggested by some in the UK, could both be unlawful and unproductive. Moreover, it insinuates a denial of the actual state of affairs in the given country, as it suggests that the given country is not a place where terrorism exists and therefore terrorists must not bear the country’s nationality. This might be natural, as no country would state that terrorism is part of their national values, but this is a problem that will be solved by seeking out the citizens involved in terrorist activities and either jailing or attempting to de-radicalise them – not by simply trying to disown the problem.
Similarly, what the Bahraini regime has failed to understand is that they cannot simply disown the public outrage and grievance that they has been a part of creating. Due to their own role, they resort to the practice of forcefully removing people whose views are not aligned with them. Hopefully, this is not a trend that will stay in fashion for long.
Photo by: Al Jazeera English (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons