In November 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees launched the Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 years, in order to cast a light on the “invisible” stateless people around the world. Their ambitious goal is to achieve an end to statelessness by 2024, but as the situation of the Bidoon people in Kuwait shows, despite government promises, there is still a long way to go.
The Bidoons in Kuwait: Background and mechanisms of statelessness
The Bidoon minority is a stateless Arab group in Kuwait.“Bidoon” in Arabic means “without”, and is short for “Bidoon jinsiyya”, which means “without citizenship”. Most Bidoons stem from nomadic tribes native to the Arabian Peninsula. As Kuwait became independent in 1961 and started to register its nationals, Bidoons weren’t able or willing to register as citizens. Many of them came from remote areas, were illiterate, and lacked the awareness or understanding of the new land. The Kuwaiti government failed to address the problem in an adequate way resulting in many intergenerational problems. According to the 1959 Nationality Law, citizenship in Kuwait is passed through the father, which prohibits women from transmitting their nationality to their children. Because of that, all children of Bidoon fathers are Bidoon themselves, regardless of the status of their mothers.
Imagine being born in the Bidoon community. The authorities, as well as the general public, would consider you a foreigner in your own country. As a child, you would be unable to attend public school like other Kuwaiti children. Instead, you would go to a school funded by charity with classes of poor quality compared to public ones. If you want to attend university, you would once again face barriers upon entry, as only 100 Bidoon students are accepted every year. To even apply to university, you would have to achieve a high school average of 90 per cent and obtain security clearance from the authorities. Regardless of your level of education, you would face more discrimination than Kuwaiti people of your age in relation to the job market, including lower wages. You would also face difficulties accessing civil documents. Because of these discriminations, you would be likely to live in poverty.
This situation renders the lives of Kuwaiti Bidoons impossible. Despite promises being made, there has been little effort to naturalise the Bidoon people. A law passed in 2000 allowed Bidoons and their descendants to be naturalised if they were able to prove that they were part of the 1965 census, but only a minority of Bidoons were granted citizenship through this process. To protest these injustices, peaceful protests took place in 2011. The government, however, responded very violently with arbitrary detentions, tear gas, flares, and random beatings.
Statelessness in International Law:
Statelessness is inherently an international issue. A stateless person cannot enjoy their full rights in their country of residence as they are often without adequate legal protection and suffer discrimination. It falls on the international community to advocate for these people and collaborate to recognise their status through a concrete framework and universal definition. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness attempt to do just that.
The 1954 Convention guarantees a minimum set of human rights for stateless people, including the right to education, employment, housing, and the right to identity and travel documents. It also provides a clear definition of statelessness, as the situation of someone who is “not considered as a national by any State under operation of its law”. Similarly, the 1961 Convention was created with the specific aim of preventing and reducing statelessness through establishing an international framework which ensures the universal right to a nationality. While both Conventions have been ratified by 96 and 77 states respectively, Kuwait has ratified neither.
Despite this, Kuwait is a state party to 7 other international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Under these treaties Kuwait has several obligations but, according to independent observers, it has failed to wholly uphold them especially in its treatment of the Bidoon.
The universal right to a nationality is protected by regional and international human rights treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, as well as being specifically guaranteed for children in Article 7 of the CRC and Article 24 of the ICCPR. Additionally, there are many safeguards against discrimination, be it on the grounds of origin (Article 26 ICCPR, Article 5 ICERD) or gender (Article 9, CEDAW). These are clearly being violated by Kuwait’s refusal to provide nationality to a whole community, and by not allowing women to transfer their nationality to their children. Kuwait manages to circumvent these obligations either by ratifying these treaties with reservations that present significant obstacles to the purpose of the treaty, or by blatantly not fulfilling their commitments according to these treaties.
The international community has a responsibility to call out these shameless violations of people’s rights in order to protect the universality of human rights across the world. In a positive development, when Kuwait participated in the Third Universal Periodic Review cycle – a state-led review of the implementation of international human rights law and standards – there were a total of 12 recommendations from other states relating explicitly to the situation of the Bidoon. Kuwait must, without delay, remove their reservations to Article 9 of CEDAW and Article 7 of the CRC on the conferral of nationality to a child. ECDHR also strongly urges Kuwait to consider ratifying the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.