Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

UNHCR launches 10 year campaign to eradicate statelessness

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A floating Vietnamese community in Cambodia.

A floating ethnic Vietnamese community in Cambodia.

Christoph Sperfeldt

Centre for International Governance and Justice

On 4 November 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a 10-year campaign to eradicate statelessness by the year 2024.

Yang Oun can no longer remember when his ancestors arrived from Vietnam to Cambodia. All he knows is that his parents and grandparents were born in Cambodia and called this place their home. Yang Oun was born in 1964 to a Vietnamese father and a Chinese-Khmer mother. He grew up in a village predominately populated by Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese minority. Due to his Vietnamese name he was always perceived to be more “Vietnamese” than Cambodian. When the Khmer Rouge arrived at his village, in April 1975, they separated the Vietnamese from the Khmer residents and forcefully deported his family, along with an estimated 150,000 to 170,000 other members of the Vietnamese minority, across the border to Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge forced them to leave behind all belongings and documents of their life in Cambodia. All the Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge. Now, the few senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime who are still alive are charged with genocide before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh. Yang Oun took the courage to personally bring a claim against these leaders, and was admitted as a civil party in the criminal trial.

After years in a refugee camp in Vietnam, in 1982 he returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power. He and his young family started a new life on one of the many floating villages along the Tonle Sap River in Kampong Chhnang province, nowadays one of Cambodia’s tourist attractions. Since the day of his return, the Cambodian authorities have treated him and his fellow returnees as ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreign residents’. He has neither Cambodian nor Vietnamese nationality documents. His children have no birth certificates, and he claims that this is one reason they cannot go to school.

In an attempt to shed light on the circumstances of Yang Oun’s situation and that of his community, a recent report – “A Boat Without Anchors” – explored their status under the applicable Cambodian and Vietnamese nationality laws and considered how the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam view and treat this group under the operation of their respective laws. The report concluded that Yang Oun appeared to be ‘stateless’. Although he has never heard of this term, Yang Oun knows the daily struggles associated with the reality of being a person without a nationality under the laws of any state. The ethnic Vietnamese minority group has frequently suffered under the often-times contentious bilateral relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Recurrent dynamics of discrimination and exclusion against this group have complicated their integration into Cambodian society. Without citizenship and other documentation, ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia do not have access to many basic economic, political, and social rights and face an array of disadvantages, including limited freedom of movement and being unable to own land, and have difficulty accessing employment, education, health care, and legal protection. In addition, few development activities have taken place in these communities.

Yang Oun is one of at least 10 million stateless people worldwide, a situation that Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, describes as “an affront to humanity”. Considering that not much was known about Yang Oun’s case until recently, it is likely that the fate of many more stateless people, who live a life at the margins of societies around the globe, remains unknown. Given the seriousness of this problem, in 1954 the UN adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which regulates the legal status, treatment and  rights of stateless people. For decades, the Convention remained in a backwater and attracted few ratifications. During recent years efforts to promote the Convention, in particular through the UNCHR – the focal agency for statelessness within the UN system – yielded some positive results. As of October 2014, 83 states have acceded to the Convention, while 61 states have ratified its 1961 sibling, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention. The UNHCR has used this occasion to kick off an ambitious 10-year campaign with the goal of eradicating statelessness by 2024. Its objective is to secure greater political commitment to resolve protracted situations of statelessness – such as Yang Oun and his family have experienced – and to prevent new situations of mass statelessness. Achieving this objective will also require empowering affected individuals, as well as developing and disseminating more empirical research on the scope and impact of statelessness on different groups of stateless people. In an effort to join forces with different stakeholders, in September 2014 the UNHCR, in collaboration with Tilburg University, organised the First Global Forum on Statelessness at The Hague, bringing together a wide-ranging audience from UN organisations, governments, civil society and academia.

The campaign’s objective of eradicating statelessness by 2024 is ambitious, and for it to succeed will require statelessness to move from the edge to the centre of political discussions, not just in the field of human rights, but also in development and conflict transformation. Unfortunately, Yang Oun will not see the results of this campaign, having passed away one week before it was launched. However, he had always insisted that the main objective of his fight for recognition as a citizen was to spare his children and grandchildren from the disenfranchised life he lived. It is here that the campaign and associated actions can make a difference, by increasing the attention given to statelessness, not just at the international level, but also at domestic levels, such as in Cambodia. This may go a long way towards providing future generations of the ethnic Vietnamese minority with equal rights and development opportunities in Cambodian society.

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