January 17, 2012 | Sarnata Reynolds
Just as the Republic of South Sudan (RoSS) officially gained nationhood six months ago, hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese were losing their nationality.
While independence was being celebrated in Juba, the government in Khartoum was busy declaring that anyone with family ties to the new country would no longer be Sudanese. They would be stripped of the only nationality they had ever held.
Men and women born in the south, who had fled to Khartoum seeking refuge from the civil war, were told they had no right to remain there. Children of southern descent, who had lived their whole lives in Kassala or Port Sudan, faced arrest and deportation to a country they had never seen.
Citizens of Sudan since birth, these individuals were denationalized en masse. They were given no warning and no opportunity to challenge the assumption that they had automatically become citizens of RoSS. They were told that they had nine months to acquire legal status elsewhere – ending on April 9, 2012 – but without valid identity documents they have no ability to do so. These individuals could in theory seek South Sudanese citizenship, but the government there began issuing identity documents just two weeks ago, and they would face the daunting task of proving ties to a land where many of them have never lived.
This profound loss of nationality and the rights that go with it – including access to education, healthcare, and employment – occurred with almost no international comment or outcry. Now effectively stateless, it appeared that these individuals had lost their human rights too, as this exceptional violation of human rights law went unremarked.
Two international conventions address the prevention and reduction of statelessness, and they make clear that under no circumstances may a government strip a person of her nationality without due process. Populations also cannot be singled out for denationalization based on their ethnicity or identity. But this is exactly what happened in Sudan last year, as a huge portion of the population was rendered stateless with the stroke of a pen.
All of this has done nothing to advance reconciliation between Sudan and the RoSS. In fact, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of individuals without proof of nationality – whether voluntarily or through detention and mass expulsion – will likely do the opposite.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, visited Khartoum last week and urged the leaders of Sudan and RoSS to address the situation of denationalized southern Sudanese immediately. Importantly, he emphasized that this issue should be tackled independently from the countries’ other disputes – including the deeply contentious issues of border demarcation and oil rights.
Along with providing humanitarian assistance, addressing the rights and needs of denationalized individuals must be a top priority for the international community. The UNHCR and its donor states must urge Sudan and the RoSS to accept the legal status of southern Sudanese regardless of their location, and reach an agreement that respects every person’s right to a nationality.