Groundbreaking Decision on Statelessness in Europe
This week, the European Court of Human Rights issued a groundbreaking decision on citizenship and statelessness in the case of Kuric and Others v. Slovenia. The court ruled that it was unlawful for Slovenia to deny permanent residency status to long-term legal residents in the aftermath of state succession, as this policy left many of them stateless and made it impossible to maintain meaningful family and community ties.
The case, brought by 11 long-term residents of Slovenia, stems from the government’s 1992 decision to “erase” from the civil registry the names of over 18,000 people who were citizens of the former Yugoslavia legally residing in Slovenia. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of an independent Slovenia, the new state had adopted laws allowing residents to apply for Slovene citizenship, but the policy was poorly publicized and thousands of people either missed the deadline or found their applications rejected. Since then, these erased citizens have been forced to the margins of society. They have been evicted, denied social services including health care and schooling, and prevented from traveling or working—even though most had lived in Slovenia for decades.
The Open Society Justice Initiative submitted a third-party intervention in the case (formerly called Makuc v. Slovenia) in 2007, focusing on arbitrary deprivation of citizenship as a violation of the right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Justice Initiative also argued that the denial of citizenship in this case reflected discrimination based on ethnic and national origin, though this argument was not ultimately taken up by the court.
The European Court’s decision is particularly important because it references international legal standards to prevent statelessness, noting that denial of legal status is especially problematic if it leaves an individual stateless. The court also interprets the right to private life rather broadly, going well beyond a person’s immediate family to recognize the importance of the social ties residents have with their communities. Although there is no right to citizenship under the European Convention, the right to private life, understood in this way, may prevent the denial of citizenship to people who would otherwise be stateless.
Given this precedent, immigration and citizenship policies could be challenged under the European Convention if family and community ties are under threat—even if countries have not ratified international treaties on statelessness.
In this particular case, the court ruled that the claimants must receive retroactive permanent residence permits. This decision should enable the thousands of other people who were similarly erased to finally receive legal recognition. More broadly, the judgment represents an important milestone in strengthening international norms against statelessness.