Justice Initiative Welcomes First UN Human Rights Committee Ruling on the Right to Nationality for Children
GENEVA—The UN Human Rights Committee has found, in the case of Zhao v. Netherlands, that the Netherlands violated the rights of a child, Denny Zhao, by assigning him the status of “unknown” nationality when his birth in the country was registered. This is the Committee’s first ruling on article 24(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the right to a nationality. Zhao’s “unknown” nationality classification and the Netherlands’ inadequate framework for identifying and addressing statelessness have prevented Zhao from accessing a secure legal status more than ten years, denying him international protections, including the right to acquire a nationality. The Open Society Justice Initiative, alongside the Public Interest Litigation Project of the International Commission of Jurists (NJCM), filed the complaint on behalf of Zhao.
“Because most countries have ratified the Covenant, this decision potentially impacts many jurisdictions that lack crucial protections for children who are stateless or at risk of statelessness,” said Justice Initiative Senior Managing Legal Officer Laura Bingham. “This was a particularly bold decision because the Committee is calling for systemic remedies—something that many human rights cases attempt to achieve—and has concluded that the Dutch government must change domestic laws and address harm that current practice inflicts on thousands of similarly situated children.”
In this decision, the Committee called on the Netherlands to review domestic legislation, including recently proposed draft legislation on statelessness, to fulfil its obligations under articles 2(2) and 24 of the Covenant, as well as under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A foundational safeguard against statelessness in international law obliges states to grant nationality to children born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless. While many countries have committed to providing this protection, in practice, governments frequently deny nationality by failing to implement adequate procedures for determining statelessness or by erecting unnecessary hurdles to accessing these procedures.
Currently, the draft Dutch legislation on statelessness has come under attack by human rights advocates for shortcomings including a proposed decade-long waiting period before a Netherlands-born child can file a request to obtain Dutch nationality. The Committee specifically ruled that the Netherlands should change its laws to establish a procedure for determining statelessness status and to ensure that stateless individuals are eligible to apply for citizenship. These measures, the Committee stressed, must prioritize safeguarding the best interests of the child. The Committee’s decision also confirmed that article 24(3) of the Covenant applies equally to all individuals on a state’s territory, whether the person is lawfully present or not.
Moreover, the Committee has recognized that Zhao’s lack of a residence permit and secure status has had dire impacts on his social and economic circumstances. For over seven years, he and his family have been held at a “restricted freedom” center for failed asylum seekers, segregated from the rest of Dutch society. The Committee calls on the Netherlands to review and remedy these circumstances, taking into account the best interests of the child.
The Netherlands first announced its commitment to enacting new legislation to establish a status determination procedure and other safeguards to address statelessness in 2014. The Committee’s views and recommendations provide authoritative guidance to Dutch lawmakers on what a fair and just procedure entails and underscore that further delay is unacceptable. The Netherlands now has 180 days to report on actions carried out to comply with the Committee’s decision.
Zhao v. Netherlands
In the UN Human Rights Committee's first ever decision on the right of children to acquire nationality, it determined that by registering a child as “nationality unknown”, Dutch authorities violated his right to international protection and to seek a nationality.
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