Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”


Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


  • Historically, regulating who has access to nationality was at the discretion of states. However, the development of international law during the 20th century placed limits on state sovereignty over nationality matters.
  • States must ensure that they regulate nationality in a way that respects the right to nationality, the duty to avoid statelessness and the prohibition of discrimination. 
  • The right to nationality is enshrined in a multitude of international and regional treaties and international law also protects the human rights of all people, regardless of nationality or statelessness.
  • The 1954 and 1961 statelessness conventions complement human rights law with dedicated provisions on the identification and protection of stateless people, as well as the prevention and reduction of statelessness.
  • UN human rights mechanisms such as Treaty Bodies and the Universal Periodic Review, and UN agencies such as UNHCR, play an important role in promoting adherence to international standards on nationality and statelessness. 


Each state sets its own rules for the acquisition and loss of its nationality – an expression of self-determination and a legitimate exercise of sovereignty. In the 19th and early 20th century, regulating access to nationality fell entirely within the “reserved domain” of states and was not subject to any rules of international law. This was confirmed in 1923 by the Permanent Court of International Justice in the Tunis and Morocco Nationality Decrees case. However, subsequent developments in international law came to place limits on state discretion in determining who their citizens were. 

The first international convention aimed at abolishing statelessness was the 1930 Convention on Certain Questions Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Laws. Then, following WWII and the denationalisation, displacement, and disenfranchisement of millions of people, the right to a nationality was recognised as a human right in 1948, when it was codified in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 15). This was a milestone in the history of the international community’s engagement with the question of nationality. Statelessness evolved from being a problem for states and inter-state relations, to a matter of human rights. Soon thereafter, two dedicated international treaties on statelessness were also adopted – the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

During the second half of the 20th century, as international human rights law continued to evolve and crystalise, the right to nationality was embedded in an array of binding human rights treaties. This important evolution was consolidated as a series of cases decided by human rights courts and committees at the beginning of the 21st century which demonstrated that the right to a nationality is not just a human right, it is also a justiciable right, and states therefore can be held to account for their laws and decisions on nationality. Today, states must ensure that they regulate nationality in a way that respects the right to nationality, the duty to avoid statelessness and the prohibition of discrimination.


Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which set out the right to a nationality in its article 15, binding UN human rights treaties included the right to nationality, as well as other standards relevant to the avoidance and reduction of statelessness. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enjoys almost universal ratification, contains a safeguard against childhood statelessness, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women protects against gender discriminatory nationality laws – one of the causes of statelessness. Other conventions reaffirm the right to nationality and include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 24.3); the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 5(d)(iii); the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 18); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 2(2) and Article 3); and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Article 25(4)).

Moreover, all people are protected by international human rights law, including people without a nationality. The very nature of human rights as rights that attach to human dignity, means that stateless people are also entitled to the enjoyment of other rights, as set out in human rights instruments. While some political rights may be restricted by a state to its own citizens, most other civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights, are to be protected for everyone within a state’s jurisdiction, regardless of nationality or statelessness. However, in practice, nationality commonly still functions as a gateway to other rights and so stateless people struggle to enjoy basic human rights and services – including quality education and healthcare, safe, secure and dignified work, inheritance and ownership of property, and basic banking. There remains considerable work to be done to ensure full compliance of states with international norms relating to nationality and statelessness and to ensure that the rights of stateless people are protected. 


In the years following the promulgation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the UN adopted two treaties specifically targeted to addressing the issue of statelessness: the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The 1954 Convention is very similar in content and structure to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and sets out the protection framework for stateless people, complementing international human rights standards. This instrument defines who is a stateless person, and establishes the minimum standards for how they should be treated, including guarantees in relation to access to education, healthcare, and the right to work. Importantly, the convention also provides for a number of statelessness-specific measures, prescribing the issuance of identity and travel documents, and facilitated access to naturalisation. 

The 1961 Convention aims to prevent and reduce statelessness, establishing an international framework to ensure that the right of every person to a nationality can be operationalised in domestic legislation. It requires that states establish safeguards against childhood statelessness, as well as safeguards against statelessness due to loss or renunciation of nationality, or state succession. One of the key international standards that it enshrines is the requirement that states enable children to acquire the nationality of the country in which they are born, if they are unable to acquire any other nationality. The convention also specifies a number of limited situations in which states can deprive a person of nationality, even if this would leave them stateless.


Various regional conventions also address nationality and statelessness. In the Americas, the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 20) protects the right to nationality. This provision, together with the accompanying case law of the Inter-American Court and the work of the Inter-American Commission, provides a robust legal framework for the protection of the right to a nationality in the region. In Africa, although the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights does not contain a right to a nationality, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights which oversees the implementation of the Charter has found that the right to dignity and legal status (Article 5) includes the right to a nationality. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also contains provisions relevant to nationality and childhood statelessness, and in 2014 the Committee of Experts that oversees the Charter issued a General Comment to provide guidance on how to interpret and ensure these rights. In Europe, while the European Convention on Human Rights does not provide for the right to a nationality, the European Court of Human Rights has recognised nationality to be a part of an individual’s “social identity” and therefore protected as part of the right to private life (Article 8). There are also two separate instruments, developed within the Council of Europe, that specifically address nationality and statelessness: the European Convention on Nationality and the Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in Relation to State Succession. In the Asia Pacific region, there is no regional human rights framework, meaning that the importance of the international framework is greater. The subregional ASEAN human rights declaration does provide for the right to nationality for South East Asian countries (Article 18), although this is not a binding treaty. In the Middle East and North Africa Region, the Arab Charter on Human Rights (Article 29) and the Charter on the Rights of the Child in Islam (Article 7) both contain the right to nationality – however, these too are not binding.


As with most aspects of international human rights law, implementation, monitoring and enforcement is an issue – as evidence by the large number of people who continue to be affected by statelessness globally and the detrimental impact that this has on their enjoyment of other human rights. As part of the mandate bestowed upon it by the UN General Assembly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides authoritative guidance on the interpretation and implementation of the UN Statelessness Conventions. However, there is no supervisory mechanism to monitor compliance with these instruments and the statelessness conventions have had relatively few signatories, as compared with the 1951 refugee convention and international human rights treaties. 

The jurisprudence of international and regional courts and committees has enabled the monitoring and enforcement of international human rights norms on nationality and statelessness. At the international level, an important example is the UN Human Rights Committee case of Zhao vs. Netherlands, clarifying the importance of recognising statelessness in order to acquire nationality and the application of standards to prevent childhood statelessness. Case law has also developed in different regions which clarifies the human rights protections of stateless people, including in Europe with the Kim v. Russia case and the Hoti v. Croatia case; as well as clarifying the child’s right to nationality with the Nubian Minors v. Kenya case in the African human rights system, and the prohibition of discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to nationality with the Yean and Bosico v. the Dominican Republic case in the Inter-American human rights system. 

Nationality and statelessness issues are also dealt with in the regular monitoring activities of the different UN human rights bodies – such as the treaty bodies (committees of experts responsible for ensuring state compliance with each of the respective core human rights treaties). These Committees, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have issued a multitude of recommendations to states on how to address violations of the right to a nationality or the rights of stateless people. Although there is no dedicated UN Special Rapporteur on statelessness and the right to a nationality, those Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts who have relevant mandates have addressed the issue in their work – such as the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. Nationality and statelessness have also received attention within the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the only state-to-state review mechanism for the human rights records of all UN member states. Indeed, the number of statelessness-related recommendations has greatly improved in recent years – the number of recommendations per cycle went up from 150 recommendations in the first cycle, to 635 recommendations in the third cycle. 

UNHCR is the UN organisation with a global mandate to identify and protect stateless people, and prevent and reduce statelessness. It reports regularly on its statelessness activities and also issues statistical data annually, providing a breakdown of the estimated number of stateless people (among other population groups) in its annual Global Trends report. However, since statelessness is a multi-faceted issue, it also cuts across the mandate of other parts of the UN. The UN Secretary General has issued guidance to clarify the role of different UN agencies in relation to statelessness. Other UN institutions, including, but not limited to UNICEF and the World Bank, play an important role in relation to work on childhood statelessness and the sustainable development goals respectively. UNHCR is serving as the Secretariat to lead the establishment the Global Alliance To End Statelessness, which includes other UN agencies, as well as states, civil society and stateless people themselves.


[Last updated: January 2024]

Cover image by Samson

Voices & Experiences

  • Arbitrary revocation of nationality in Bahrain: A tool of oppression


    Arbitrary revocation of nationality in Bahrain: A tool of oppression


    “Various UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly called on Bahrain to take specific steps to amend its counter-terrorism legislation, and to ensure that citizenship is not revoked except in accordance with international standards and under independent judicial review.” 

    Michelle Bachelet 

    Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 



    The case of Bahrain represents a powerful example of how legislation introduced under the pretext of national security and counterterrorism, can be weaponised against political opponents, dissidents and human rights defenders, leading to arbitrary deprivation of their citizenship. In 2011, during the height of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, protests erupted in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Deeming these demonstrations to be a national security threat, the Government reacted with a set of regressive reforms. It progressively expanded the grounds for nationality deprivation and consolidated the power to deprive Bahrainis of nationality at the behest of the Minister of Interior.  

    Voice from https://files.institutesi.org/Arbitrary_Revocation_of_Nationality_in_Bahrain.pdf 

  • Litigating the right to nationality in South Africa

    South africa 1

    Litigating the right to nationality in South Africa

    South africa 1

    “My biggest hope is that all the people who come to my office on a daily basis get the legal solution they are looking for, so that they can live a dignified life.” 

    Liesl Muller 

    Human Rights Lawyer



    Liesl Muller is a senior attorney with more than ten years litigation experience. She was previously the head of the Statelessness Project at Lawyers for Human Rights, one of the only projects of its kind in South Africa and the region. Liesl put strategic litigation and international advocacy at the centre of improving the content and functioning of safeguards in the nationality law, to prevent childhood statelessness – helping to draft numerous submissions to international and regional treaty bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council and the African Committee of the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as well as presenting cases to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  


    Voice from https://www.institutesi.org/resources/whats-best-for-childrens-nationality-podcast-4  

  • Court rules in favour of women’s equal nationality rights in Malaysia

    Malaysia 2

    Court rules in favour of women’s equal nationality rights in Malaysia

    Malaysia 2

     “We are so thankful for this outcome. This is a huge relief for affected mothers because this judgement applies not just to mothers directly involved in the case as plaintiffs, but to all Malaysian mothers who are similarly affected. This judgement recognises Malaysian women’s equality, and marks one step forward to a more egalitarian and just Malaysia”.   

    Suri Kempe, 

    President of Family Frontiers 


    Malaysian women are denied to right to pass their nationality onto their children born abroad, making Malaysia one of the 24 countries that do not give mothers and fathers equal rights to confer their nationality to their children. Malaysian mothers have been fighting for reform for many decades. In December 2020, The Association of Family Support & Welfare Selangor & Kuala Lumpur (Family Frontiers), together with six Malaysian mothers, filed a lawsuit against the discriminatory citizenship rules. On 9 September 2021, Kuala Lumpur’s High Court issued a historic ruling, that children born overseas to Malaysian women married to foreigners are automatically entitled to Malaysian citizenship. The Court found that all Constitutional articles on nationality rights must be read in accordance with Article 8(2) of the Malaysian Constitution, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. Although the latest decision represented a further step towards the respect for every child’s right to a nationality, the Malaysian Constitution has not yet been amended.  


    Voice from https://equalnationalityrights.org/news/110-malaysian-court-upholds-women-s-equal-nationality-rights-gcenr-statement  

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