United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As part of a broad effort to aid refugees, the U.N. Conference on the Status of Stateless Persons drafted a convention to improve the status of persons lacking legal citizenship or nationality in any state.

Summary of Event

In the twentieth century, the plight of refugees became a major human rights issue. Political and territorial changes caused by World Wars I and II displaced millions of people from their native countries. In addition to the human suffering endured by refugees, their presence causes economic and social strain on host countries. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, signed in New York on September 28, 1954, addressed a specific aspect of the world refugee problem by improving the legal status of individuals with no clearly defined nationality. [kw]United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons (Sept. 28, 1954) [kw]Convention on Stateless Persons, United Nations Drafts a (Sept. 28, 1954) [kw]Stateless Persons, United Nations Drafts a Convention on (Sept. 28, 1954) Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Statelessness United Nations;statelessness Refugees;and statelessness[statelessness] Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Statelessness United Nations;statelessness Refugees;and statelessness[statelessness] [g]North America;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] [g]United States;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] [c]United Nations;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] [c]Human rights;Sept. 28, 1954: United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons[04630] Cooke, Juan I. Larsen, Knud Hammarskjöld, Dag Nansen, Fridtjof Roosevelt, Eleanor

Stateless persons were defined by article 1 of the convention as individuals who were not considered as nationals by any state under the operation of that state’s laws. The condition of statelessness could be the result of many factors, such as accidents of birth or marriage, conflicts of nationality laws, political changes of frontiers, and, particularly, territorial shifts resulting from war. Stateless persons were significantly disadvantaged before the convention. While being subject to the laws and authority of host countries, stateless persons were not recognized as nationals and, therefore, did not enjoy the rights and protections of native citizens. In addition, stateless persons received no diplomatic representation and faced the possibility of arbitrary deportation.

Statelessness became a major international issue after World War I, when the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the restructuring of Europe following the defeat of Germany and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left tens of thousands without legally defined national status. The League of Nations League of Nations first addressed the issue by establishing the Nansen International Office of Refugees Nansen International Office of Refugees in 1931, an office named for League of Nations delegate Fridtjof Nansen, an early advocate for aid to refugees and stateless persons. The NIOR issued travel documents to stateless refugees that became known as “Nansen passports.” The problem was further addressed when the Convention on Conflicts of Nationality Laws and Statelessness was signed at The Hague on April 12, 1930. Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressed the principle that every individual has the right to nationality.

The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons continued a series of United Nations efforts toward aiding refugees. World War II increased the scope of the world refugee problem, which prompted the attention of the United Nations. The process, which began in 1947 with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, culminated first in the 1954 convention and later in the 1961 U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Future Statelessness.

The New York Convention was closely modeled after the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed in Geneva, and the two evolved almost simultaneously. In fact, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC), and the U.N. secretary-general referred to statelessness in their first recommendations that a U.N. conference be held to address the refugee problem. ECOSOC, headed by Argentinian lawyer Juan I. Cooke, was instrumental in drafting both conventions.

In 1949, following the report on statelessness submitted by Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations, ECOSOC established the ad hoc Committee on Statelessness and Related Problems. The committee created the Draft Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol on Stateless Persons. The draft relating to refugees became the basis of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The United Nations, however, as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had noted, had not yet established basic legal protection for nonrefugees without recognized nationality. The 1951 convention was founded upon a specific definition of the term “refugee” that did not encompass the unique condition of statelessness. Although the Geneva Conference encouraged nations to apply its convention to the stateless, it chose not to make a binding decision concerning stateless persons. In addition, stateless persons were eventually excluded, by definition, from the direct jurisdiction of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established in 1950.

Statelessness continued to be a widespread problem in the postwar period. A 1951 survey funded by the Rockefeller Foundation revealed that approximately one million refugees were stateless, some 402,000 in Europe; another half million in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; and about 2,000 in other areas. Of these, about 130,000 survived in camps. One of the groups that suffered most was the refugee population of Germany, both before and after the division of Germany into two separate states in 1949. There were more than 600,000 refugees in the American, British, and French occupation zones by 1947, and the number increased to more than 970,000 by 1951. Their difficulties were not largely the result of indifference or restrictions by the occupying powers but of the confused status of Germany and the enormous problems of providing for de facto and de jure stateless persons. Many of them had fled Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union before 1939, and the dislocations of the war and its aftermath brought in more. Thousands were persons dragged into Germany by the Nazis to work in coerced labor units. Others fled the expanding Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

The lives of stateless persons were very difficult, and in many cases their dilemma was aggravated by their not wanting to return to their native states because of oppressive political conditions. The Basic Law that formed the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1949 provided for the right of asylum in its territory but did not clearly define “political refugee” status. Nor did the new West German state have the means to absorb all the refugees into its economy. Restrictions were applied to arrivals after June 1, 1950, and those who were admitted were often sent to refugee camps. By 1951, there were 143 such camps with a population of 56,555. All of this illustrates that statelessness, whether de facto or de jure, was burdensome both to the refugees and to the governments that attempted on a limited basis to respond to their needs.

After 1951, the United Nations began its efforts to extend to stateless persons some of the rights and protections given to refugees. At the request of the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld communicated the Draft Protocol on Stateless Persons to all countries invited to the 1951 Geneva Conference Relating to the Status of Refugees. These countries were requested to comment on the draft and to indicate which provisions of the convention they would apply to the stateless. Based on these comments, ECOSOC recommended that a new conference of plenipotentiaries be convened and charged with creating a revised protocol on statelessness to be open for signatures.

On September 13, 1954, the United Nations Conference on the Status of Stateless Persons, headed by Knud Larsen, convened in New York with twenty-seven states represented by delegates and five additional countries observing. By a vote of 12-0, with three abstentions, the conference decided to create an independent convention rather than merely a protocol to the convention on refugees. The conference approved a new convention on September 23, and on September 28 the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons was signed by sixteen countries: Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, the Federal Republic of Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Vatican City. Israel and Italy signed on subsequent dates. The convention came into force on June 6, 1960, when a sixth country had given it formal ratification.

Significance

The New York Convention significantly improved the status of stateless persons by guaranteeing them basic social, economic, and legal rights. Countries party to the convention were required to accord to stateless persons the same protection accorded to their nationals in terms of certain rights. These included freedom of religion, access to courts of law, elementary education, and social welfare programs. In other areas, such as property rights, employment, higher education, and freedom of movement, the convention guaranteed to stateless persons the same rights and privileges enjoyed by native populations in similar circumstances. Contracting states were obligated to issue travel documents to stateless persons to serve in place of national passports. In addition, the convention contained provisions concerning residence criteria, personal identity papers, and naturalization intended to meet the unique needs of those without a nationality.

Generally, the New York Convention provided stateless persons with the same rights and protection given to refugees under the 1951 convention. In some respects, however, the convention on stateless persons was more narrow in scope. For example, provisions dealing with wage-earning employment and the right to association in the convention required that refugees benefit from any most-favored-nation agreements to which their host countries were party. In these areas, the New York Convention guaranteed only that stateless persons receive the same treatment as foreigners in general. Some provisions of the 1951 convention had no parallel in the stateless convention. In particular, the New York Convention did not contain provisions regarding freedom from penalties for unlawful entries and freedom from expulsion to countries of past persecution.

The convention did not provide relief for all individuals who might be considered stateless. Article 1 explicitly excluded stateless persons in specific circumstances. Moreover, the provisions of the convention were deliberately designed to aid only de jure stateless persons. Those who did not legitimately renounce the nationality and protection of their native country faced de facto statelessness. De facto stateless persons had no recourse under the New York Convention. Based on these factors, the Palestinian Arabs living in the territories occupied by Israel, for example, have not been protected by this convention as stateless people.

It should be noted that, while improving the legal status of stateless persons, the New York Convention did not reduce their numbers. The total number of stateless persons is difficult to determine. At the time of the 1961 conference, hundreds of thousands were estimated to be stateless. The 1961 U.N. Conference on the Elimination or Reduction of Future Statelessness held in Geneva and New York was charged with providing a long-term solution to the problem. The resulting Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961) Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961) was based on a draft prepared by the International Law Commission in 1953. The 1961 convention, which came into force in 1975, provided legal standards concerning the acquisition, the automatic loss, and the deprivation of nationality. Particularly, the 1961 convention benefited the children of refugees who, because of the status of their parents, would otherwise be stateless at birth.

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons affirmed that individuals without a recognized nationality had certain basic rights. The convention strengthened international law protecting refugees and was a significant expansion of the international protection of human rights. Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Statelessness United Nations;statelessness Refugees;and statelessness[statelessness]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coyle, David Cushman. “Human Rights.” In The United Nations and How It Works. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Brief and factual account of the international refugee problem as perceived in the early 1960’s. Outlines the office and duties of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fullerton, Maryellen. “The International and National Protection of Refugees.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice, edited by Hurst Hannum. 4th ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2004. Examines the international community’s role in protecting political and other refugees. Recommended for study of the legal implications of refugee status and human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holborn, Louise Wilhelmine. Refugees, a Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1951-1972. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. This massive study of the background, development, and attempted resolution of the problems of refugees and stateless persons is essential for an accurate perception of this major issue. Holborn begins with the increasing scope of refugee problems that followed World War II and continues to the post-World War II period. Primary material in the form of conventions, resolutions, and treaties. Extensive notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Questions Concerning Human Rights.” In Everyman’s United Nations. 8th ed. New York: United Nations, 1968. Reviews the history and provisions of various international human rights provisions, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Provides an overview of U.N. action regarding human rights concerns, including refugees and stateless persons. Appendixes include the texts of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riphagen, Willem. “The United Nations Conference on the Elimination or Reduction of Future Statelessness.” United Nations Review 8 (October, 1961): 16-17. Personal narrative by the president of the conference. Provides background of statelessness and U.N. efforts to solve the problem. Insightful discussion of the provisions of the Convention on the Reduction of Future Statelessness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Nehemiah. “Convention Related to the Status of Stateless Persons: Its History and Interpretation.” 1957. Reprint. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 1997. Available at http://www.unhcr .org/home/PUBL/3d4ab67f4.pdf/. An excellent resource on the history of the convention that includes analysis and interpretation. Brief but comprehensive at eighty-nine pages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The State of the World’s Refugees, 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A 237-page report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Focuses on the ongoing task of the agency for the new century and beyond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Status of Stateless Persons Improved Under New United Nations Convention.” United Nations Review 1 (November, 1954): 30-32. Outlines U.N. action to alleviate statelessness. In particular, points out similarities and differences between the New York Convention on statelessness and the convention on refugees. Details the rights and privileges accorded to stateless persons by the convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Conference on the Status of Stateless Persons. Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. 1954. Available at http://www.hri.ca/uninfo/treaties/81.shtml. The final text of the September 28, 1954, convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernant, Jacques. The Refugee in the Post-War World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953. An in-depth survey of the refugee problem after World War II in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. Examines the refugee situation in various countries in detail, including legislative action concerning refugees and the economic and social conditions of refugees. Includes bibliography, index, and footnotes.

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