Myanmar’s Discriminatory Citizenship Laws Can and Must be Immediately Reformed

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which has fueled widespread discrimination against various ethnic minority groups, is irreconcilable with core rule of law principles and the State’s obligations under international human rights law, the ICJ said today in a briefing paper.

The briefing paper Citizenship Law and Human Rights in Myanmar: Why Law Reform is Urgent and Possible  (available in English and Burmese) analyses the legal framework for citizenship in Myanmar, and assesses certain provisions of the 2008 Constitution relevant to citizenship as well as the 1982 Citizenship Law.

This law embedded the current narrow definition of citizenship, which generally links citizenship acquisition to membership of a prescribed “national race.”

The resulting system enables and legitimizes discrimination against various groups, particularly against persons of South Asian or Chinese descent, members of whole ethnic groups, such as the Rohingya, and also the children of single mothers.

“Enacted by unelected military governments, Myanmar’s citizenship laws fuel widespread discrimination throughout the country,” said Sean Bain, Legal Adviser for the ICJ.

“The government must act immediately to dismantle this discriminatory system and to protect in law the human rights of all persons,” he added.

The intentionally discriminatory character of this law, and its equally discriminatory implementation, largely explain why many long-term residents of Myanmar lack a legal identity (more than 25 percent of persons enumerated in the 2014 Census).

The ICJ recommends three immediately achievable, concrete areas of law reform to the Government: 1) legislative reform, including most urgently of the 1982 Citizenship Law and the Child Rights Bill now being considered by the parliament; 2) Constitutional reform, to protect the right of citizens to full political participation; and 3) to institute interim measures to address discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.

A review of the 1982 Law was recommended in 2017 by the Government’s advisory commission chaired by the late United Nations Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan, but the Government has not yet demonstrated any tangible progress on this.

“The government has the means at hand to get rid of this discriminatory system, which has undermined the rule of law and blocked the development of a pluralistic democracy. The government can and must implement the recommendations of its own advisory commission. The pervasiveness of discrimination cannot continue to go unaddressed, and there are no reasonable legal grounds for further delay in initiating pathways to reform,” Bain said.

UN Member States, as well as International Finance Institutions and UN agencies, must also ensure that assistance to the Government of Myanmar enables necessary reforms, and does not, in any way, entrench the existing discriminatory system.

Coinciding with the launch of this report, yesterday the ICJ hosted an event in Yangon where a panel of Myanmar legal scholars and researchers discussed the impact of current legal arrangements for citizenship on human rights, and why law reform is both urgent and possible. Representatives including from diplomatic missions, UN agencies, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, a multilateral donor and Non-Government Organizations attended the event.

Background

“Citizenship” is a legal concept describing an individual’s relationship to the State. In contrast, “statelessness” is when somebody does not have citizenship of any State. Terms such as “nationality,” “race” or “ethnicity” are generally culturally embedded concepts, understood differently by different people and in different contexts.

In many countries, particularly those with diverse populations, the right to citizenship is defined broadly to include persons with different ethnicities and even nationalities. In post-independence Myanmar, the concept of being a “national” or “indigenous” had a generally broad definition, allowing persons of different backgrounds to become citizens, including but not limited to the descendants of persons who had immigrated to Myanmar.

The 1982 Citizenship Law embedded in legislation the concept of “national races,” and introduced a hierarchy of citizenship categories that effectively institutes first-class and second-class citizens. Under this system, many life-long residents of Myanmar have effectively been rendered stateless, including members of entire ethnic groups, and children of mixed ancestry.

This discriminatory system has fostered an environment where crimes against humanity have taken place with absolute impunity.

Although section 347 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution guarantees “any person to enjoy equal rights” and protections before the law, other constitutional provisions restrict “fundamental rights” to citizens, including the rights to health and to education. Even for citizens, political rights are limited if a parent, child or spouse is not a citizen of Myanmar – the most infamous example of this is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from the Presidency because her sons are foreign citizens.

The formation in February of this year of a Constitutional Amendment Committee also presents opportunities to expand the narrow definition of “fundamental rights,” to ensure their compliance with the constitutional guarantee of equality and protection before the law for “any person” (section 347), and with the State’s international human rights law obligations.

The Child Rights Bill, currently under consideration by the parliament, also offers opportunities to ensure that Myanmar’s laws comply with its treaty obligations, for example, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including with respect to the right of a child to acquire a nationality (citizenship), and the State’s related obligation to prevent statelessness.

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