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Australia plans to expand its citizenship deprivation powers

The matter of treason has come to play a prominent role in the nationality debate as a result of global terrorism. Several countries have reacted to these developments by deploying nationality-related measures against nationals who take part in terrorist activities, including confiscation of passports and deprivation of nationality. Academic commentaries have generally been critical of using denationalisation of citizens as a counter-terrorism strategy, especially when this results in rendering a person stateless. Denationalisation leading to statelessness has become more unacceptable with the growing international consensus in the 21st century that statelessness should be eradicated and prevented.

A distinction is often made in denationalisation cases between those who are citizens from birth and those who acquired citizenship later in life. Moreover, given the prohibition of statelessness under international law, denationalisation is in principle limited to dual citizens and has therefore been called discriminatory in nature – especially if the dual citizen holds a nationality which cannot be voluntarily be renounced, as is the case with many nationalities in the Middle East. We saw last week that 14% of states still adhere to the principle of ‘perpetual allegiance’ under which nationality cannot be renounced. This argument, however, has frequently been ignored by the increasing number of states that have amplified their deprivation powers in recent years. States generally consider as lawful the different treatment of mono nationals and dual nationals, arguing that they cannot revoke the nationality of mono nationals in light of the prohibition of statelessness.

The Australian government currently wants to amend the Australian Citizenship Act to allow authorities to revoke citizenship not only from dual nationals but from anyone convicted of a terrorist offence, including native-born Australians, if they can ‘reasonably’ be expected to gain citizenship in another country through their parents or grandparents. This is also appears to be the policy in the UK, as a deprivation decision requires the Home Secretary to have reasonable grounds to believe that the person can acquire a new nationality. As noted by Sandra Mantu, however, ‘there is no guarantee that the person will not remain stateless since the UK Government does not have the power to interfere with the nationality decisions of other states, and international standards do not guarantee reacquisition of a previously held nationality’. According to Patrick Weil and Nicholas Handler, the British Home Secretary has revoked the citizenship of at least 373 Britons since 2006, which is more than the total number of revocations by Canada, France, Australia and the Netherlands combined.

The Australian proposal is far-reaching. One commentator has claimed that ‘the proposed changes would likely make Australia’s regime for citizenship-stripping the most expansive in the world’. The changes introduced by the proposed law would be twofold. First, as already explained, there would be changes to the dual citizenship requirement. Second, there would be changes to the minimum sentence for conviction-based deprivation, which currently requires a sentence to at least six years’s imprisonment. Under the new law the minister could cease the citizenship of ‘anyone who is convicted of a terrorism offence in Australia, irrespective of the sentence they receive’.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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