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Is extraterritorial mass naturalisation compatible with international law?

Last week, we raised the question whether the recent Russian citizenship-related measures towards Ukraine are acceptable under international law. More specifically, we say how Russian president Vladimir Putin promulgated an executive order on the citizenship status of residents of the Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk region, and how he announced that Russia was considering extending a scheme that allows Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country to obtain Russian citizenship within less than three months to the whole of Ukraine. While international law clearly condemns forced extraterritorial mass naturalizations on the basis of the principles of voluntariness and non-intervention, the Russian measures are of a subtler nature. However, if the measures turn out to be taken for the purpose of destabilization or de facto annexation of a foreign territory, they could potentially be classified as a violation of the principle of non-intervention or an abuse of rights.

One international instrument is very clear about this. Recommendation 11 of the Bolzano Recommendations on National Minorities in inter-State Relations reads (our emphasis):

States may take preferred linguistic competencies and cultural, historical or familial ties into account in their decision to grant citizenship to individuals abroad. States should, however, ensure that such a conferral of citizenship respects the principles of friendly, including good neighbourly, relations and territorial sovereignty, and should refrain from conferring citizenship en masse, even if dual citizenship is allowed by the State of residence. If a State does accept dual citizenship as part of its legal system, it should not discriminate against dual nationals.

The history of migration is characterized by periods in which countries actively sought new immigrants and citizens, and periods in which newcomers were discouraged. Thus, while countries like the Netherlands are experiencing an influx of new migrants the size of a middle-sized city each year, many countries in the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe are worried about their citizens leaving, causing a shortage of workers and an intellectual brain drain. (We touched on this in earlier posts on eugenics and demography.)

Historically, some countries have attributed nationality on populations or individuals against their will. The “Great naturalization” in Brazil in the late 19th century is one of the best-known examples, and was claimed to be a violation of international law by an alliance of European countries. The mass naturalisation of populations against their will is indeed one of the few explicit limits posed by international law on state autonomy in the field of nationality law. A more recent example is the “tit-for-tat” between Hungary and Slovakia. In response to the Hungarian decision to remove the residence requirement for naturalisation in respect of ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, Slovakia decided that any Slovak citizen voluntarily acquiring the citizenship of a foreign country would be deprived of his/her citizenship.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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