This is not a defence of Begum’s actions, joining a terrorist organisation has ramifications. But those ramifications should lie with her country, which must take partial responsibility for state failure in allowing the radicalisation of a 15-year-old child.
It is however, an explainer of the state failures, abuse of power and proposal for legislative reform, with a view to stopping legislative state abuse of deprivation of citizenship.
Our current legal settlement with nationality law and the Begum case
Nationality law is something that cannot exist in a British vacuum, the ramifications of the revocation of citizenship dramatically change depending on external citizenship factors which the Government of the United Kingdom has no official say over.
Our current nationality law allows for the revocation of British citizenship under the following conditions “British nationals can be deprived of their British citizenship if the Secretary of State is satisfied that “deprivation is conducive to the public good” or “if nationality was obtained by means of fraud, false representation or concealment of a material fact”.
In the context of the Begum case, her citizenship falls under the former category, being that of one that was deprived under the auspices of being conducive to the public good. The UK Supreme Court sided with the UK Government in the interests of national security, giving the Home Secretary what can be colloquially described as the benefit of the doubt.
Now, this is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last, as the use of national security as a justification essentially gives carte blanche for the government to do anything. A situation that will undoubtedly be worsened by the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill going through Parliament.
Analysing the problem
A steadfast defence against deprivation of citizenship is the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, a UN Convention to which the United Kingdom is a ratifying signatory. Under Article 8, “Contracting States shall not deprive people of their nationality so as to render them stateless.” The exception to this rule where the nationality has been acquired by misrepresentation or fraud.
The justification used by the Government of the United Kingdom is that they are justified in revoking citizenship because she is a national security threat and she will not be stateless as she is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship.
The key phrase here is eligible. Bangladesh had stated pre-hearing, that she was not allowed to become a Bangladeshi citizen. Arguably this was not rendering her stateless due to the fact her primary citizenship status was that of a British National, a citizenship status that, whist was getting revoked, the appeal had not been concluded.
The problem is not in the court ruling, the court is duty bound to make decisions based on the facts of the case and not any predisposed political bias. The court therefore, under the current legislation, took a narrow justification of the definition of nationality in the case of Begum’s Bangladeshi citizenship. The issue lies in the legislation itself which does not clearly provide for this eventuality, leaving the revocation of citizenship open to state abuse.
The context of Begum herself
The facts of the Begum situation speak for itself, as a 15-year old, she was groomed and joined the so-called Islamic State. The failings of her school, her family and anti-extremism programmes in noticing and stopping the radicalisation are plain for any fair observer to see.
Furthermore, she was a child bride, something which is an undisputed fact. As a child bride, she became pregnant and had three children, all British citizens. Those children have since died, the youngest of a lung infection in a resettlement camp, despite being recognised at a British Citizen. At the time, former Chancellor George Osbourne described the duty of care the British government had towards an innocent baby, calling the child, “one of the most vulnerable British citizens in the world”.
This section is not meant to be a defence of her self-evidently abhorrent actions. As a subscriber to a terrorist organisation she should be investigated and, if the evidence allows, charged with a crime.
However, all of that is the responsibility of the British, government, we should not palm our responsibilities off onto other people because it is politically convenient to do so.
So, where next?
Firstly, we must address the flaw in the legislation that has enabled this ruling to come about. The UN Convention sets a baseline standard, it by no means places a barrier on a country holding itself up as being of a higher standard. In this regard, we should seek to amend the legislation with a view to statelessness being viewed on the actual citizenship status, not eligibility for citizenship status. This would fix the flaw enabling the UK government to strip people of their citizenship based on an intangible link to a state they have never visited.
Secondly, we must look at the conditions leading to radicalisation. The Begum case, whilst high profile, is by no means an isolated incident. At the height of the so-called Islamic State’s influence, the UK government stripped 40 citizens of their citizenships. The total number from 2011-2017, 87 citizens were deprived of their nationality. It would be a significant and mature policy proposal to advocate for a judicial or Parliamentary inquiry into the power of The Home Office to unilaterally strip citizenship.
The Supreme Court ruling today was a devastating blow for the rights of the citizen. It should not be allowed to be framed in the context of a supporter of a terrorist organisation being deprived of her citizenship, rather as the wider ramifications of the opaque auspices of national security and badly drafted legislation being weaponised by the Home Office as a political tool.
Our next steps are clear, we must reform the law to ensure that the British Government does not abdicate its responsibility to its citizens. We must also look into the culture of the Home Office which allows the Government to use national security as a political football to sidestep human rights.
In the United Kingdom a right to a fair hearing is at the heart of British values. The Begum ruling was a travesty for international law and human rights. We must ensure the legislative failings that led to it are never allowed to happen again.