Dispensable human rights

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Sajid Javid. Pic: Flickr/horasis

The decision to revoke Shamima Begum’s citizenship shows the government’s contempt for human rights. Brian Richardson slams a decision that makes no concession to the impulsive nature of young people.

Home secretary Sajid Javid’s response to the discovery of 19-year-old Shamima Begum in a Syrian refugee camp last month was swift, predictable and utterly reprehensible.

At the first available opportunity he rushed into the House of Commons and declared in characteristically pompous tones that:

“My priority as home secretary is to ensure the safety and security of this country… Now that the so-called caliphate is crumbling, some of [those who left Britain to support ISIS] want to return. I have been very clear: where I can, and where any threat remains, I will not hesitate to prevent that.”

He was careful to point out that he could not refer specifically to any individual case and that he was committed to observing international law, because he recognised that the UK “cannot strip someone of their British citizenship if doing so would leave them stateless.” Just one day after Javid made that statement it was reported that Begum’s family had received a letter informing them that her citizenship had been revoked.

A number of points can and should be made about this decision. It appears to have been justified on the basis that Begum might not necessarily be rendered stateless because her family originally arrived in the UK from Bangladesh.

It has also been suggested that because the father of her new born child is a Dutch national, she can seek citizenship in that country. These are spurious assertions because he does not have citizenship in either of those countries.

It is inhumane to leave Begum and her infant in a squalid camp or send her to a country with which she has no ties and where she will be isolated. Even members of Javid’s own party who have little sympathy with her concede that it is objectionable to pass the buck in this manner when she was born and brought up in Britain.

In addition, it should be remembered that she was just 15 years old when she left East London with two friends to travel to Syria. Apparently she was a bright and highly regarded student but she was still a child.

Moreover it has been suggested, not least by Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent, that the Metropolitan Police failed in its duty of care by declining to share information with Begum’s family that might have prevented her departure in 2015.

Begum’s decision to join ISIS, a reactionary sectarian opposition group to Bashar Al Assad’s dictatorship, may well have been naive and ill-considered but this should come as no surprise. Impulsive and idealistic behaviour is a hallmark of young people.

It is also a natural part of the process of maturity. In recent years a number of studies have shown that significant changes in brain development take place right up to the age of 25.

This has encouraged organisations, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, to argue that the tiny minority of young people who are caught up in the criminal justice system should be treated as a distinct category and dealt with sympathetically.

Far from being treated sympathetically, Begum has been subjected to the most draconian action despite the fact that no evidence has been produced to suggest she has committed a criminal offence. It gives the lie to Javid’s claim that the removal of an individual’s citizenship “is a power used only in extreme circumstances”.

Stripping people of their citizenship is in fact a measure that governments of all stripes have eagerly pursued since the onset of the “war on terror”.

The Windrush scandal and recent deportation flights have revealed how the original “national security” justification has hardened into a default policy of suspicion and hostility towards anyone who can be classified as foreign.

Nor are such measures confined to the UK. Within days of telling European governments to take back their citizens, Donald Trump refused to allow Hoda Muthana to return to the United States. Meanwhile EU governments are increasingly determined to marginalise, demonise and exclude refugees and asylum seekers.

Javid’s decision may eventually be defeated in the courts but he probably couldn’t care less. His primary concern has been to burnish his credentials as a good immigrant and would-be prime minister.

Such examples expose the limitations of international law. It is Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which stipulates that “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”. Fine sounding language but it is as dispensable as Begum apparently is.

The rotten history of the United Nations shows that the competing states who make up its membership care little about the notion that the “inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.