In January, the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, introduced a last-minute measure to the government’s Immigration Bill that would enable her to remove the citizenship of any terror suspects whose conduct is ‘seriously prejudicial to the interests of the UK’, even if to do so made them stateless. It is, May insisted, a necessary measure in the war on terror. An article in the New York Times last week highlighted the way that even without the new law, Britain already appears to have a startling new policy of depriving people of citizenship:
Forty-two people have been stripped of their British citizenship since 2006, 20 of them last year, according to a freedom of information request filed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism…Mr. Cameron’s government, in power since 2010, has stripped more people of their citizenship than all the other British governments since World War II combined, said Matthew J. Gibney, an expert on citizenship at the University of Oxford.
The article pointed out how stripping people of citizenship removes any form of legal protection, allowing them to be imprisoned or even killed without compunction:
The letter informing Mohamed Sakr that he had been stripped of his British citizenship arrived at his family’s house in London in September 2010. Mr. Sakr, born and raised here by British-Egyptian parents, was in Somalia at the time and was suspected by Western intelligence agencies of being a senior figure in the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.
Seventeen months later, an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a ‘very senior Egyptian’, though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011…
A Somali-born Briton, Mahdi Hashi, was stripped of his British citizenship in June 2012 and captured and detained on an American base in Djibouti two months later. He was taken to the United States, where he awaits trial on terrorism-related charges.
Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, and Associate Professor of Politics Philosophy and Human Rights at Bard College, wrote an essay called ‘Denationalization and Totalitarianism’ which picked up on the New York Times article explored the broader consequences of the removal of citizenship. The essay raises some very important issues, so, with his permission, I am republishing it here. My thanks to Roger Berkowitz and the Hannah Arendt Centre.
Denationalization and Totalitarianism
In 2010, Mohamed Sakr was stripped of his British citizenship. Not long thereafter, Sakr was killed in Somalia by a United States drone strike. American intelligence officials referred to him as an Egyptian, though he never had an Egyptian passport. There was no mention in the US or the UK of his former British citizenship. One month before Sakr was killed, his friend Bilal al-Berjawi was killed in a drone attack after also having his British citizenship revoked. These are not isolated instances. As Mark Mazzetti reports in the New York Times, ‘Forty-two people have been stripped of their British citizenship since 2006, 20 of them last year…. In Israel, by comparison, the power to revoke citizenship has been used only twice since 2000, according to the Interior Ministry there.’ And according to Mazzetti’s article in the New York Times, the British Government is seeking even greater authority to denationalize citizens it believes engage in terrorism.
The cases of Mr. Sakr and Mr. Berjawi are among the most significant relating to the British government’s growing use of its ability to strip citizenship and its associated rights from some Britons at the stroke of a pen, without any public hearing and with only after-the-fact involvement by the courts. Now, faced with concerns that the steady stream of British Muslims traveling to fight in Syria could pose a threat on their return, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is pushing legislation that would give it additional flexibility to use the power, which among other things keeps terrorism suspects from re-entering the country.
The sovereign right of a nation to control who is nationalized or denationalized is unchallenged; it is a basic right of sovereignty to patrol the boundary of citizenship. It is true that citizenship is a privilege. And nations have long denationalized those who attained their citizenship by fraud; at times, as well, the practices of expulsion and exile were employed to deal with those who were found guilty of treason or impiety.
But the rise of mass denationalization first emerged in Europe in the 1930s and is associated with the advent of totalitarianism. What denationalization does is deny those it disowns not only the right of a trial or the right of due process, but more importantly, it denies them the right to have rights. To denationalize someone is to say that they no longer belong to any organized political community. They can appeal to no state for rights or protection. They are a mere human being, no longer an American, an Englishman, or a European.
Homeless and stateless, the denationalized person cannot even be arrested or put on trial and imprisoned in accord with the law, for the stateless are also outside the reach of the law. They are outlaws in that they are outside the protection of the laws. Which is why Hannah Arendt argues that it is a truism that ‘One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization’.
This does not mean the Britain is teetering toward totalitarianism. All countries make use of denationalization to some extent. And yet, the normalization of the practice of depriving some people of their status as citizens does not deprive them simply of rights, but also leaves them fully outside the sphere of organized human society. It is significant that the UK is currently seeking the authority not simply to denationalize those it deems a threat to its security, but to do so even in those cases where doing so would render the person fully stateless.
These are not isolated or extraordinary cases. The dozens of denationalized terrorists in the UK could, of course, be arrested, tried, and convicted in accordance with the law. By choosing to denationalize classes of people, the UK is creating a population of stateless persons who lack not the right to a trial or the right to speak, but the right to have rights as a member of human society. It is creating a class of people outside the law and thus subject to normalized extra-legal killings performed by the secret services of a state that otherwise is a constitutional democracy limited by the rule of law. Mass denationalization is a dangerous road.