States and citizens are slowly drifting apart

By Frances Stead Sellers

Financial Times

Published: November 17 2004

When George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, he pitted a sovereign state against a concept and sent national armies to fight in the borderless territory of ideology. The subsequent three years turned those tables: countries have had to recognise that some of their citizens belong on both sides of the battleground, while terrorists have exploited people’s traditional ties to individual countries. Citizenship laws of the early 20th century were intended to avoid such dilemmas, which are now symbolised most vividly by the case of Margaret Hassan, the aid worker now believed to have been murdered by her kidnappers in Iraq.

Irish by birth, British by upbringing, Iraqi by marriage and a world citizen by virtue of her commitment to the poor, Hassan was stranded for weeks between the countries whose passports she carried. Although she lived in Iraq for 30 years, converted to Islam and, according to her husband, considered Iraq her “native land”, she was British as far as her captors were concerned - and, living as an Iraqi outside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, an easy target. Thus, while her fellow Iraqis protested her kidnappers’ actions, Hassan made video pleas to her fellow Britons. Her family, in efforts to help, even offered a third way of classifying her: “She is Irish, not British,” her husband said. In the end, none of it mattered.

The threat of war once lent value to a system that guaranteed individuals the rights and responsibilities of membership of a single state. As David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, noted: “However much one could tolerate complex and layered loyalties in times of peace, war may demand an unquestioning obedience.” That is why a Hague Convention written in 1930 opens with: “Every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only.” It is why acceptance of more than one citizenship spread with the optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it explains why the war on terrorism has renewed concerns about divided loyalties.

This war has not provided much evidence that duality leads inevitably to duplicity, as the most fervent critics of multiple citizenship contend. But it has served to highlight the anomalies inherent in belonging to more than one culture. They extend well beyond Mrs Hassan and Teresa Borcz-Kalifa, the Polish-Iraqi woman who was also abducted in October. Think of Yaser Esam Hamdi: An alleged Taliban fighter of Saudi descent, he was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay; when it emerged he was born in Louisiana and was thus (unbeknownst to him) a US citizen, he was moved to a Norfolk naval brig and then sent back to Saudi Arabia. And remember Kenneth Bigley, the British hostage: Before his beheading, his family rushed to secure Irish citizenship for him, in the hope that belonging to a neutral country might save him. The gambit failed but was worth a try, as Hassan’s family knows.

The old world order, in which citizenship acted as a sort of global cataloguing system, assigning individuals to countries, has broken down and it is hard to imagine how to repair it. Today, diaspora has become destiny. We are mobile, intermarried, mongrel. More than 100 countries (including the US and UK) accept some form of multiple citizenship.

The weakening bond between sovereign state and citizen has been accompanied by the rise of the human rights regime, which diminishes some concerns about the protections of citizenship because it supposes that all human beings, regardless of their citizenship, deserve basic rights. Not all countries abide by those notions, as Iraqi exiles will tell you. Until recently, Hassan’s British citizenship must have seemed an asset, a guarantee of rights, rather than a liability. But by elevating the notion of “personhood” over “citizenship”, universal rights mean that states can no longer treat their own citizens as they want and, insofar as they do, others have the right to complain.

More than 50 years ago, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it asked that member countries “cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions”. For now, the declaration remains an aspiration, enforceable only to the extent that people persuade each other to abide by it. When Muslim insurgents and US attorneys general can be persuaded to recognise the universal rights of humanity, the special rights of citizenship will seem less important.

The writer, an editor at the Washington Post, was a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and holds both US and UK citizenship