New blog: The Shamima Begum case: ‘Revoking citizenship is ineffective and counterproductive’

Published 22 February 2019

The case of Shamima Begum, a crumbling ISIS’s caliphate and a US President who insists that the EU has to ‘take back over 800 ISIS fighters' has amplified the attention on citizen stripping as a counter-terrorism measure. © Shutterstock, streets of former ISIS capital Al-Rakka. 

The decision to revoke Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship is not only ineffective, but it also creates a number of legal and diplomatic problems, according to Asser Institute counter-terrorism experts Drs Christophe Paulussen and Rumyana Grozdanova. Instead, the UK should accept responsibility and rely on its regular criminal justice system.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Earlier this week, the UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid has revoked the nationality of Shamima Begum, a nineteen-year-old girl who fled to Syria in February 2015 to join ISIS with two school friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. The UK Home Secretary stated that ‘those who joined Islamic State in Syria to fight or raise families in the so-called caliphate’ had ‘turned their back on the UK’, and that he was ‘resolute’ to do anything in his power to prevent their return. Begum, who just gave birth to a son, is pleading for the UK government to take her back.

Like the UK and The Netherlands, many other Western countries are increasingly revoking citizenships of their nationals as a means to manage the potential risks linked to the return of former ISIS fighters and their family members. The case of Shamima Begum has amplified the attention on this counter-terrorism/counter-extremism measure, together with a crumbling ISIS’s caliphate and a US President who insists that the EU has to ‘take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial’.

Active repatriation?
Donald Trump’s demand is unlikely to find wide support within the EU. According to the German government, German citizens who have fought with ISIS have a ‘fundamental right’ to return to Germany, even though the government would prefer to assess returning foreign (terrorist) fighters on an individual basis. The French government took a tough stance by stating that the ‘enemies of the nation’ should remain in Syria or Iraq, but the country now considers its options case by case. In the UK, many officials believe that foreign fighters should ‘face the consequences’ for their choices. According to the 2018 governmental Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), individuals returning on their own accord from Syria will face a managed return, investigation into criminal behaviour, criminal proceedings and/or rehabilitation. To date, the UK has not supported or engaged in active repatriation. The revocation of citizenship in Shamima Begum’s case suggests that UK’s stance on individuals seeking to return may strongly depend on individual circumstances.

“Should people who want to come back, be helped to be able to effectively exercise their right to return? That is the question to ask”, says Dr Christophe Paulussen, a senior researcher at the TMC Asser Instituut in The Hague and research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague. “In the Netherlands, there are currently two different discussions as to the scope of consular assistance. One argues that all Dutch citizens are entitled to such assistance, have the right to come back to the Netherlands and should thus be assisted in that effort. Another train of thought is that there is quite a bit of discretion for states in this particular field. The current position of the Dutch Cabinet is not to actively repatriate adult travelers and their children from Syria -- a policy that several other European states are following as well.”

In relation to the UK, once citizenship has been revoked, an individual loses the right to re-enter the UK as well as the right to receive diplomatic protections. According to Ben Wallace, the UK Minister of State for Security, in 2018 an estimated 400 Britons have returned to the UK from the Middle East having fought for groups like ISIS.

“What is so fundamentally different in the case of Shamima Begum that justifies the revocation of her citizenship?” asks Dr Rumyana Grozdanova, researcher at the TMC Asser Instituut in The Hague and a research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague. Grozdanova: “In 2015, when Shamina Begum left the UK with her school friends, she was perceived as more of a young and vulnerable victim of radicalisation rather than a serious threat to the UK. So, what has changed?”

Legislative fever
According to Paulussen it appears that many governments were not well prepared for the so-called foreign fighter phenomenon and the threat they might pose once back home. In a rush to deal with this new security landscape, states have adopted many new measures. In addition to frantically adopting legislation allowing for criminal law to be used more and more as a preventive tool, many states have increasingly adopted administrative measures, including deprivation of nationality. Such responses, in academic circles referred to as ‘legislation fever’, too often go without clearly and calmly evaluating whether existing measures would suffice, and whether newly introduced measures are compatible with human rights and long term effects.

According to British newspaper The Independent, the UK government’s use of citizenship revocation last year has soared by more than 600 per cent in a year, Begum being one of more than 150 people subjected to the measure since 2010. In the Netherlands, despite the compelling advice from counter-terrorism experts not to deprive jihadists from their Dutch nationality, successive ministers of the Dutch Justice and Security department have revoked citizenship eight times; five other cases are still pending.

‘For the stage’
So why do states use citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism measure? "For the stage", says Paulussen. "They mainly do this to show that joining ISIS is not tolerated. But citizenship stripping has little to do with effectiveness or problem solving. It is an illusion that a jihadist no longer poses a threat once he or she has been stripped of nationality. Current transnational terrorism does not detract from national borders. It is easy to cross borders, either via smuggling routes or with fictitious passports.”

Deprivation of nationality as a counter-terrorism measure might even be counter-productive, says Paulussen. For a start, the measure can only apply to people with dual nationality, as it is illegal under international law to deprive someone of his/her nationality if it would leave a person stateless. Paulussen: “This creates a different treatment for different population groups: while Moroccan or Turkish Dutch citizens can be deprived of Dutch citizenship, Dutch nationals without dual nationality do not face the same fate. This can lead to feelings of discrimination among minority groups”, says Paulussen, "and research shows that this is one of the factors that can play a role in further radicalisation."

Like Paulussen, Grozdanova believes that revoking citizenship is a highly symbolic measure. “It is basically a modern version of banishment; you are expelled on the grounds of national security or for the public good. But by revoking a citizenship, a state simply exports the potential risks to another state. This is an arguably simpler and quicker solution than engaging in an investigation to establish criminality, court proceedings and rehabilitation.” The problem is that it may also remove important jurisdictional links for prosecution, thinks Paulussen, namely the ‘active nationality principle’, which permits a country to exercise criminal jurisdiction based on the nationality of the suspect. And, adds Paulussen, we should not forget that victims of terrorism often want prosecution too; they - quite understandably - want justice to be served.”

What to do with the children?
Then there is the question whether a specific policy should apply to the children of foreign fighters. Currently there are 175 children living in Syria and Iraq who have at least one Dutch parent, several of whom are staying in camps controlled by armed groups. More than two-thirds of these children were born in the region. Most of them are younger than nine years old, with half of these being younger than four years old. Save the Children recently indicated that there are more than 2500 children from 30 countries living in three different camps in the Northeast Syria.

According to Paulussen, states have various obligations towards children under international law, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to protect them against neglect and the results of war. Paulussen: “It is a matter of discussion whether or not these provisions apply extraterritorially, but such a progressive interpretation can definitely be made.” It is important to note that some countries have indeed taken the special interests of the child into account. Belgium, for example, has not opted for a categorical ‘no’ against the repatriation of children. Instead the country follows a more tailored approach, allowing children under the age of 10 to come back if a DNA test proves their Belgian origin.

‘Pass the buck mentality’
Deprivation of nationality reflects a ‘pass the buck mentality’, whereas international solidarity and cooperation are crucial to counter this international problem, thinks Paulussen. “When people are expelled after they have been deprived of their citizenship, they simply become the problem of another state. Yes, national security may be strengthened temporarily, because people are removed from the state’s territory. But this also means you lose control. It is unclear what will happen with that person, once he or she is expelled. This may have an effect on the security of other countries and maybe even on the security of the expelling state itself, because if people want to create havoc, they will succeed, with or without a passport, and no matter how long it takes”.

The case of Begum, whose family is originally from Bangladesh, is an illustrative example of this ‘shift the blame’ mentality, adds Grozdanova. “The UK revoked Begum’s citizenship without sufficient legal clarity as to whether Shamina Begum herself has Bangladeshi citizenship and/or is entitled to one.” Comments by the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh strongly suggest Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen and that there is ‘no question’ of her being allowed into Bangladesh, despite the UK’s move to revoke her citizenship.

Thus, at present, Shamina Begum is de facto stateless without access to legal protections, basic healthcare and housing for herself and her newborn child. Begum has told reporters she might try to apply for citizenship in The Netherlands. Her husband is a Dutch man called Yago Riedijk, who is being held by Syrian fighters after surrendering as the terrorism group’s territory was reclaimed in recent weeks. “Maybe I can ask for citizenship in Holland. If he gets sent back to prison in Holland I can just wait for him while he is in prison.”, Begum was quoted in The Guardian.

Begum’s family is exploring legal and practical options to bring the baby to the UK. As Begum’s son was born before the move to deprive her of her citizenship, the child would be unaffected by the decision, the British Home Secretary indicated. Shamina Begum, meanwhile, remains stuck in limbo within a conflict zone, probably about to start a lengthy appeal against the removal of her British citizenship. Rather than opting for a constructive solution, the UK may have created a martyr narrative that will be used to radicalise other individuals.


Further reading
Countering terrorism through the stripping of citizenship: ineffective and counterproductive
In this perspective, Dr Christophe Paulussen examines the scope and nature of citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism measure and argues that it stands out in comparison to other counter-terrorism measures. This is because of its highly symbolic nature, its far-reaching effects, as well as its emphasis on ‘addressing’ the problem by making it the problem of other states. (ICCT Perspective, 2018)

UK Measures Rendering Terror Suspects Stateless: A Punishment More Primitive Than Torture
In the latest policy measure against the perceived threat of foreign fighters, the UK passed a law that could result in terrorism suspects becoming stateless. Dr Christophe Paulussen and Dr Laura van Waas analyse the bill (ICCT Perspective, 2014)

Citizenship stripping in Bahrain
Bahrain has been particularly active in citizenship stripping. Authorities have revoked hundreds of citizenships over the last years. According to Amnesty International, the number could be as high as 741 since 2012. In many cases, this leaves the affected persons stateless, which means that they are no longer granted pensions, health care, or housing benefits. It also denies them access to justice, as they lose their right to appear before courts. In this article in the Voice of America, Dr Paulussen points out that when people are expelled after they have been deprived of their citizenship, they simply become the problem of another state.

Citizenship stripping: Protecting national security of passing the buck?
While the United States and its allies are clearing out the last pocket of territory in Syria controlled by the jihadist group Islamic State (IS), and celebrating the end of the ‘Caliphate’, there is a debate raging in western countries about the potential return of citizens who went to fight with IS, and their families. In addition to long-running discussions about whether to repatriate the fighters to face western courts, and ‘rescue’ their wives and children, now the discussion is centred on the potential to take away their citizenships, to prevent them from returning. In this interview with Justice Hub, Dr Christophe Paulussen explains why this is now a big discussion point.

Should Europe uphold the right to return even for Daesh families?
European powers are yet to claim their citizens, who want to return home from former Daesh-held territories in Syria, posing a significant question over whether the legal principle of the right to return will be applied. An interview in TRT World, featuring Dr Christophe Paulussen.

‘Legislative fever is not a long-term solution for stopping terrorism incitement’
Legislators and policy-makers should put more emphasis, expertise, and resources towards resolving the root causes of terrorism, rather than trying to curb the spread of extremism by feverishly expanding counter-terrorism legislation. That is the main conclusion of a new ICCT Perspective ‘Incitement to Terrorism – Treating the Symptoms or Addressing the Causal Malady?’ by Asser researcher and ICCT research fellow Dr Rumyana Grozdanova.

Policy brief: ‘Counter-terrorism measures need to be evaluated’
Read the full policy brief in which Asser researcher Dr Berenice Boutin discusses methods for evaluating counter-terrorism measures and provides suggestions for policy-makers. 

Asser International Crimes Database
The International Crimes Database offers an extensive online collection of international crimes broadly defined, such as genocide, war crimes, terrorism and piracy. It provides access to a range of information, not just for scholars and practitioners (such as judges, prosecutors and defence counsel), but also for students, journalists, families and communities of victims of crimes. It also contains a specific tab dealing with cases of foreign fighters.