Does Assad Spouse Have a Right to Keep UK Citizenship?

by Peter Spiro

The Brits are looking to strip Asma al-Assad of her UK citizenship, this in the wake of the imposition of various sanctions on her and family members of other Assad associates.  Familial sanctions are an increasingly common practice, on the theory that you really get at the bad guys when you deprive their spouses of shopping trips to world capitals.  (In Mrs. Assad’s case, the theory seems pretty plausible, in light of the recent email cache revealing her attention to trivial luxury purchases while Homs burned.)  But so long as Asma is a citizen, she has an absolute right of entry into the UK, whose citizenship she enjoys by birthright.  Sort of awkward.

The expatriation statute at play here allows the Home Secretary to terminate the nationality of any British national where it “would be conducive to the public good” and would not result in statelessness.  The standard was adopted in 2006 in the wake of the London subway bombings.  It’s been put to work, but sparingly, as described in this Guardian story.  The most notable case involved sometime GTMO detainee David Hicks, who enjoyed UK citizenship for exactly one day before losing it under the measure.

Problem, from a human rights standpoint?  Possibly.  Expatriation these days against an individual’s will is increasingly rare.  The British measure is essentially standardless.  (It previously required a showing of conduct “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom.”  However unseemly they may be, Asma’s shopping trips probably don’t rise to that level of damage.)  More problematic, the law discriminates against dual nationals (mononationals are exempted because they would become stateless).  That’s something that’s surprisingly rare outside the context of political office-holding.  There aren’t many contexts in which dual citizens take a distinctive hit because of the status.  Why should they?

It might make sense just to let Asma’s citizenship lie.  She’s unlikely to be making jaunts to London anytime soon.  Even as a citizen, since her assets have been frozen she wouldn’t be able to do much there.  Once the Assad regime tumbles, the UK is unlikely to supply a comfortable resting spot for her or her family.  Unsympathetic as she may be, she’s not getting much out of the British tie at the same time that the UK is hardly tainted by the nominal association.

5 Responses

  1. Response…
    This would also seem to violate her personal dignity, may be inhumane and degrading, and would constitute a “collective punishment” (i.e., punishing her not for what she has done but for what her husband and others have done).  Collective punishments are outlawed during war.

  2. Jordan,
    I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that the drafters were referring to something along the lines of preventing reprisal killings in the Geneva conventions, not revocation of citizenship. Surely a sovereign country has the discretion to determine its own rules for citizenship and/or its revocation?

  3. Liz, Nationality is increasing a subject governed by international norms – see here.  I’m not sure I’d go as far as Jordan and call it “collective punishment,” though – sanctions against immediate family members of bad guys are increasingly accepted in state practice.

  4. Response…
    Liz and Peter: the reach of the prohibition would depend on generally shared patterns of opinio juris, but I suspect that such patterns relate more to the general purpose of the action (e.g., to achieve a form of collective punishment) as opposed to the method or means.  I would think that necessarily she would be being punished for conduct of her husband.

  5. I very much agree that the UK’s rules on involuntary expatriation are problematic from a human rights perspective, even given traditional understandings of the broad power states have over citizenship policy. To strip someone of citizenship is an extremely serious sanction, one that merits stringent regulation. The UK’s approach would, of course, be unconstitutional in the US.

    But I think the law’s discrimination in favor of mononationals is easy to explain. The UK is a party to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which would be violated if the UK were strip mononationals of their UK citizenship.

    From a more problematic policy standpoint, the rule probably means that naturalized citizens and children of immigrants are overrepresented among those eligible for involuntary expatriation, since I imagine that they make up the majority of the UK’s dual citizens. In other words, the law has a potentially disparate impact on ethnic minorities.

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