Manufacturing Precarious Nationality in Lebanon: The Naturalization Decree of 1994

2016-02-08    |   

Manufacturing Precarious Nationality in Lebanon: The Naturalization Decree of 1994

In Lebanon, the relationship linking citizens to the state is precarious, and citizens’ access to rights and services is usually contingent on their closeness to the political leaders [zu’ma]. The biggest naturalization operation in Lebanon’s modern history –the collective naturalization decree issued in 1994– allowed for the production of an unstable nationality for tens of thousands of citizens.

The naturalization decree passed through several stages. After the Maronite League challenged the decree before the State Council [Lebanon’s highest administrative judicial body] in 1994, it entered the stage of judicial review. The latter ended in 2003 when the Council issued a decision referring the case to the Ministry of Interior for a reexamination of the naturalized persons’ files. This decision ushered in a new stage –the administrative review of the aforementioned files– which is still ongoing. This stage included the issuance of new decrees in 2011 that withdrew nationality from a number of the naturalized persons, which resulted in new reviews before the State Council.

The approach that the administrative judiciary and the public administration have taken towards the concept of naturalization, has generally entrenched the precarity of the nationality granted by the 1994 decree. Nevertheless, the judiciary has, in the course of this case, recently adopted pioneering positions related to reducing statelessness.


Using Naturalization as a Means of Strengthening Clientele Relationships

On June 20, 1994, Decree No. 5247 was issued, granting Lebanese nationality to tens of thousands of people. Despite the lack of transparency that accompanied the decree’s issuance, it subsequently became clear that the decree encompassed more than 150,000 persons (more than 50,000 files) spread across four different categories: unregistered persons [maktumi al-qayd]; persons whose nationality is “under consideration”; people of the 7 villages [occupied and annexed by Israel in 1948]; and, foreign nationals of more than 80 different countries.

According to the state, the collective naturalization aimed to legalize the status of a large number of people who had come to possess a kind of “actual citizenship” that must be consecrated in a decree regulating their relationship with the state. In other words, the decree aimed to redress the injustice against thousands of people who had been deprived of Lebanese nationality due to decades of [negligence]. But the issuance of the decree and the events that followed occurred against a political and electoral backdrop pervaded by bribery, nepotism, and the building of clientele relationships for the benefit of politicians through the creation of new electoral blocks.

Naturalization created a precarious legal situation even in cases of persons who are by birth inherently entitled to Lebanese nationality, namely, the formerly unregistered persons, as naturalized persons are not equal in rights to Lebanese persons entitled to nationality by birth.[1]


Suspending Nationality as a Result of the Challenge to the Naturalization Decree

Opinions varied regarding the naturalization decree. Some people considered it an important step towards redressing the injustice against a large number of residents of Lebanon who do not have citizenship rights. Others considered it a dangerous process of demographic and social change. Among the latter group is the Maronite League, which rushed to bring a challenge to the decree before the State Council requesting its annulment on the basis that it was illegal. Due to this challenge and despite the State Council’s refusal to halt the decree’s execution, the nationality of the people it encompassed became contested and unstable, which prevented them from enjoying a number of rights throughout the review period. One prominent example is that naturalized persons have been unable to correct their records or register marriages and births that occurred before the decree’s issuance; the Court of Cassation deferred resolving these applications until the review has been settled.

A Court Decision Entrenching the Precarity of Acquired Nationality: Authorizing the Administration to Review the Naturalization Decisions

In 2003, nine years after the review was initiated, the State Council issued Decision No. 484/2002-2003. The first thing the Council decided in this regard was to accept the standing and interest of the Maronite Union to contest the decree, as it has a potential stake in the decree due to its “consequences on the domestic balances and national accord”. By doing so, the Council entrenched the link between the naturalization mechanism and sectarian [demographic] balances, as though naturalization is not granted on the basis of legal criteria, but rather, on the basis the exigencies of the sects’ interests. After that, the Council rejected the state’s motion to consider naturalization within the concept of the government’s sovereign activities and decided that it is therefore subject to judicial review.

Regarding the basis of the review, the decision established that the decree was tarnished by many errors. However, instead of consequently declaring the decree partially or entirely void, the Council referred the case to the Ministry of Interior, authorizing it to reexamine the decree in relation to cases where it discerned that nationality was granted wrongfully as a result of fraud and falsification, or in contravention of the Constitution or law.

Thus the Council put naturalized persons in a new state of dependence on politicians to consolidate their nationality, entrenching their vulnerability. The Council justified this position on the basis that auditing the enormous number of files of naturalized persons itself was practically unfeasible given the time it would take; doing so would conflict with the need to ensure the proper administration of justice and realize the legal stability that public interest requires, as well as keep the rights of the naturalized persons in limbo for a long period. The Council did not give the administration any specific directions about the principles or procedures it must follow, or the timeframes to which it must adhere.

As a result of this decision, the nationality of persons naturalized by the 1994 decree remained unstable even it was issued, especially as the Ministry of Interior has to this day not finished resolving this issue. Hence, the consequences of the ruling contradict the justifications of the proper administration of justice and legal stability upon which the Council relied.


The Slow Pace of the Administrative Committee Charged with Reexamining the Decree

In 2004, the supreme committee formed by the Ministry of Interior to investigate the files of the naturalized persons recommended withdrawing the nationality of approximately 1,940 persons (including minors) of more than 150,000 [who were naturalized]. However, no decree to withdraw their nationality was issued at the time, and the case continued to be transferred between the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Interior for a number of years.

On October 28, 2011, following the formation of a new committee to restudy the naturalized persons’ files, decrees no. 6690 and 6691 were issued withdrawing nationality in approximately 200 cases who had been naturalized. These people were spread across two basic categories: formerly unregistered persons who were found to have non-Lebanese origins, and Palestinians registered with the General Directorate of Palestinian Refugee Affairs in Lebanon. Two people who submitted false personal data and a person who had been convicted of a crime when he submitted his naturalization application also had their nationality withdrawn. A number of these people challenged the decree withdrawing their nationality and resorted as well to the State Council.

The State Council Declares That the State May Withdraw Nationality at Any Time

In the course of its review of the challenges brought against the decrees withdrawing nationality, the State Council declared that the state may rightfully withdraw nationality at any time if it is found to have been granted in contravention of the law, or as a result of fraud or falsification. The Council’s reasoning was that Lebanese law, unlike the law of other countries, does not restrict the state to any timeframe. It justified this position on the basis that in the 2003 ruling, the judicial branch authorized the administration to retract naturalization decisions without restricting it to any timeframe, and on the basis of the principle that fraud invalidates all aspects of a legal decision (fraus omnia corrumpit).[2]

Auxiliary Judge Tarek Majzoub objected to the Council’s decision, stating that Lebanese law has not stipulated fraud and falsification as reasons to withdraw acquired nationality. He also deemed that the law’s silence on the timeframe does not mean the administration may withdraw nationality at any time, basing this view on the principle of protecting acquired rights and legal stability, and the principle of protecting legitimate expectation (confiance légitime) derived by French administrative jurisprudence. Majzoub also stated that the administration had known for a number of years about the fraud without trying to rectify it, and that the conditions for fraud and falsification are not met in the case of persons found to have records in the Directorate of Palestinian Affairs, because the administration did not sufficiently and transparently examine the naturalized persons’ files.[3]

Clearly, Majzoub directed his dissenting opinion towards safeguarding the rights of the naturalized persons and protecting legal stability as a result of the administration’s failure to deal with the issue of naturalized persons seriously, and in accordance with the just legal principles. This failure is evident in the issuance of the 1994 naturalization decree collectively and without an examination of the files and legal eligibility of the persons to be naturalized, as well as in the postponement of the resolution of the cases in which nationality was acquired wrongfully. In contrast, the State Council’s position legitimized the state’s negligence and mistakes and entrenched the precarity of the nationality acquired through naturalization.


The State Council declares That the Administration May Withdraw Nationality From Persons Who Acquired it Via Dependence

In cases in which the Council established that nationality had been granted illegally in 1994, the Council rejected the challenges to the decree that withdrew nationality. This resulted in the withdrawal of the nationality of these naturalized persons and of everyone who had acquired nationality via dependence irrespective of the means (e.g. marriage, birth, or a judicial or administrative decree). Once again, Judge-Rapporteur Tareq Majzoub offered a dissenting opinion. He deemed withdrawing nationality (due to fraud and falsification) a personal and individual punishment and therefore inapplicable to members of the naturalized person’s family. Its effects should not extend to persons who did not commit any act warranting punishment, pursuant to the principle of individual punishment and in order to protect legal stability.[4]


The State Council Enshrines the Principle of Protection From Statelessness

On the other hand, in the course of reviewing the decisions to withdraw nationality, the State Council adopted a distinguished and pioneering stance against statelessness, declaring for the first time that naturalization is one of the solutions needed to curb it. Citing the principle of legal stability and the need to protect rights acquired via legitimate administrative decisions, the Council held that the administration may not withdraw the nationality of naturalized persons if it erred in assessing the conditions of the nationality’s granting and the nationalization decision was legal.[5] To arrive at this conclusion, the Council endeavored to interpret some of the legal concepts in a manner that precludes the withdrawal of nationality from naturalized persons who were formerly stateless.

To withdraw nationality from one of the applicants, the administration had stated that he committed fraud and falsification by declaring in his naturalization application that he was unregistered even though he is of Egyptian origin; however, the Council held that the administration did not prove that the naturalized person has Egyptian nationality, having instead merely indicated that he is of Egyptian descent. Consequently, the naturalized person’s use of the expression “unregistered” in his naturalization application did not constitute falsification, as the concept is not limited to persons of Lebanese origin and does encompass “anyone of foreign origins who has no records in Lebanon or in his country of origin”. Hence, the Council adopted a definition of “unregistered” that corresponds to the definition of “stateless” according to international standards, namely, any person who is not considered a citizen by any government or who has no records in Lebanon, or their country. To do so, the Council drew on the study on the phenomenon of stateless people in Lebanon conducted by the Frontiers Ruwad Association (Invisible Citizens: Humiliation and Life in the Shadows, 2011).


In this regard the Council held that Lebanese law does not prohibit naturalization of stateless persons because [it allows foreigners to be naturalized and] the legal concept of “foreigner” includes a stateless person with no known nationality. It also held that the prerequisite for naturalization that stipulates that the applicant must have resided for five consecutive years in Lebanon calls for actual residence in Lebanon. Thus, the Council avoided restricting this prerequisite to possession of an official residence permit issued by the Lebanese authorities, which would have excluded stateless persons who have no papers qualifying.

Hence, the Council concluded that the naturalization decree conformed to the law with regards to a stateless man who was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and an unregistered father, and had resided in Lebanon from birth to the date of his naturalization application, as well as married a Lebanese woman with whom he had six children born in Lebanon. Similarly, the Council recorded that the naturalization decision was in line with the right of every person to nationality and with Lebanon’s international obligations to find solutions to the statelessness phenomenon, for the state is assimilating stateless people living under its auspices and they acquire nationality under the principle of acquisitive prescription.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] Decree No. 10828 of October 9, 1962, which amended the law of Lebanese nationality issued on January 31, 1946. For example, the law allows for nationality to be retracted in cases that apply only to naturalized persons, such as their absence from Lebanon for five consecutive years, their conviction of a crime against the state security, and their membership in a group that conspired against or attacked state security, or in a disbanded or unlicensed political group. Similarly, naturalized persons also do not immediately have the rights that are conditional on possessing nationality for more than ten years, such as the right to work in the public service or become a member of the “free” [professional] syndicates; this is because the naturalization decree had an establishing and not declarative effect, i.e., the naturalized persons are considered to be Lebanese from the date of the decree’s issuance and not their dates of birth.

[2] See, for example, Decision No. 682/2012-2013 of June 26, 2013, Husayn and Hasan Milhim v. The State; Decision No. 486/2013-2014 of March 20, 2014, Husayn Manfi Hamush v. The State; and, Decision No. 448/2013-2014 of March 20, 2014, Abd al-Jalil Muhammad Hasan Hilal v. The State.

[3] Opposition of auxiliary Judge Tarek Majzoub to Decision No. 682/2012-2013 of June 26, 2013, Husayn and Hasan Milhim v. The State.

[4] See, for example, reporting Judge Tarek Majzoub’s report in Review No. 17571 of 2011, Maurice and Ramzi Abu Riyali v. The State.

[5] Decision No. 448/2013-2014 of March 20, 2014, Abd al-Jalil Muhammad Hasan Hilal v. The State.


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