Restoring Citizenship Law in Lebanon: Renaturalization Without Return

2016-07-01    |   


At the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference held on 5, 6, and 7 of May, 2006, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced that the implementation of Lebanon’s renaturalization law, which enables emigrants and persons of Lebanese descent to reacquire Lebanese nationality had begun. On November 12, 2015, parliament had passed a bill defining the conditions for renaturalization (Law 41).[1] The bill was introduced by MPs Michel Aoun and Elie Kayrouz on behalf of the two most represented Christian blocs; the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Forces. These two blocs had made their participation in the parliamentary session dedicated to “legislating the essential”, held against the backdrop of the presidential vacuum, on a pledge from the major blocs to pass the bill. The Christian leaders presented the law as necessary to reduce the severity of the demographic imbalance between the sects, and hence to preserve their positions within the state; a perspective based on the unproven assumption that most descendants of Lebanese emigrants are Christians, or have Christian ancestry. While this discourse was clearly evident in the media, it was absent from the law’s mandating reasons. The authors justified the bill only on the basis that a streamlined mechanism for renaturalization is needed because “the Lebanese diaspora is Lebanon’s greatest wealth and deserves the attention of government officials on all levels”. Evidently, talk of sectarian balances is justified in the media but not in official documents.

The law thus established a streamlined mechanism for receiving applications and processing them within certain timeframes. The Lebanese [foreign] missions refer applications to the Foreign Ministry, which refers them to the Ministry of Interior, which then refers them to the General Directorate of General Security which investigates them. The whole process is bound by tight deadlines. The final decision is vested in a small committee consisting of three people, one of whom is a judge.

The law openly excluded descendants of persons who adopted the citizenship of a country that seceded from the Ottoman Empire. This provision is intended to prevent citizens of the countries surrounding Lebanon from acquiring Lebanese citizenship on the basis of their Lebanese relatives.


The Law’s Unconstitutionality

When the law was issued, it became clear that it is unconstitutional on two bases:

Open political naturalization

Applicants for renaturalization need only demonstrate Lebanese ancestry and have no obligation to return to Lebanon, let alone any other obligation. This law thereby differs from the law passed on January 31, 1946, under which persons with Lebanese ancestry could be renaturalized if they permanently returned to Lebanon, but would have their citizenship revoked if they then spent five years outside of the country. Subsequently, the naturalization now occurring is a political naturalization as its goal is not to recognize citizenship applicants’ strong ties to Lebanon, but to achieve certain political gains; namely, the potential reduction in the demographic imbalance between the sects. Even worse, the law’s validity was not restricted to a certain period, thus both living beneficiaries and beneficiaries not yet born have the right to renaturalization on the basis of it. Irrespective of [the identity of] the greatest beneficiaries at present (which may not remain the same in all time periods), the law is expected to cause a feverish race between political parties to increase the numbers of Lebanese citizens belonging to their sects. Several countries may witness “sectarian” naturalization campaigns reminiscent of those conducted by Jewish agencies to attract Jews to Palestine.

Law 41 of 2015 thus enshrined the right to renaturalization without imposing any obligation on the beneficiaries towards the Lebanese state. This violates the principle of equality between Lebanese citizens. Specifically, it violates paragraph C of [the Preamble of] the Constitution and Article 7 of the Constitution, which elaborate the principle of equality by stating that Lebanon shall uphold “equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination”, and that all Lebanese shall “equally enjoy civil and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction”.

Law 41 of 2015 also enshrined the right to renaturalization irrespective of the presence of strong ties between the citizenship applicant and Lebanon. This contravenes the definition of “nationality” and its close association with the concept of the effectiveness of the link between the person and the state, i.e., its anchorage in a living reality. The International Court of Justice has consecrated the principle of effective nationality in one of its decisions.[2]

Finally, via this law, the political leaders are treating the emigrants’ world as though it mirrors that of the citizens in Lebanon. They imagine that emigrants are divided into 18 sects, and that there are no emigrants without a sectarian affiliation. This conception is likely –at least we hope– to be largely mistaken.

Androcentrism as an aim in and of itself?

The law once again enshrined androcentric values in nationality matters, for it limited the beneficiaries to descendants of men of Lebanese ancestry. In fact, the law contained three references to males (“a male next of kin” and “[a] male relative”) as distinct from females, and two references to fathers (“on his father’s side”) as distinct from mothers.

By explicitly discriminating between genders, the law appears to completely contradict the Constitution. Worse, the law’s androcentrism appears to be an aim in and of itself and not justified by demographic balance considerations. The proof of this is that descendants of men of Lebanese origin are believed to have the same sectarian affiliations as the descendants of women of Lebanese origin; hence, the Christian leaders’ assumption that emigrants are predominantly Christian should, if true, hold true for descendants of persons of either gender. To understand this matter, we must recall that the ministerial committee assigned in 2012 to investigating the possibility of granting Lebanese women the right to transfer their nationality to their children based its [oppositional] stance on demographic balance considerations. In particular, it cited statistics showing that granting this right would exacerbate the sectarian imbalance in Lebanon.[3]

The irony here is that the renaturalization bill did not refer to any statistical study substantiating the law’s effect on the sectarian balance. Hence, statistics showing that granting nationality to the children of Lebanese women will lead to a greater increase in the number of Muslims were given a pivotal role in an issue that should have been resolved on the basis of principle (equality between the genders in the granting of nationality to their children), whereas principle was given a pivotal role in an issue that should have been settled on the basis of social suitability alone. We granted persons of Lebanese descent the right to renaturalization without any serious study of their numbers or sectarian affiliations where present. Thus, the state seems to do the arithmetic when it is unethical, but neglects to do so when the issue is essentially a question of suitability and arithmetic.

Hence, the law naturally generated redoubled indignation among people whose organic tie to Lebanon does not impart any right to citizenship to them, particularly people born to a Lebanese mother but either carrying their father’s nationality or inheriting his statelessness. Does it make sense, for example, for citizenship to be bestowed upon a person whose grandparents emigrated more than a century ago –perhaps before the state of Lebanon existed– and who has no strong ties to Lebanon, while the aforementioned group is deprived of this right?


Challenging the Constitutionality of the Law: A Lost Opportunity

Because applications to challenge the constitutionality of laws may only be submitted by political authorities (the president of the republic, the prime minister, or ten parliamentarians), appealing the constitutionality of the renaturalization law appeared impossible for the citizens aggrieved by it. Hence, opposition to the law was initially expressed only via demonstrations, public speaking, and the press.

On December 11, 2015, the situation changed completely when the eleven MPs of the Democratic Gathering bloc[4] submitted to the Constitutional Council a challenge to certain articles of the law that discriminate against the descendants of Lebanese persons, who adopted the citizenships of countries that seceded from the Ottoman Empire. This challenge arose from the context of sectarian competition as the Democratic Gathering MPs represent Druze-majority regions, and most Druze of Lebanese descent live in the aforementioned countries. The fact that the challenge cited the principle of nondiscrimination without any reference to the blatant gender-based discrimination dispels all doubt about its objective.

Nevertheless, a challenge to only some of the law’s articles obliges the Constitutional Council to examine the constitutionality of the law as a whole. Hence, advocates of abolishing discrimination against women [including The Legal Agenda] quickly took advantage of the historical opportunity. On December 22, 2015, they submitted to the Constitutional Council a memorandum imploring it to abolish the law because it contravenes the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of gender.[5] However, the Council was reluctant to receive the memorandum, arguing that it cannot legally accept memorandums of this nature and doing so would inundate it (even though its 2015 workload was limited to this single case). The memorandum was nevertheless published by multiple media outlets and the National News Agency, thereby confronting the Constitutional Council, for the first time, with a historical obligation to examine the principle of gender discrimination in nationality issues.

On January 7, 2016, the Constitutional Council issued a disappointing decision. The Council simply turned a blind eye to its responsibility to examine the constitutionality of the law, hiding behind wholly unconvincing technicalities. The most important of these technicalities was that rather than enshrining new rules for citizenship acquisition, the contested law merely defines the rules of renaturalization specified in an earlier law (issued in 1925) whose constitutionality cannot be contested under Lebanese law.[6] The decision was issued via a nine-vote majority. Vice-President of the Constitutional Council Judge Tareq Ziade, who gave the only opposing vote, disagreed with the majority opinion on two counts. He argued, firstly, that the Council was required to examine the constitutionality of all of the law’s articles, even those unmentioned in the challenge lodged. Secondly, he argued that the condition discriminating against women contravenes the principle of equality between all citizens as enshrined in the Constitution, stating that “‘Lebanese citizens’ means males and females without distinction or discrimination between them”. Hence, his objection closely matched the memorandum submitted by The Legal Agenda and published in its 34th Issue (released on December 28, 2015).

Thus emerged the renaturalization law in contravention of the minimum legal principles. The major issue is now the sectarian race that will arise from its application.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] “(1) Persons who are included, or who have a male next of kin on their father’s side or male relative on their father’s side to the fourth degree who is included, in the census records made after the declaration of the State of Greater Lebanon –i.e.,the records of 1921-1924– as residents or immigrants or the 1932 record as immigrants…provided that the person named in the records did not openly or implicitly choose the citizenship of one of the states that seceded from the Ottoman Sultanate; and, (2) Persons who are included, or who have a male next of kin who is included, in the 1932 records of residents…and who later neglected, or whose descendants neglected, to register their personal information.”

[2] CIJ 6 avr. 1955, Nottebohm, Rec. CIJ, p. 23.

[3] See: Saada Allaw’s, “Takleef al-Lajnah al-Wazariyyah bi tafseel “al-taqdimat” al-Khassa lil Abna’: Majlis al-Wuzara Yuwafiq Dimnan ala Tawsiyat al-’ar bi Hirman al-Mar’a Haqqaha bi Manh Jinsiyyatiha”, The Legal Agenda, January 18, 2013.

[4] Walid Jumblatt, Ghazi Aridi, Marwan Hamadeh, Alaaeddine Terro, Wael Abou Faour, Akram Chehayeb, Henri Helou, Fouad Saad, Antoine Saad, Nehmeh Tohme, and Elie Aoun.

[5] The memorandum was submitted by The Legal Agenda and the Collective for Research & Training on Development-Action (the “My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family” regional campaign).
[6] Lebanese law allows for the constitutionality of a law to be challenged within 15 days of its publication in the Official Gazette. Old laws, on the other hand, cannot be contested.

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