When earlier this year the supreme court ruled that Shamima Begum would not be allowed to return to the UK to argue her case for regaining her British citizenship, it set a dangerous precedent.
It endorsed the absolute power of the home secretary to revoke the citizenship of any UK citizen without a fair trial or a presumption of innocence.
Begum, a British woman, was just 15 and legally a child when she joined Islamic State (IS). In 2019, then home secretary, Sajid Javid, employed counterterrorism powers to revoke her British citizenship on national security grounds, barring her from returning to appeal the decision.
Instead, she has been abandoned to the sub-human conditions of a Syrian refugee camp without legal basis and irrespective of a presumption of innocence.
The supreme court decided the home secretary was entitled to prevent Begum from entering the UK and that her rights were not breached, despite agreeing that she could not expect a fair hearing while abroad.
Supreme court president Lord Reed said Begum’s right to a fair hearing did “not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public.”
The court ruled that until she can play “an effective part in her appeal without the public’s safety being compromised,” her due process rights are suspended indefinitely. The decision is now in the hands of the government as to how and when Begum will be allowed to return, abandoning her in a legal black hole.
In doing so, the UK has “redrawn the boundaries” of citizenship for Begum and many other foreign fighters. The Nationality, Immigration, and Asylum Act (2002) permanently enacted powers for the home secretary to revoke citizenship from those they “think” are “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests” of the UK, without the requirement to prove an individual has committed a criminal offence. There have been few safeguards put in place to review this expansion of executive discretion.
This affirmation of power was welcomed by Priti Patel the current home secretary, who said the supreme court’s judgement had “reaffirmed the home secretary’s authority to make vital national security decisions.” These powers come unchecked and are now endorsed by the highest court in the UK, and yet this is not headline news.
Approximately 120 people have been stripped of their UK citizenship between 2016-2019, without the presumption of innocence, rights to a fair trial, or need for sufficient evidence.
Citizenship is “a privilege, not a right,” announced the Home Office when it responded to media inquiries about the escalation in citizenship deprivation. This is not an acceptable response when the Home Office now has absolute authority to revoke the citizenship of any UK citizen they deem to be against the “interests” of the country.
However, international law prohibits the UK from rendering an individual stateless; the home secretary’s powers are contingent on a citizen holding dual nationality. In February 2020, a tribunal judged that revoking Begum’s citizenship was lawful because she was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent”; Bangladesh has refuted this and added she would not be allowed to enter their country.
Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen. The UK has rendered her stateless under the guise of dual citizenship and threats to national security, leaving her unable to appeal the decision. It is a breach of international law and human rights, and one that is likely to be repeated.
The powers of the home secretary are only a drop in an ocean of counterterrorism initiatives imposed by the UK government. Despite these expansive laws, there is a gap in the ability of legislation to manage people involved in terrorist activities.
There is little evidence that national security and counterterrorism are aided by the threat or action of citizenship revocation, nor is it an effective deterrent to radicalisation. Russia and the Central Asian states have repatriated hundreds of their nationals caught in the collapse of IS. But European countries have been hesitant to repatriate their nationals, and those they have are generally children.
The government should heed growing calls from security experts, UN officials, and human rights groups to immediately repatriate Begum and other UK nationals caught fighting for IS. Bringing them home and observing the rule of law proves that the UK’s commitment to human rights is backed by conviction. It also minimises the risk of radical beliefs and belonging spreading further and mitigates future terrorist activities.
Abandoning Begum to a detention camp leaves her vulnerable to further radicalisation and recruitment. By leaving UK terrorist fighters in the Middle East, the UK government is negating its shared responsibility for the protection of the global community. Neither justice nor national security is aided by leaving Begum in this legal black hole, and the Home Office should return Begum to the UK to face the legal ramifications of her actions.
It is a deprivation of legal and moral responsibility, as well as a long-term security risk to leave her in Syria. If we have learnt anything from the last 20 years of counterterrorism, it is that national security is never served by adhering to a politics of fear and undermining human rights and the rule of law.