The importance of the right to citizenship has been brought to light again by the case of Shamima Begum. Groomed at the age of 15 to join the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant[i] in Syria (ISIS), she pleaded to the British government to let her in for the sake of her infant child but got denied entry and subsequently stripped of her citizenship.

Towards a definition of terrorism

September 2001 has marked a shift in the development of international law – terror attacks were no longer a foreign concept.

While the consequences of terrorism have been printed in the collective conscience, the term terrorism, however, remains deprived of an internationally agreed definition.

As per Rosalyn Higgins, “terrorism is a term without legal significance. It is merely a convenient way of alluding to activities, whether of States or of individuals, widely disapproved of and in which either the methods used are unlawful, or the targets protected, or both[ii]”.

Despite disputing theories, common grounds have been found by the international community in attempting to define terrorism.

For the first time, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism developed a two-fold definition of terrorism under International Law. The second leg defining terrorism as “any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation or armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act[iii]”. Critics have raised as to distinguish freedom fighters who are governed by the will to throw-off dictatorships or resist foreign occupation from terrorists[iv].

Still, ISIS is coined by general consensus as a terrorist group which needs to be defeated.

Apart from daily attacks on civilian in Iraq and Syria[v]; the organisation has revendicated multiple attacks in Europe[vi], the United States of America, or Australia. These being now committed by lone wolves or small groups using guerilla-style tactics randomly targeting civilians hence making it more difficult for Intelligence Agencies to identify and apprehend.

Indeed, leaders of terrorist groups have used the evolution of technology to their advantage. The widespread use of social media and especially apps such as Telegram and Whatsapp offering end-to-end encrypted communicating systems have enabled them to scout and recruit people all over the world[vii].

Shamima Begum or the intangibility of Human Rights

This is how Shamima Begum, then 15, was groomed into leaving the United Kingdom, using her elder sister’s passport to cross the border between Turkey and Syria with the help of smugglers. Upon her arrival in Raqqa, she married Yago Riedjik, a Dutch national with whom she had three children in the span of 4 years – all deceased due to malnutrition and lack of medical assistance[viii].

After giving birth to her third child in February this year, she pleaded to the British authorities to let her back in the country for the sake of her infant child.

Though she passively participated in the annihilation of Human Rights (such as the right to life, liberty and physical integrity) for many, she remains a subject of international law possessing intangible rights.

In fact, despite incendiary interviews where she showcased complete allegiance and indoctrination to the system of belief created by ISIS, she had a claim in wanting to gain access to the country she was born in, bred for 15 years and a national of. This claim was dismissed all the same by Sajid David, current Home Secretary.

UK response to terror attacks

Facing the insidious and protean nature of current terrorist groups, a number of States have geared their legislation towards ensuring a separation between the defects and the territory they are sovereign over[ix]. Amongst those States, the United Kingdom appears as one of the most vociferous.

The question of immigration in the UK is a sensitive subject which explains to some extent the Brexit vote.

At the hands of Theresa May, then Home Secretary, a number of policies have operated a shift in the enjoyment of Human Rights in the UK[x].

On 30 January 2014, a last-minute amendment to the Immigration Bill being debated at the House of Commons proposed the revocation of citizenship for British citizens deemed engaged in behaviours not conducive to the public good[xi].

This amendment grants the power to the Home Secretary to strip terror suspects from their British citizenship even though it might leave the individual stateless[xii].

According to Shai Kavi: “current provisions (in the UK) do not require any conduct on the part of the individual. In an age of risk prevention, suspicion alone is sufficient[xiii]”.

Yet, the UK is part amongst other international treaties and covenants  – to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness[xiv]. In its article 8(1) the Convention to which the UK government is a signatory, prohibits the deprivation of citizenship should it render the individual stateless.

More, article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides “Everyone has a right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”. As depository of the public force, governments owe to their citizens and justiciable a duty to protect their interests in respect of international law.

Terrorism and the rule of law

Depriving an individual of their citizenship subsequently leaving them with none whatsoever is a form of execution creating a legal limbo[xv].  For citizenship entails rights more often than not dependent on State action (such as the right to healthcare, education, freedom of movement, etc.) Stripping an individual of its rights does not erase its existence.

For terrorism is vivid and democracy should not yield under threat.

In the contrary, justice and the provisions of international law have to be upheld at all costs. The UN Security Council has called on many occasions on States to comply – while applying counter-terrorism measures, with international human rights law, refugee law and humanitarian law[xvi]. Human Rights are intangible but can suffer some limitations so far as these stay in the pursuance of a legitimate purpose, necessary and proportionate[xvii].

Dispossessing terror suspects of their citizenship will then just displace the issue to another State while this fight should bring the importance of fundamental principles for all to higher heights.

Ashley Sodji
LLM « Private international law » – University of Dundee

[i] Group formally known as ISIL by the U.S. Department of State and the Obama Administration, also referred to as ISIS or Daesh

[ii] R. Higgins, International Law and Terrorism, (1997), London.

[iii] UNGA Resolution 54/109 9th December 1999, article 2(1).

[iv] UN Doc.A/55/37 No. 16.

[v] Ben Hubbard ‘Where ISIS Rule in Syria, Fear and Uncertainty Reign’ The New York Times, 29th April 2019.

[vi] i.e. France on multiple occasions (Paris 2015, Nice 2016, Trèbes 2018) and Belgium.

[vii] Md Sazzad Hossain, ‘Social Media and Terrorism: Threats and Challenges to the Modern Era’, South Asian Survey, (2015), Vol 22 II, p-136-155.

[viii] ‘Shamima Begum: IS teenager’s baby son has died, SDF confirms’ BBC, 8th March 2019.

[ix] See for example in Canada the Legislative Summary of Bill C-24: An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act

[x] As per the Windrush generation who are denied services, losing their jobs and facing deportation following the tightening of the immigration rules in the UK in 2012.  For further examples, see Report ordered by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts ‘Windrush generation and the Home Office’ HC1518, 6th March 2019, <>.

[xi] This assertion being broadened in Pham v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2018] EWCA Civ 2064, where the Court of Appeal held that behaviours not conducive to the public good could be inferred from “(a breach in its duty of loyalty) so fundamentally that it cannot be reasonable to expect the State to continue to provide him with the protection which flows from citizenship”(57).

[xii] Sections 40(2) and 40(4A) of the British Nationality Act 1981.

[xiii] Shai Lavi, ‘Punishment and the Revocation of Citizenship in the United Kingdom, United States and Israel’ (2010)

[xiv] 1961, UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

[xv] See the Karana people of Madagascar or the Roma people of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

[xvi] See Security Council Resolutions 1456 (2003) annex para. 6, and 1624 (2005) para 4.

[xvii] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.