Shamima Begum’s case shows us citizenship can never protect our rights by James Bridle

The rules for citizens can be rewritten at a whim, we should not let go of the centuries of legal protections that predate them

Under ancient Roman law, those who were accused of the most heinous crimes were stripped of their status as citizens. They became known as “homo sacer”, or “sacred man” – sacred in its original sense, of being set apart. Anyone who encountered the sacred man was entitled to kill him with impunity. The distinction depended on the privileged political and legal status afforded to Roman citizens.

With the fall of the Roman empire, the rigorous divisions it upheld – between those deserving protection and those no better than beasts – fell into abeyance. It has taken a long time for the concept of “citizen” to be reconstituted to the point where its withdrawal can once again be considered akin to a death sentence.

May has a deep, parochial hostility to those she feels do not show sufficient allegiance to her version of Britishness

English law has since at least the 12th century held that all people, regardless of class or origin, have the right to representation and a fair trial – not based on their citizenship but on the principles of human liberty. For centuries this was equally applied to foreigners, sometimes with radical outcomes. The grounds for the abolition of slavery were laid by a 1772 case in which James Somerset, an African slave brought to England from America by his owner, was freed by the court rather than being forcibly deported to the plantations of Jamaica.

Even non-British citizens accused of grievous offences have been offered the protection of British laws. In 2012, the supreme court demanded the return to British custody of Yunus Rahmatullah, a Pakistani citizen arrested by British forces in Iraq, but subsequently handed over to the Americans and imprisoned indefinitely without trial at Bagram airbase. While the US rebuffed British claims, and the supreme court declined to pursue the matter further, two judges wrote in a dissenting opinion that, “Where liberty is at stake, it is not the court’s job to speculate as to the political sensitivities which may be in play.”

Britain resisted creating clear categories of citizens and outsiders until the beginning of the 20th century, but once created, those categories have gradually and inevitably narrowed and hardened. In 1914, in response to panic about foreign spies, the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act created a legal distinction between the monarch’s subjects and aliens. This was further codified in the British Nationality Act of 1948, which established the status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies – under which the Windrush generation and many others established themselves. But from the 1960s, racist fears over immigration led to a gradual restriction of the definition of citizenship to exclude those not deemed British enough – primarily those from Britain’s former colonies and the Commonwealth.

The move to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship follows the same racist logic as those laws (the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell called the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”). The government claims that Begum is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship, and therefore to remove her British citizenship would not render her stateless (which is illegal under international law). It was Theresa May who, as home secretary, made repeated and systemic efforts to route around this law, but was forced to settle on the wording of the 2014 Immigration Act, which allowed her to render British citizens effectively stateless provided a claim could be made to their eligibility for citizenship elsewhere.

It should be noted that no such move has been made against, for example, Samantha Lewthwaite, the white widow of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who is eligible for Irish citizenship, and has been living in Somalia and Kenya for many years. And other nations have followed May’s lead: a coalition of rightwing parties in the Netherlands, where Begum’s husband has said he could take her, passed citizenship-stripping laws specifically targeting returning jihadists in 2017.

The consequences of citizenship-stripping could not be clearer than in the case of Mohamed Sakr, who despite being born and brought up in London was deprived of his citizenship in 2010, and killed in a US drone strike 18 months later. Questions remain unanswered about the degree of complicity between the UK and US governments in his death.

Begum is clearly being used to stoke racist fears and tensions not merely over returning jihadis, but of enemies within, in line with May’s “hostile environment” policy. May has a deep, parochial hostility to those she feels do not show sufficient allegiance to her version of Britishness, summed up by her assertion that, “If you are a citizen of everywhere, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But it’s her earlier and repeated statements as home secretary that “citizenship is a privilege not a right” which should provoke deep concerns, given the British state’s accelerating use of citizenship deprivation as a punishment over the last decade. Citizenship itself has been weaponised in this age of electronic surveillance, loosely defined terrorism offences and increased border security.

It is not hard to see echoes of May’s jingoism in her use of the British citizens living in the EU as pawns in the Brexit negotiations; we are, after all, mere “citizens of everywhere”. The global surveillance regime initiated in the “war on terror” has also allowed the security services to perform a de facto rewriting of the concept of citizenship, as revealed in the Edward Snowden documents. No longer is a passport or ID card sufficient to assert citizenship, and the rights that descend from it. Instead, our legal status is in a constant state of reassessment by GCHQ and the National Security Agency’s algorithmic data-processing systems, exposing us all to a form of digital statelessness.

The current home secretary, Sajid Javid, last year stated his intention to extend his ability to strip individuals of citizenship without due process beyond terrorism offences to other serious criminals, a move that Liberty denounced, fairly enough, as a return to medieval banishment.

As the journalist and lecturer Ash Sarkar has put it so well, Begum is being used by the British government as “a proxy for something else: a Briton who was never truly British, the criminal who is unworthy of being even tried under British law, the exception who stands outside of humanity”. As seen in the increasingly vitriolic discourse around Begum’s case, the shredding of centuries of legal protections is accompanied by a collapse in human dignity and responsibility.

The fact that the prime minister refuses to extend to a 19-year-old girl the rights formerly granted to citizens, slaves and foreign prisoners alike goes beyond shame and regression: it declares that Britain is a state willing to abandon its citizens when they become inconvenient to it, reinforcing the complaints of those who feel, with good reason, that they are never “British enough”, while continually expanding the number of formerly settled citizens who fall into that category.

To rely solely on the concept of citizenship as legal protection risks further entrenching this exclusionary system, which is a mere 100 years old, to the detriment of eight centuries of liberty. But in an increasingly nationalistic world, with borders – physical and electronic – being erected everywhere, to be without it is also to become the “homo sacer”, the most vulnerable, the accursed, once again. This is the future that the abdication of responsibility for care, consideration and due process – from governments to citizens, and from each of us to one another – holds for all of us.

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