In recent years, states have increasingly exploited their traditional discretion over matters of citizenship to carve out significant exceptions to the universality of human rights protection. This primarily occurs in two ways: through denial and deprivation of citizenship and through the imposition of illegitimate distinctions between citizens and noncitizens. The results of such actions may be physical expulsion, disenfranchisement, exclusion from access to public benefits, and acts of violence and discrimination. The potential for abuse is heightened for racial and ethnic minorities. Racial discrimination is a major cause of denationalization and restrictive access to citizenship. And citizenship status is often used as a proxy for racial grounds in justifying denial of other human rights. The treatment of noncitizens compellingly tests societies' commitments to the rule of law. This essay explores how human rights norms—particularly the body of law that forbids discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin—can be deployed to combat the worst effects of citizenship denial and ill-treatment of non-citizens. It recommends that the problem be addressed through three principal activities: documentation and public education; clarification and distillation of legal standards related to citizenship; and enforcement of existing norms, including those prohibiting racial discrimination.
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