OPINION: Why Germany shouldn't be creating second-class citizenship for foreign fighters

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Christina Lee - [email protected]
OPINION: Why Germany shouldn't be creating second-class citizenship for foreign fighters
Passports from Syria and Germany. Photo: DPA

Where your parents come from should not determine the durability of your German citizenship, argues Christina Lee.


In March, a spokeswoman from Germany’s Interior Ministry announced that Germany would follow in the ill-considered footsteps of other European countries by removing citizenship from Germans with dual citizenship who had left the country to fight for a “terror militia.” On Wednesday, Germany's cabinet approved the measure, with the stipulation that it would not apply retroactively.

I believe that Germany has many reasons to re-consider this proposal: it is craven, discriminatory and makes Germany not the tiniest bit safer. But above all, this country should steer far clear of creating a second-class category of citizenship for people with migration background and contributing to a growing nationalist movement equating ethnicity with nationality.

SEE ALSO: Germany says repatriation of Syrian jihadists 'extremely difficult'

The debate over how to handle returning the foreign IS fighters, European citizens who went abroad to join the Islamic State, has been reignited in recent weeks by the US president, who demanded in a tweet that European countries take back circa 800 captured fighters. 

The US president is seldomly coherent or correct but in this case, even his harshest critics must admit that he has a point. It is extremely suspect to reject responsibility for citizens who were radicalized in Europe, in many cases as minors, and then went abroad to join a war in which European countries contributed ammunition and bombs.

Serious consequences?

And yet, numerous European countries have attempted to reject these returning citizens, even threatening to denationalize them, i.e., remove their citizenship as a result of their participation in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, we saw the potential serious consequence of this move as the newborn child of a radicalized child bride, Shamima Begum, died in a refugee camp after Britain denationalized him and his mother on the basis of such a policy.

Despite Britain’s brazen move, removing citizenship is somewhat tricky under the law. There is an international convention that expressly forbids removing citizenship from an individual when it would leave them stateless, or without any citizenship, the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. 

The loophole that countries like Britain and Germany are aiming for is that some people have dual citizenship, or in the case of Shamima Begum, could arguably obtain citizenship from another country, the country of their parents.

In that case, these countries believe they can avoid violating international law but still remove citizenship from these people. (In the case of Begum this argument is transparently false: she does not possess citizenship of the country of her parents, Bangladesh, which has also stated it will not accept her.)

Why is it necessary to revoke citizenship of ex-IS recruits anyways? After all, committing crimes, even war crimes, is usually punishable by jail time - not revocation of citizenship.

In the case of IS fighters, European governments argue that the individuals committed especially heinous crimes, present a special threat to the country and that the cases are too complex for their national legal systems to handle. 

A double standard?

Germany is taking on these arguments as well, with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen saying, "We must be able to ensure that prosecution is possible,” while Chancellory Representative Stefan Seibert responded to criticism by saying, “This is about concrete participation in combat operations for a terror militia abroad.” However, these arguments simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

Take the argument that the crimes committed were especially heinous acts of terror. In that case, one would expect similarly hideous acts of terror to be punished in the same way when committed by any German nationals. Applying this rule only to people with dual citizenship suggests that having a foreign background enhances an act of terror or makes it somehow worse.

As though having German national parents excuses in some way your desire to commit acts of terror. This must be a relief for neo-Nazi terrorists like the members of the NSU, who, despite having committed heinous acts of terror, will not have their German citizenship revoked.

The terrorist behind the Christ Church attacks, who was Australian but committed his brutal attack in New Zealand, would also retain his citizenship under this logic. 

Crimes dependent on 'who you are'?

If people are somehow more of a risk based on their having parents from another country, what is to stop this concept from being applied to all sorts of crimes? In fact, Denmark is already applying this rule, making crimes committed in migrant neighborhoods punishable by additional penalties - is that where Germany is heading with such a nonsensical distinction? Making crime dependent not on what you do, but who you are? 

The argument that the cases of returning IS fighters are too risky or complex is laughable. Germany has, in the past, engaged in incredibly complex war crimes cases against German citizens accused of committing acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against foreign states in Europe, with hundreds of witnesses and unbelievably complex chains of evidence - the Nuremberg Trials.

The RAF trials also involved German terrorists who worked at home and abroad. Are we to believe that the small-fry fighters returning to Germany are too complex for the German legal system?

And if it is the case that the goings on in Syria are too complicated for the German government to understand or adjudicate, then why are German companies permitted to be the fourth largest distributor of weapons in the world, selling them to over 98 countries- doesn’t that potentially further entangle Germany in numerous conflicts beyond its grasp? 

A sub-class of citizenship

Moreover, Germany does engage in complex litigation of this sort. The Federal Court of Justice has issued an arrest warrant against an alleged Syrian war criminal at the behest of legal NGO European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights for crimes he committed entirely in Syria- a case that would rest on Germany applying universal jurisdiction.

Presumably in such a case the judge would be smart enough to follow along, despite the risk and complexity involved.

The fact that these justifications simply do not hold water underlines the ultimate and obvious point: in enacting a policy of denationalization that only applies to dual nationals, Germany is creating a sub-class of Germany citizenship.

If you were radicalized in Germany and fled abroad to fight for IS, the only distinction in whether or not you get to return, under this policy, will not be your actions but your ethnic identity, or even that of your parents. Having German citizenship will not mean the same thing for all citizens, and the distinction will not be a moral one but an ethnic one.

SEE ALSO: German jihadists among IS fighters being captured 'daily' by US-backed forces

SEE ALSO: Germany plans new foreign fighters law




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