It was heartening to read that the federal minister of transportation and infrastructure, John Baird, is taking a special interest in the case of Canadian Bashir Makhtal. Last month, an Ethiopian court upheld the life sentence of Makhtal, an ethnic Somali who was charged with being a senior member of a separatist group supporting Islamic militants in Somalia, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which his grandfather allegedly helped found.
He did not end up in Ethiopia of his own free will. Rather, he was seized in Kenya (after he fled from Somalia in 2006 when Ethiopia entered Somalia to repel the alleged radical Islamic militias there), “renditioned” by Kenya to the government of Somalia, and then transferred to Ethiopia, his country of birth, in 2007. A multitude of illegal processes and acts against Makhtal apparently took place (in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia), as the Ethiopian government prosecuted him for alleged membership in the proscribed organization.
It is difficult to understand why Canadians are not more vividly aware of the (albeit tiny and very faint) ominous warning that appears on the last page of every Canadian passport, to the effect that Canadians with more than one nationality due to “birth, descent, marriage or naturalization” are cautioned that while in that other country of nationality, they are subject to all of that country’s laws and obligations.
Due to the confusing nature of “descent,” many Canadians may not even be aware that they have another nationality. Most countries using descent (also known as jus sanguines — literally, right of the blood) normally automatically consider children born of parents from that country as nationals, but some countries will reach back to grandparents (Spain and Greece, for example) as the basis for nationality. In some countries, it can reach back to great-grandparents, as with Italy, Ireland, Spain and India. And each nation’s rules keep changing.
The conferring of nationality is a decision determined by each state, and the rules and policies vary significantly around the world. While most countries confer nationality based on jus solos (the place of birth), the lines between jus sanguines and jus solos are often blurred, and the use of one practice within a country does not necessarily negate the use of the other; hence, a person born in a country that applies jus solos, can simultaneously acquire the nationality of his/her parents or grandparents, often without being aware of it (and regardless of whether their birth state recognizes it), simply because their ancestors’ home nation applies jus sanguines.
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Suffice to say that nationality by “descent” is common, confusing and extremely complicated, yet critical to whoever is unaware of his/her country’s operative policy and who chooses to visit that state. Consequences of entering the country of one’s other nationality can include compulsory military service, taxes and other obligations. In many respects, that other nationality takes precedence while in that country over other nationalities, and may make the birth state’s efforts at assistance, in practice, virtually nil.
Such is the case with Makhtal, and with many others caught in this quagmire.
In Makhtal’s case, he was sent to Ethiopia from Somalia (not of his own volition), but his presence in the region is an abject lesson in the need for caution by Canadians of other nationalities. Demands for consular access and due process are international legal rights Canada had been rightly insisting upon through Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, but Makhtal’s plight, given the above, is a serious one indeed. In Ethiopia, he is Ethiopian. Period.
The website of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs dealing with dual citizenship acknowledges quite blithely that “you may not be aware that you’re a citizen of another country” and that this could be acquired by “family connections, including the place of birth of one of your parents or even grandparents.” Canadians who may have other nationalities need to heed the warnings that appear in their passports with the utmost gravity they deserve.
Morris Maduro teaches international law at Grant MacEwan University and the University of Alberta.