Last week, the UK Supreme Court ruled by a unanimous decision that Shamima Begum, who left the country as a teenager to join ISIS, was not allowed to return and fight for her citizenship case. In 2019, then home secretary Sajid Javid had stripped Begum, 19 at the time, of her citizenship on national security grounds, and she wished to return to challenge the decision. The Supreme Court decision does not simply speak to Begum's case, however. Rather, it says a great deal more about our country and how we do or do not envisage citizenship in the 21st century. Very little of it is particularly edifying.
When Begum travelled to Syria to join ISIS, she was 15 years old. One of her former school teachers, Nick Ward, is convinced that she was "groomed" by adults online looking to exploit and abuse her. Ultimately, Begum was indoctrinated into a cult of the most grotesque nature; three children she bore have died; her husband is apparently incarcerated; and she has been left stateless after the stripping of her nationality.
But this sad tale is, on one level, irrelevant. Every human being has a human story as to how and why they fall into mistakes and crimes. That could all be relevant to a judge deciding on the penalty for a crime, or rehabilitation techniques and so forth. But in this case, it is something far more basic. Begum could be a serial killer or a shoplifter. The principle here is the same. If citizenship is real, it cannot be conditional; and it certainly cannot be conditional on the whim of an executive order.
Begum was a British citizen. It should not matter if she was born in the UK – though she was – nor that she was raised in the UK – though she was. It should simply matter that she was a British citizen; and that citizenship should never be a question thereafter.
Indeed, in most criminal cases, it wouldn’t be a question. There are scores of serious offenders in British jails today whose convictions are more serious than the accusations levied at Begum – but the question of their citizenship has never come about. Nor should they be.
Citizenship isn’t about criminality. It is about connection and attachment to a nation-state in a world that is governed by relations between nation-states. The international order for more than two centuries has been based on that. It is why it is illegal under international law to make someone stateless. The world order we have accepted is based on the notion of citizenship; and if citizenship is so easily taken away, it becomes meaningless. And if someone doesn’t even have a citizenship, they are an alien to every country on Earth.
It was effectively argued by supporters of Mr Javid's decision that Begum wasn't stateless; because as the descendant of Bangladeshi migrants, she had rights to Bangladeshi citizenship. That argument simply makes the situation worse, because it is discriminatory. Disproportionately and overwhelmingly, it is non-white people in the UK who have ancestral connections that might entitle them to other citizenships. Moreover, it also happens to be wrong; Bangladesh refused to grant Begum citizenship in any case, insisting that this was Britain's problem.
Bangladesh was right. But that is not why senior Conservative members of Parliament, including three former ministers, have written to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, and the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, insisting that Britain should not "wash its hands" of the 40 Britons detained in Syria. Their argument for bringing back Begum and others revolves around the reality that Britons "swilling around in ungoverned space" in Syria was a security risk for the UK. As Andrew Mitchell, one of the MPs, said: "If they are judged to be a risk, then all the more reason why they should be returned to Britain where they can be processed by the British criminal justice system."
The irony is that the Supreme Court rejected Begum's request to return to challenge being stripped of her nationality, precisely based on national security considerations. The President of the Supreme Court, Robert Reed, argued that it was mistaken to believe that "when an individual's right to have a fair hearing came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail". Of course, the question then becomes: who decides what the requirements of national security are? And herein lies the rub – it is the executive who made that assessment, without any oversight, judicial or otherwise.
In this ruling, the Court gave overwhelming deference to executive power; instead of acting as a check upon it, on an issue of such fundamental importance to the very basis of the nation-state. One does not need to have the slightest sympathy for Begum to recognise that this is a perturbing precedent of truly troubling consequences.
Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University