Is Loyalty a Requirement for Citizenship?

I had implied in my first article in this series that loyalty is a requirement for citizenship. My friend, Omowumi Ogunrotimi, did not agree. She argued that if citizenship is acquired by birth, then a person need not meet any pre-conditions for it. I contend that this view only partially reflects the reality – as I attempt to show in this note. Let me reiterate that by loyalty I mean devotion or commitment, intrinsic or extrinsic, to a person, cause or entity.

While for most people citizenship is acquired without any pre-conditions, some form of loyalty is required by most states, either implicitly or explicitly, as a condition for maintaining it, and a pre-condition for acquiring it by registration or naturalisation. This view becomes clearer if citizenship is seen as a continuum rather than as one-off. On the one hand, there is acquisition and on the other, there is maintenance of citizenship. Regardless of the pathway to acquiring it, certain criteria are expected to be met to maintain citizenship. I discuss the place of loyalty in citizenship, focusing on both individual choice making and the power of the state to grant or withdraw citizenship.

Acquiring Citizenship

Citizenship is a part of a person’s identity, and confers privileges (such as healthcare, education, ease of travel, investment opportunities and employment) as well as responsibilities (taxes and civic duties). There are three main pathways to the acquisition of citizenship: birth, registration and naturalisation. Citizenship by birth is acquired through a person’s parents or by being born into a country (birthright citizenship in the United States). However, citizenship by birth is not always automatic. In the United Kingdom, the parents of a person need to meet certain criteria, for example, at least one of them must be a British citizen, have a right of abode or possess certain ancestry rights to citizenship, before their child may qualify for citizenship at birth.

Citizenship by registration is granted to a person who meets certain criteria or has historically-linked entitlements. Certain Commonwealth or British Overseas Territory citizens can register to become citizens of the UK or other Commonwealth countries (such as Trinidad and Tobago), if they meet ancestry and/or residency requirements. Citizenship by registration is also granted in instances of marriage in certain countries (such as India) if residency, language or other criteria are met. Citizenship by naturalisation is granted when a person who, having met certain criteria, applies for it to the state for it. These criteria may include any combinations of language, assimilation, character, residency, marriage, investment, possession of exceptional talents and/or historical links to the country.

The above suggests that to acquire citizenship, a person needs to demonstrate commitment or have ties that show the potential for long-term commitment to the country in question. Even by birth, certain pre-conditions are to be met, in some cases, before citizenship is acquired. In some countries, the extent of this commitment is ascertained through citizenship tests, character checks (criminal records check for example), tax records, and community service. The substantive issue here is that states expect a person to be positively committed to them and is unlikely to be disruptive or work against their interest, in determining qualification for citizenship.

Losing Citizenship

As with the process of acquiring citizenship, there are conditions for maintaining it, and a person can lose their citizenship under certain circumstances. Loss of citizenship may be voluntary or involuntary (or denaturalisation). In the case of voluntary loss, a person can renounce their citizenship for personal or moral reasons. Another voluntary instance is when a person acquires the citizenship of another country and it is not allowed by law in their country of origin or naturalisation to maintain a second or third one. For example, dual citizenship is not allowed by Indian law, unless a person is granted the status of Overseas Citizenship of India (although this is not officially considered as second citizenship). In Nigeria, a person who becomes a citizen by naturalisation may not acquire a second citizenship. Many countries have conditions for voluntary renunciation of citizenship which border on the criteria for becoming a citizen, acquiring citizenship of another country or simply on grounds of personal decision. The need to forestall statelessness however means that for a person’s renunciation application to be successful, some countries now require proof of a granted or promised second country citizenship.

A person’s reasons for renouncing their citizenship may be personal, moral, or ethical. On a personal level, the spike in renunciations of US citizenship, as a case study, is due, in part, to the country’s global income tax system which many find inconvenient and perceive to be unjust. Citizens of the US are taxed based on their nationality rather than residence, which means they have tax obligations regardless of where they live in the world. The second reason is the tension between individual moral philosophy and state actions. An individual may renounce their citizenship due to the state’s policies (such as going to war under morally or ethically controversial circumstances) could result in citizens’ renunciation. While voluntary renunciation is a function of a person’s own intent to disavow membership of a state, the other pathway to the loss of citizenship is based on a state’s own prerogative to withdraw it for any number of reasons.

Involuntary loss of citizenship or denaturalisation is an action taken by the state to deprive a person of their citizenship. In most cases, these occur if a person is found to have engaged in egregious acts that undermine the state. In recent years, states have instituted laws that allow them to use denaturalisation to deprive people of their citizenship. These have largely been on the grounds of counterterrorism efforts. In the UK for example, the last decade has seen an increasing use of these provisions to deprive citizenship of those who travel abroad to join terrorist groups. These measures are often met with resistance with groups arguing that they could be used arbitrarily with greater human rights implications. The recent case of Shamima Begum, the teenage IS bride, who was stripped of her UK citizenship, shows how divisive this topic is. The US’ Terrorist Expatriation Act (USTEA) which allows the government to strip individuals of their citizenship also raised similar concerns.

It seems that countries will strip people of their citizenship if they undertake or are involved in acts that work against the state including acts of terrorism, fighting for another country, committing egregious crimes or joining the military of an enemy state during a war and, historically, espionage. While the forms have evolved somewhat since the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, the principle remains that a state will take away citizenship if it believes that a person is disloyal to it or works against its interest.

So, is Loyalty a Requirement for Citizenship?

Now, to the question of this article, is loyalty a requirement for citizenship? Yes, loyalty is a key requirement for obtaining and maintaining citizenship. This is even more so when a person acquires citizenship by naturalisation or registration. A person must ‘earn’ their citizenship, either through the status of their parents or through their own efforts to demonstrate that they deserve the conferment of such citizenship. They must fulfil certain obligations that demonstrate their devotion to the state in question. For the actual conferment to be completed, people are expected to swear an oath of allegiance – make a declaration of loyalty. These declarations often take place in public ceremonies. A declaration is an essential part of the citizenship conferment process and, in some jurisdictions, a citizenship process is not complete without them.

Further, as stated earlier, a person can abandon or renounce their citizenship if there are tensions that affect the extent of their loyalty the state. The case of taxation or moral or ethical tensions earlier stated can be reasons but there are also others such as a person determining pragmatically to swear their allegiance to a new state than maintain their current citizenship. Also, a person can be stripped of their citizenship if the state considers them disloyal on various grounds as earlier outlined. There have been questions as to whether a person’s citizenship should be subject to this kind of state discretion. In the case of the recent expansion of the UK and US government’s powers to strip people of their citizenship, concerns have been raised that such may be used arbitrarily or abused, return these countries to the primitive era of ‘banishment’ and, as in the recent case of Ms Begum, increase the risk of people being rendered stateless – a violation of international law.

As I stated earlier, loyalty is about devotion or commitment to a person, cause or entity. Citizens demonstrate their devotion by not engaging in crimes, participating in civic duties, paying their taxes, and respecting the rules of decent living. The grounds for acquiring and losing citizenship are tied to principles of loyalty. So yes, loyalty is at the heart of citizenship, and in response to argument earlier in this article, I contend that even if obtained by birth, a person demonstrates loyalty, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain their citizenship.


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