Case law Developments in PIL

A Question of Human Rights: Registration of Children Outside Their Country of Birth or Nationality

It is common practice for children to be registered in the country where they are born or where they hold nationality. But what if these countries fail to do so? A judgment of 18 October 2021 rendered by a judge of first instance in Montilla (Spain) gives an answer, which was reported in the blog run by José Carlos Fernández Rozas and on the webpage of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial. The judgment can still be appealed.

Facts

A child was born in March 2020 in Oran (Algeria) to a national of Cameron; the father is unknown. The Algerian authorities failed to register the child. One year later, mother and child entered Spanish territory, where they have been living since in a refugee centre in Montilla.

Holding

The judge decided that the child should be registered in the Spanish civil register, despite the absence of a previous registration in the country of its birth or nationality.

Rationale

The Spanish judge stressed that competence for registering the child’s birth lay first and foremost with Algeria, the place of its birth, and with Cameron, the country of its nationality. Since these countries failed to exercise their competence, the judge found that Spain had both the right and the duty to register the child. The legal basis for doing so would be Article 9(2) of the Spanish Act on the Civil Register (Ley 20/2011, de 21 de julio, del Registro Civil), which provides that events and acts that have taken place outside Spain shall be registered in the Spanish register when required by Spanish law.

High-Level Human Rights Principles

Most interesting is where the judge found the requirement to register the event of the child’s birth. In this regard, he referred to the highest-ranking legal sources available. In particular, he cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the various rights it grants to the individual. The judge used these sources to formulate some very far-reaching and important legal propositions. He emphasised that the registration of a person’s identity is “one of the most essential manifestations of the recognition of the individual as such”. It would be “the only form by which society and the law accept its existence”, and it would “facilitate the exercise of all of the rights that the law bestows from the time of birth”. Without an entry in the civil register, there would be no liberty to respect, and no right to recognise.

More Technical Considerations, in particular the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

On a more technical level, the judge referred to Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”. He also referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had been signed and ratified by Spain, Article 7(1) of which sets out that “[t]he child shall be registered immediately after birth …”.

The judge considered Article 7(1) of the Convention to be of direct and immediate effect because of its clear, precise and unconditional formulation. This was despite Article 7(2) of the Convention, under which the states party to the Convention shall implement the obligation to register, “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless”. The judge argued that Article 7(2) was mainly focused on avoiding situations of statelessness, and that the registration was a condition prior to the granting of nationality because only persons recognised as having legal personality could be considered as nationals. In other words, the child had to be registered somewhere before nationality could be granted. Article 7(1) of the Convention would thus contain a binding obligation for Spanish tribunals to this effect.

Constitutional Law

The judge cited various other provisions, especially of the Spanish Constitution. Inter alia, Article 39(4) of the Constitution provides that “Children shall enjoy the protection provided for in the international agreements which safeguard their rights”.  He also referred to Article 96(1) of the Constitution, according to which validly concluded international treaties, once officially published in Spain, shall form part of the internal legal order.

Assessment

The judgment requires the registration of children by local authorities where a child has been born abroad but not registered there. This is a significant principle that should also be followed by other nations. As a legal basis, they could use either the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or, if they have not signed it, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which applies as customary international law.

Nevertheless, the judgment should not be overinterpreted. Even where a child has not been registered, it is entitled the plenitude of human rights, which exist from birth and are not preconditioned on registration. However, without being officially registered, the child (and also its mother) will encounter many difficulties in practical life. This is why registration is so important that it may be considered even as a human right that can be invoked everywhere.

— Special thanks to José Carlos Fernandez Rozas for his contribution to this post.

4 comments on “A Question of Human Rights: Registration of Children Outside Their Country of Birth or Nationality

  1. Thanks Matthias for reporting on this very interesting case.

    While I am all for allowing this child to have a birth certificate, and recognise that without it s/he might face significant practical difficulties in day to day life, I wonder whether this certificate was really so important to recognise the child as a person. What the child needs is an official document recognising his/her idendity. Didn’t Spain provide this to the mother and child as refugees? If not, will the Spanish birth certificate help to obtain an Cameroonese ID? Why would Cameroun take seriously this birth certificate established months (years?) after the birth?

    Of course, the usefulness of the birth certificate to establish parenthood is another issue, but I understand it was not at stake here.

  2. Second thought: in fact, parenthood will need to be established to obtain a Cameroonese ID, since the ground will be that the child has a Cameroonese mother. So, since Spain would not check whether she is actually the mother (would it?), is the basis of the birth certificate the mere declaration of the woman, maybe in some authentic form?

  3. Matthias Lehmann

    Dear Gilles, Thanks for your interest. The questions you raise are very pertinent. The judgment says that the motherhood was established through a DNA test. I agree that Cameroon might not recognise the Spanish birth certificate, but it may be useful in other countries. The ID is indeed even more important, but I guess the Spanish authorities will provide a document for refugees. Perhaps it was in that context that they needed the birth certificate.

  4. If Spain conducted a DNA test, then this changes everything. It has actually established parenthood beyond doubts, and one hopes that Cameroon would recongise it.

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