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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dual citizenship Restriction: Time for Change

Colombo Telegraph, 5 September 2020

The draft 20th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution of the 2nd Republic of Sri Lanka, in its current form, lifts the existing restriction on Sri Lankans with dual citizenship holding elected office. This is a laudable decision, and also a long overdue one.

In an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, it simply does not make sense to prevent suitably qualified people from accessing opportunities based on criteria of this nature. Preventing citizens with dual citizenship from accessing high office effectively wipes out a substantial segment of educated, experienced, patriotic and committed Sri Lankans from serving the country.

To contextualise this issue, Sri Lanka is not the only country to implement such restrictive policies. The 2016 Algerian Constitution includes a similar clause. Australia bans dual citizens from holding federal-level office. These developments are also linked to the rise of populist politics across the world. The fact that a UNF government introduced this ban is a clear indication of something this writer has been reiterating repeatedly – that the neoliberal UNF [or, for that matter, its present-day manifestation SJB] does not represent a more ‘pro-democratic’ posture than the neocon SLPP. The civil society/non-profit sector’s shortfalls in fathoming this reality has [and will] come at a high cost, to say the least.

In many countries, people holding dual citizenship do occupy high office. In such places, reactionaries call for dual citizenship-related restrictions. While such views are sometimes veiled in a discourse of ‘order and ethics’, these critiques only water down to a quintessential ‘frog in the well’ attitude.

In President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, the Garde des Sceaux-Minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, happened to have dual citizenship. The French far-right party Rassemblement National [RS, previously known as Front National] took issue with the Justice Minister’s dual citizenship – a critique that Sarkozy himself held in complete disregard. Views expressed back in 2007 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and then leader of Front National, on Minister Dati share a great deal in common with elements of the Lankan alt-right that oppose the lifting of the existing restriction on dual citizens holding elected office. RS and other reactionaries have been using the topic of double nationalité to repeatedly attack ethnic minority politicians, such as ex-minister Najat-Vallaud-Belkacem and Sibeth Ndiaye, ex-spokeswoman of the Macron administration and ex-Secretary of State to the French prime minister. Reactionary politicians seldom fail to weaponize their opponents’ dual citizenship for political mileage. Former Canadian Premier Stephen Harper once criticised former NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s dual citizenship, adding the absolute platitude “I’m a Canadian and only a Canadian”.

If the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration genuinely intends to lift the existing restriction on dual citizens assuming high office, it will be a very positive development. Whether the actual decision is motivated by concerns of a dynastic, if not a ‘fraternity’ nature is beside the point. Restricting Sri Lankans from serving the country simply because they have citizenship is, simply, an abject inanity. To give credit where it is due, previous Rajapaksa administrations have indeed shown a keenness to deploy the skills and experience of dual citizens – from Dr Palitha Kohona to Dr Chris Nonis – to the advantage of the Lankan state.

Most importantly, a substantial majority of highly qualified Sri Lankans, who are indeed very well-placed to make valuable contributions to Sri Lanka, are in fact naturalised citizens of other countries. In most cases, people obtain a second citizenship due to work and family concerns. Being naturalised in a country where one works and lives does not make one any less Sri Lankan. Given the travel restrictions attached to the Lankan passport and the contempt with which it is held at international borders, it is impossible to blame Sri Lankans who seek naturalisation in countries with powerful passports. In the same way Canada has moved on to affirm that citizens with dual citizenship are part and parcel of the Canadian experience of public life, we in Sri Lanka will be doing ourselves a favour to come to terms with the reality that many of the best products of Lanka have dual citizenship. A clement policy will also be helpful in deploying the skills of Sri Lankan diaspora youth to the advantage of the Lankan state.

Instead of a blanket ban on dual citizenship holders, what is needed is a strong, efficient and feasible vetting system for dual citizens who seek high office with the Government of Sri Lanka. Apart from the positions of head of government and head of state, all other opportunities should be open to suitably qualified Sri Lankans who hold dual citizenship. It will be a tremendous incentive to citizens concerned, and will have a positive overall effect on the Lankan political landscape.

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