Legal Identity For All By 2030 : A Distant Vision?
Co - Authors : Rupa Veena S & Julia Anna Joseph
Rupa Veea S & Julia Anna Joseph are the winners of The Woke Lawyer x Confederation of Young Leaders UN75 Article Writing Competition.
According to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9 of the United Nations (UN), legal identity is the legal registration of a person that allows that person to access rights, benefits and freedoms in their country. Legal identity will register who a person is, in the name of law. At present there are around 1.5 billion people without the means to officially verify their identity. However, as there is no universal indicator to measure legal identity, this figure could be way higher. Since such an identity is a prerequisite to obtaining access to key resources of the country, the UN has recognized legal identity for all as a basic human right. On this account, this article deliberates upon the important aspects of legal identity.
Why is legal identity important?
Legal identity indicates that one’s identity is documented and recorded. It is in fact a human right enshrined under Article 6 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If undocumented, it means that the person is deprived of all social and civil rights. Therefore, such a person would be excluded from participating in social, economic and political life. This would include access to healthcare, housing, banking, education, passport, driving license, right to vote, pension, etc. This renders people marginalised in the society without a name or number. They become subject to rape, trafficking, harassment and torture due to this vulnerability. They may have to flee countries as refugees and live a nomadic life. Since there is no measure to include them in the official data, the gravity of their problems is undermined. A country that secures legal identity for all of its people can make better developmental plans and set goals according to the actual needs. However, the question remains as to whether legal identity can be achieved with birth registration alone.
Legal identity v. Statelessness
SDG 16.9 makes it clear that universal birth registration is not an absolute solution to the question of legal identity, as it only entails birth registration of people under the age of five. It is equally not the complete solution to the problem of statelessness as few countries allow for a birth certificate to be a proof of nationality. This practically renders birth registration alone, a useless process. Rather, the focus must be on awarding legal identity through civil registration which is a continuous process of registration of important events such as birth, marriage and death. Today, the focus of the goal has also moved towards civil registration, in practical terms. The challenges posed by the pandemic has further stressed on the need for legal identity.
Legal identity during COVID-19
According to the Survey on Maintaining Civil Registration and Vital Statistics in COVID-19 pandemic which collected responses from 67 countries/areas from all over the world, 13% of the countries/areas considered civil registration as a non-essential service. These countries sought to give maximum focus to virus protection in the process of which it would be a huge risk to engage in registration processes. Uganda did not have sufficient PPEs to deploy officers to facilitate a safe process of registration. As for Malawi, their officers were asked to work in shifts which means that records could not be well-processed.
However, a positive change in regard to this was that countries were moving towards fully digitized registration systems. This period has also offered the time to check the internal registration systems of countries and further note areas to prioritize for improvement once the normality is restored. The efforts of certain organizations that have been striving towards achieving legal identity for all are discussed further.
Organizational efforts in achieving universal legal identity
The United Nations Legal Identity Agenda Task Force (UN LIA TF) oversees the implementation of the UN LIA at the regional and national level. Further, it engages advocacy and communication of the UN LIA to achieve universal legal identity.
In 2014, the World Bank Group launched the Identification for Development (ID4D) to help their client countries with the vision of " making everyone count: ensure a unique legal identity and enable digital ID-based services to all ". It has financed several projects that support legal registries and other functional registries. Along with such support from the UN LIA TF and World Bank, the Governments should also cooperate and be proactive in the implementation of legal identity which can be best done in the digital form.
Aadhaar card: world’s largest digital identity
Documentation of name, date of birth and other personal data of every person on this planet in the form of hard copy is close to impossible. Chances of misplacing or losing the documents are quite high. Therefore, using a database technology is imperative. A few countries such as India, China, the UK, etc., have implemented the nationwide digital identification systems. The most notable one is India's Aadhaar system run by Unique Identification Authority of India which is the world's largest biometric ID programme. It is a centralized identity database which contains biometric and demographic data of over a billion people.
Besides providing access to various services, it also includes the disadvantaged population. Further, it has helped in tracing hundreds of missing children. Although certain privacy concerns were doing rounds, the Supreme Court of India in the case of Justice K.S Puttaswamy vs Union of India struck down provisions which mandated that Aadhaar card be linked in cases involving no subsidies or benefits, specifically in the private sector. Further, it also directed the centre to implement a robust law for data protection, thereby rightly addressing the privacy concerns. In 2016, the World Bank’s World Development Report stated that India’s Aadhaar system has helped in overcoming complex information problems. Furthermore, Paul Romer, its then Chief Economist also recommended that all countries adopt such a system. Therefore, the success of such an efficient system of digital identity can make it exemplary for implementation in the rest of the world which paves a way for universal legal identity.
The interpretation of SDG 16.9 should not be limited to registration of birth and death. The Governments should provide national identity cards which will not only include everyone but will also improve the distribution of resources among everyone. Unfortunately, countries such as Kenya use the identification system as a tool to deny access of goods and services to a particular group of people. Therefore, organizations such as UN LIA TF should make sure that such malpractices of countries are curbed and legal identity is provided to all by 2030.
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