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AIAS Fellow Btihaj Ajana on legal identity

Read Ajana’s commentary after her participation in the ID2020 Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, 20 May 2016.

Btihaj Ajana was one of the select group of participants at the UN ID2020 Summit that took place on May 20th in New York. The event brought together technology businesses, NGOs, charities and various experts on digital and legal identity issues to address the challenge of providing legal identities for vulnerable populations, including the estimated 1.5 billion people currently without a recognised legal identity. The event responds to one of the aims of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), adopted by world leaders at the United Nations on 25 September 2015: “To promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (see United Nations, http://goo.gl/wKYwKq).

The summit’s organisers and many of its attendees consider the lack of access to legal identity as a major obstacle that hinders the achievement of these goals. Drawing on various emotive case studies, the summit highlighted some of the tragic consequences that can befall those lacking a legally recognised identity, including issues of human trafficking, forced labour, sexual exploitation, slavery, and exclusion from education, healthcare, social and financial programmes.  

As such, the overarching question driving the agenda of ID2020 is how to create a legal identity ‘for all’ by 2030. Technology featured quite prominently in the discussions, particularly with regard to the potential of ‘Blockchain’ technology to provide identity solutions. The summit was indeed an opportunity for the tech industry to promote some of the most recent developments in digital technology and demonstrate their relevance to the question of identity. 

While the aims of the ID2020 project are couched primarily in “humanitarian” terms, this is also a project about “security”, at least implicitly, something that is evident in the level of interest it received from the banking sector (anti-money laundering) and the various security-related actors who attended the summit and whose aim is to securitise everyday activities (movement, financial transactions, access to social services, etc.) through this very notion of legal identity and the paraphernalia of technologies used to manage it. 

Dr Ajana has therefore warned against the danger of using the misery of vulnerable groups, such as refugees and the poor, to advance an agenda that is (or at least has the potential to become) essentially about surveillance and control at a larger scale - if only as an unintended consequence of the development of mass global identity systems. She cited historical examples from Rwanda and Nazi Germany whereby identity systems have been instrumental in facilitating group classification and acts of genocide, and in making individuals easily identifiable for deportation, detention and even death.  

Dr Ajana is also taking issue with the essence of the question driving the summit, namely how to provide a legal identity for all. She sees this question as underlined by the defective assumption that everyone on the planet wants and needs an identity, and that all that is required is a system to provide it. This assumption ignores that some populations (nomadic groups, remote tribes, gypsies, etc.) do not wish to subscribe to this ideology of legal identity, and that, in fact, the lack of official identity might be convenient in certain circumstances and for some individuals and groups whose identifiability might cause them more harm than good.

Furthermore, Dr Ajana also warns that this increasing emphasis on legal identity and its casting as a prerequisite for exercising basic rights could result in strengthening or even creating further forms of exclusion. The question must be reframed in a way that challenges the supremacy of legal identity rather than affirms it. Instead of asking how to provide a legal identity to all, the question that needs to be raised is: how to disassociate access and entitlement to relevant services and programmes from the tyranny of legal identity? So that access to basic rights, like education and healthcare, is not made contingent on birth registration and identity documentation, but based on the mere fact of existing. In other words, everyone should enjoy rights regardless of the lack of legal identity. Undermining the validity, authority and importance of legal identity is a necessary step towards freeing the human from the juridico-political shackles of identity and legality. For after all, identity has long been a powerful tool of state control.

So it might be that ID2020 is at risk of becoming part of the problem rather than the solution!


Btihaj Ajana, AIAS Fellow, and Associate Prof., King’s College London, UK 

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