Are national IDs good or bad? Are they tools of oppression or do they ensure basic human rights? Rich Ristic from the Austrian State Printing House in Vienna gave a presentation on The Visa as Travel Documents: Printed vs. Electronic Security Methods at the 9th Annual Security Printing Conference in Fort Lauderdale that highlighted the importance of national identity documents. In the U.S., we do not have a national ID,but a driver’s license serves much the same purpose.
I had always thought that IDs were useful for buying beer, at airports and for driving. I had not thought about their broader purpose. IDs also prevent governments , including dictatorships and communist governments, from suppressing dissent. After all, it is much more difficult to make a well known dissident disappear, than an anonymous protester. Even now we do not know how many people were massacred at Tiananmen Square. Imagine how easy it would have been to make Nelson Mandela disappear, if he had no identity.
The right of every child to a name and nationality, and the responsibility of national governments to achieve this are contained in Articles 7 and 8 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality…” (CRC Article 7) and “States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations…” (CRC Article 8).
The United Nations has established that children have a right to an identity and that it is government’s responsibility to maintain this right. Unfortunately, many governments ignore this right. In 2008, approximately 36% of all births worldwide went unregistered. These children, in India, China, Pakistan, Nepal, and elsewhere, live without birth certificates. They exist outside the legal system with relatively few rights and are vulnerable to exploitation by governments, employers, and others who do not value them.
So, the next time someone asks you for your driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport, be glad you have one. Not everyone does.