Stateless in Shangri-La: Minority Rights, Citizenship, and Belonging in Bhutan

33 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2013

Date Written: June 1, 2012


This Note is among the first publications to assess the tight restrictions on citizenship and naturalization in the 2008 constitution of Bhutan, a small, multi-ethnic constitutional monarchy in the Himalayas that has, for decades, promoted the culture of its socially dominant Buddhist ethnic group, to the exclusion of a geographically concentrated Nepali minority. It argues that the Bhutanese constitution implicitly creates dual polities: one for Buddhist, Drukpa Bhutanese who qualify as “citizens” and enjoy a panoply of rights and duties and one for non-Bhutanese “persons” who are mostly of Nepali origin. Many of these non-citizens have lived in the country for generations, but nevertheless are not considered part of the nation’s polity and are denied political and economic equality. This Note shows that the kind of ethnic nationalism practiced by the Bhutanese government and manifested by its high barriers to citizenship are inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Bhutan has ratified, and probably constitutes racial discrimination under customary international law. Although ethnic nationalism is not unique to Bhutan, this Note asserts that the constitutionalization of these policies poses a significant obstacle to Bhutan’s plans for modernization and democratization. It concludes with specific proposals for dynamically interpreting the constitution to create a category of permanent residency for long-term, non-ethnic Bhutanese residents who would otherwise be stateless.

Keywords: citizenship, nationality, international law, Bhutan, constitution, constitutional interpretation, litigation, rights of the child, South Asia

Suggested Citation

Ferraro, Matthew F., Stateless in Shangri-La: Minority Rights, Citizenship, and Belonging in Bhutan (June 1, 2012). Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol. 48, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Matthew F. Ferraro (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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