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Although Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 states that by 2030 there should be ‘legal identity for all’, there remains little understanding of how the term ‘legal identity’ should be understood and how it can be best protected in complex environments. By referring to the situation in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, this talk examines how the right to legal identity comes under intense pressure when armed groups control territory. In these situations, individuals living outside the control of the de jure government struggle to access birth registration and civil status documentation providing evidence of births, deaths and marriages. They are forced to decide between remaining undocumented, crossing dangerous lines of contact to obtain State documentation or seeking alternative documentation issued by armed non State actors or other actors.

Drawing attention to this dilemma, this talk analyses how legal identity is protected under international law. It does this by inter alia examining the human rights jurisprudence relating to territorial control (specifically, situations where a State has lost it) and case law regarding State recognition of the acts of de facto authorities. It also examines the obligations of armed groups under human rights law. The talk concludes with a reflection on why civil status documentation and legal identity issues are getting so entangled with the political dynamics of non-international armed conflicts. It then provides some suggestions for how legal identity can be best protected and secured in these situations.

Katharine Fortin is a lecturer in public international law and human rights law at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights at Utrecht University. Her scholarship focuses on armed conflict, human rights and armed non-State actors. Prior to joining Utrecht University she was an Associate Legal Officer at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and an Associate at Norton Rose. Katharine is a member of the Executive Editorial Board of the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights and the founder and co-editor of the Armed Groups and international Law blog. She is the author of the Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (OUP, 2017) which won the Lieber Prize in 2018. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law and the International Review of the Red Cross. She has recently been awarded an NWO Veni grant for a three-year research project entitled ‘Dangerous Liaisons: civilian agency, armed groups and international law’.


The PIL Discussion Group hosts a weekly speaker event and light lunch and is a key focal point for PIL@Oxford. Topics involve contemporary and challenging issues in international law. Speakers include distinguished international law practitioners, academics, and legal advisers from around the world.
The group typically meets each Thursday (unless otherwise stated) during Oxford terms in The Old Library, All Souls College, with lunch commencing at 12:30. The speaker will commence at 12:45 and speak for about forty minutes, allowing about twenty five minutes for questions and discussion. The meeting should conclude before 2:00. Practitioners, academics and students from within and outside the University of Oxford are all welcome. No RSVP is necessary. Join the PIL Email List to receive information about the PIL Discussion Group meetings, as well as other PIL@Oxford news.
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Convenors of the Oxford Public International Law Discussion Group are: Hannes Jöbstl and Tsvetelina van Bentham

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