The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity

Civil Registration Centre for Development, The Hague and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg

Implications of New Technology for Civil Registration and Identification: Research and Policy

21—24 April 2015

The public archive of the bhalisa listserv that emerged from this colloquium is available at

Many countries around the world, but especially the poorest countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, face a choice in the current generation in the development of the basic administrative systems for registering the identities of their people. These registration infrastructures are of tremendous significance to the architecture of states, setting up the foundations of state capacity and citizens' entitlements, the media they interact with and the key agents of institutional development. On the one hand are older (often pen- and paper-based) state systems for establishing and recording civil registration events: births, deaths, marriages, divorces especially. On the other hand there are newer computerised registration systems, the increasing use of advanced biometrics, and sometimes a connection to firms providing financial services. Social scientists are, simultaneously, developing much more sophisticated tools for studying the evolution, effects and administrative workings of the many different forms of registration that exist globally (Breckenridge and Szreter, 2012; About, Brown, and Lonergan 2013).

An extensive body of international and national law is informed by civil registration practices that have a history of more than 2,000 years during which the basics of the practice barely changed (e.g. Hukou in China since Qin). Countries in the West and the Far East have been successful in reaching registration completeness. On the other hand there are over 100 countries where stagnation has been common, investment in civil registration systems has been negligible. But many of the same countries replace their national IDs or introduce them anew, at high cost. Research firm Acuity estimates that over USD 50 billion will be invested in national e-IDs during the 2013—2018 period. Biometric identity cards are increasingly used for the delivery of government services. Elections have become much more frequent following democratization in Africa and Asia. Expensive biometric voter registration has become more common, to the extent that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found it necessary to warn against their use by the poorest countries in the world.

At this colloquium social scientists and policy researchers will examine the various forms of civil registration and identification currently used and introduced around the world to consider the opportunities and implications of the choices that poor states, in particular, currently face.  The conference will allow us to consider what is now a formidable body of established research across many fields, but it will also allow us to commence mapping out a set of comparative questions that will frame research and support policy makers in designing the best possible recommendations for the states that must still confront the intractable difficulties of mass identity registration.

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