WORLD CITIZENS AND HUMAN RIGHTS:
THE SILENT REBELLION
By Bernard Henry
“PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF.” This quote from the Leviticus (25:10), a part of the Torah for Jews and of the Old Testament—the older half of the Bible—for Christians, pretty well sums up, whatever religion you may be a faithful of, what human rights should mean to someone who considers himself or herself a World Citizen.
Until recently, when you declared yourself a “citizen of the world”, your national government would take it as a declaration of war. Even in a democracy, affirming that your membership of the human race, regardless of manmade political borders, means more to you than your citizenship of one nation-state and that, as a human being, you are entitled to certain inalienable rights, made you look as if you were rebelling against the system as a whole, although you were only asserting your humanity and claiming the rights that go with it.
Three main patterns of human rights and world citizenship claims can be traced down in history, prior to the first attempt to create a global political organization—the League of Nations, created in 1919 and whose life barely lasted the twenty years that separate the end of World War I from the beginning of World War II.
In the Ancient Times, circa 1450 BC, the Hebrews fled their condition of slaves under Egypt’s Pharaoh to find a Promised Land to which their unique God, as opposed to the Egyptians’ polytheist religion, would lead them through his chosen prophet, Moses. This set the standard for a Jewish faith in refusal of arbitrary earthly power and in man’s brotherly conduct toward his fellow people. A millennium later, Greece would become a beacon of civilization in the Mediterranean basin under the leadership of Pericles in Athens and with outstanding philosophers like Protagoras, who declared man “the measure of all things”, and Socrates who claimed to be “a citizen, not of Athens, or Greece, but of the world”.
During and after the Renaissance, several clergymen, academics and jurists came to question the “Christian polity” that had prevailed in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, stressing that the world now needed to be ruled by law instead. Among them were Oxford law professor Alberico Gentili, theologian Francisco de Vitoria, jurist Richard Zouche and, most importantly, Dutchman Hugo de Groot, better known as Grotius. A diplomat and academic, Grotius published in 1625 On the Law of War and Peace, a treatise that makes him in many respects the father of contemporary international law. The trend toward the rule of law to replace the Christian polity culminated in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ended the largely religious-based Thirty Years War through a series of treaties that instated the principle of pacta sunt servanda (in Latin, “treaties must be observed”), the sovereignty of all nations and, for the first time in history, the right to freedom of religion. Later into the seventeenth century, Grotius was to inspire proposals for “universal peace”, such as those put forward by French priest and mathematics teacher Emeric Crucé and English Quaker philosopher William Penn, also the founder of today’s U. S. state of Pennsylvania.
In the late eighteenth century, the American War of Independence was fought over a democratically-adopted Constitution which formally included a Bill of Rights, as was the case with the French Revolution inspired by the writings of the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau and others in France and, across the Rhine, German Immanuel Kant, who in his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch called for a “league of nations” to rule the world through law, introducing a concept that was completely new at the time in European philosophy—weltburger, literally in German, “world citizen”. The tone was set for revolutionary aspirations to be, and the nineteenth century would all too logically become a good time for revolution, whether in Europe, Africa, South America or Asia.
In 1815, however, it was the highly diplomatic Congress of Vienna which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars that laid the foundations for the first consensual global order in history. Demanding that slavery be abolished once and for all in every country, Vienna paved the way for a century of fast-changing communications, transportation, travel and production of goods—but without the politics in keeping with these changes. Consequently, the Vienna world order lasted a tiny century and then collapsed into war. World War I, a terrible, bloody one that lasted only four years but destroyed whatever certainties a world bred with glorious memories of the past might have retained from the days of its creation by the victors of the French Empire. As Frenchman Paul Valéry said after the end of World War I, “We, civilizations, know now that we are mortal.”
After U. S. President Woodrow Wilson initiated the League of Nations in 1919, wishing to have disputes resolved through negotiation and diplomacy instead of war, fascism rose throughout Europe partly because of Wilson’s own “principle of nationalities” under which each European ethnic group was entitled to statehood or reunification with the motherland, a principle that mostly served the aspirations of nationalists in Italy and Germany. Only twenty years after the Treaty of Versailles ended “the war to end all wars”, once more, it was war. World War II, marked by the mass atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, its imperial Japanese ally in the Pacific and their collaborators in Europe and Asia. On top of these atrocities was obviously the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, which claimed over six million innocent lives. Having realized that only a strong alliance of all nations against fascism would enable democracy to prevail in the end, U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gathered them all in a common front he named “United Nations”. In June 1945 the San Francisco Conference created a new world organization set to replace the League of Nations, a world organization that would naturally be named as wished by its initiator, the now deceased Roosevelt—the United Nations (UN).
In ratifying the UN Charter, the founding member states committed to “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion », when the League of Nations, overly concerned with conflict prevention, had all but left human rights out of its Covenant. This time, however, it was clear that without formal political recognition not just of states but also of individuals, there could be no lasting peace, especially as U. S. President Harry Truman wanted to show strongly to his Soviet counterpart Joseph Stalin that he would never relinquish world leadership in his favor and a Third World War, what’s more, a nuclear one, could thus break out anytime.
That is when Robert “Sarrazac” Soulage created the Human Front of World Citizens in France, although in 1948 another man would draw attention from the world by raising the idea of World Citizenship—Garry Davis, a former U. S. Air Force bomber pilot who had traveled to Paris to relinquish his U. S. citizenship and become a “Citizen of the World”, unsuccessfully seeking “global political asylum” from the UN to whose General Assembly the Palais de Chaillot was then home but successfully putting World Citizenship on the map of postwar world politics, if only for a moment.
During that General Assembly session, the individual was indeed politically recognized, just as Davis and others had been demanding. On December 10 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding text of all of today’s international human rights law. From then on Davis would base his entire politics on this UN-proclaimed text—while dismissing, paradoxically enough, the entire UN as “fictional” and therefore illegitimate. Overall, a confusing rhetoric and a tendency to overly make his quest a personal one, instead of a mass movement in the fashion of Sarrazac’s followers at the International Registry of World Citizens, confined Davis to a mostly symbolical role in world politics afterward.
As for the International Registry of World Citizens, created by Davis and Sarrazac in 1949, although it survived Davis’s departure under the safe leadership of early-day members Guy and Renée Marchand, its audience remained small. Concerned primarily with creating citizen-based global institutions aimed at replacing the UN, but apparently incapable of adapting to post-Cold War global political change, the Registry of World Citizens, as it was renamed in 2000, put on a new, more Christian-like face after the passing of the Marchands in 1993 and 2002 respectively, shifting to conventional Third World advocacy and adopting a more conservative internal functioning grossly modeled after that of French government institutions. In the modern-day Registry rhetoric, human rights matter as much—or as little—as any other topic, be it environment, poverty, nuclear weapons or other. As a result, nothing really significant is getting done for human rights within the reshaped old-school group, not to mention an increasingly violent intolerance of criticism of any kind that does raise questions about the reality of the Registry’s stated commitment to human rights—one that no government or organization, whether non-governmental or inter-governmental, really seems to care about in the first place anyway.
Only one organization with the expression “World Citizens” in its name can claim genuine relevance when it comes to human rights as enshrined in the many international instruments adopted in the wake of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Created in 1975, the Association of World Citizens (AWC), based in San Francisco, is “totally committed” to the World organization, in the very words of its President, Douglas Mattern. Clearly describing itself as a non-governmental organization (NGO), not an alternative world government or authority, the AWC enjoys Consultative Status with the UN and has thus been represented from the very start at the UN Office in Geneva, which is home, among others, to the UN Human Rights Commission, now the UN Human Rights Council. Headed by Prof. René Wadlow, formerly with the Institute of Development of the University of Geneva, the AWC representative team at the Palais des Nations has often played a crucial role in resolving tough human rights disputes within the world body.
In 1983, as Cold War inflammatory rhetoric was at its peak with radicals in power in both the United States and the Soviet Union, informal diplomacy by NGOs looked more utopian and impractical than ever. On the official diplomatic front, that was the year that the UN Human Rights Commission created a special Working Group on Indigenous Populations within the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. At that time, “indigenous populations” meant little else to the diplomats who had created the Working Group than the Indians of North and South America who were there prior to the arrival of Europeans, or the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand.
The AWC team was making a strong effort for the protection of the hill tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, some of whom had fled into northeast India to escape violence. When Prof. Wadlow raised the issue for the first time in the Working Group, the representatives of both Bangladesh and India objected, saying that the hill tribes were not really “indigenous”, a position that received the backing of the representatives of Thailand too. In fact, all the hill tribes came originally from Tibet and South China and have spread through the three Indochina States—Thailand, Burma and Bangladesh—and northeast India over the last 1,000 years. Thus, there is agreement that the hill tribes are indeed not “indigenous” in the sense that they came by successive waves of migration.
However, as the AWC team pointed out in 1984, the only UN instrument dealing with the conditions of indigenous peoples was the International Labor Organization’s Convention 107 which had been signed by both Bangladesh and India, a Convention that does speak of “indigenous and tribal people”. While the tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are not indigenous, all the hill tribes have kept a tribal structure, a collective form of land use and slash-and-burn agriculture. Accordingly, the Indian and Bangladesh diplomats had to agree to have the hill tribes included in the discussions of the Working Group. The Working Group became a major focus for dealing with the Chittagong Hill Tracts issue, leading later to a ceasefire and the return of the refugees from India to Bangladesh. No small achievement for an NGO caught in the diplomatic crossfire of the Cold War, as was the UN itself for forty-five years. And this is but one example.
Even though human rights have always been a primary concern for the AWC team in Geneva, the effort has grown even more intensive since September 2005, when a Press Desk was created as part of the Geneva Office, chaired by a newly-appointed Press Officer who, unlike his title suggests, happened to have been active as an international Human Rights Defender for eleven years. That was I.
Since 2005 we have approached the governments of some 150 UN Member States, raising concerns about human rights abuses or urging for cooperation on urgent issues of global relevance:
– Human rights “classics”: Freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination; torture and ill-treatment; the death penalty.
– The legacy of the end of the Cold War: War crimes and crimes against humanity; refugees and asylum law; child soldiers; defending Human Rights Defenders; universal ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
– Highlighting a darker side to globalization: The failures of the right to education, decent employment (notably as opposed to contemporary slavery), food, health, adequate housing; and the rights of women, a primordial concern for whoever cares for “all the land and the inhabitants thereof” today.
As we have shown, human rights are always better defended when part of a scheme of rebellion, even though the armed upheavals of the past have been replaced through the years with peaceful NGO-based activism, not least thanks to the efforts of large groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights, to name but a few. Vowing to have nation-states agree to, and accordingly comply with, human rights standards solely through classical diplomacy is still at best wishful thinking, and it likely will always be.
Standing at the crossroads of mainstream human rights work, informal diplomacy and World Citizen political advocacy, the AWC Office to the UN in Geneva finds itself at every moment on the forefront of rebellion. « The fight for human rights is a political struggle, » says Prof. Wadlow. It is, and the politics there are indeed those of rebellion, as they have always been. Otherwise, why would the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that « [I]t is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law » ?
Rebellion is happening anyway, as a last resort against tyranny and oppression, a rebellion that is called the defense of human rights. In our case at the AWC Office to the UN in Geneva, it is a silent rebellion, one that uses the ways of diplomacy and the language of politics to advance one cause—that of humanity, the greatest existing one, when all our interlocutors are the advocates of just one country. One of the most famous episodes of the 1948 events that created the World Citizen movement is when on November 22, Garry Davis, Robert Sarrazac and others interrupted the UN General Assembly to deliver a short speech calling for world government—the « Oran Declaration », so named in the honor of its author, Albert Camus, the famous French writer who was a native of then French Algeria. Moments before Davis started to speak, a voice in the audience shouted : « And now, the people of the world have the floor ! » Through the AWC, the people of the world have had the floor at the UN for thirty-five years, and the fact is, we are not yielding it to any nation-state just yet.
Bernard Henry is Press Officer of the Office to the United Nations—Geneva and Executive Director of the Esperanto Division of the Association of World Citizens.