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Category: Human Rights

Elements of a Cosmopolitan Foreign Policy

President Obama delivers the commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point commencement ceremony at Michie Stadium in West Point, NY, May 28, 2014 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Watching President Barack Obama deliver his commencement address at the US Military Academy, it's easy to be reminded that he has discussed themes of human rights, multilateral engagement, and global thinking since before his presidency even began. As a global citizen, I want to see a president who recognizes our common humanity – and sees the danger in ignoring global problems. But if we're hoping for a cosmopolitan foreign policy, by what rubric do we grade this or any administration's performance?

A quick reminder: cosmopolitanism is the idea that everyone, everywhere is morally equal, and that we all belong to one worldwide community. Cosmopolitanism doesn't mean the end of local or national communities or the formation of a world state: it’s primarily about membership in that global community. The more strongly you hold that belief, the more likely you are to actively promote the well-being of people around the world.

A cosmopolitan foreign policy can do some of the heavy lifting for you. In a liberal democracy, governments are expected to enact the policy preferences of their constituents. As a cosmopolitan, you have the right and the duty to demand that your government act in a way that reflects the fundamental moral equality of all humans.

Some expectations might include:

35 Years and Counting

Rosie the Riveter!.jpg

Considered The Bill of Rights for women, the Women’s Rights Treaty (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women. Adopted by the UN in 1979 and signed by President Carter in 1980, the Women’s Rights Treaty has yet to be ratified by the United States Senate, making the US one of only eight countries to not ratify the treaty to date.

Who are those other member countries? Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Pacific island states of Niue, Palau, and Tonga. We stand next to these countries, some of which have a history of gross human rights violations. Why has the United States failed even to entertain a vote on, let alone ratify, such a landmark treaty?

Various answers to this question have been offered, but at the center is the idea of the treaty attacking traditional family values. On the surface this argument might seem absurd. However, take into consideration the contention surrounding a woman’s right to an abortion and you start to see the hurdles this important piece of international legislation faces. 

Let’s identify the core objectives within the Women’s Rights Treaty:

Climate Change: A Distinctly Gendered Issue

Climate change has been framed in many ways: as an environmental issue, a public health issue, an economic issue, a sustainable development issue...what is rarely acknowledged, however, is that climate change is also a women’s rights issue.

But how can climate change be misogynistic? 

In poor countries around the world, a disproportionate amount of household responsibility falls on women and girls; namely the tasks of providing water, food, and resources for heating and cooking. Moreover, most small-scale farmers are, in fact, women--particularly in developing countries, where men typically leave home to find employment. In these roles, women become especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change (such as drought, soil erosion, and deforestation), as well as the effects of a lack of political power and economic independence.

A poignant example of this occurs in refugee camps in Darfur, where women walk as many as seven hours three to five times a week in order to find firewood. Leaving the camps makes women vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and starvation, as many are forced to use the very food they hope to cook as payment for fuel. This reliance on firewood and other types of traditional fuel also affects climate change, as it leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. While steps have been taken to address this particular issue (most notably with the creation of a fuel efficient stove) this is only one of many issues connected both to climate change and to gender inequality.

ILO: "The Case for Social Security Protection is Compelling in Our Times"

international labour organization

Only 27 percent of the world’s population had access to a comprehensive social security system in 2012. This is according to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) newly released “World Social Protection Report 2014-15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice.”

To put in perspective, that means that 5.2 billion people, nearly three quarters of the world, lack adequate access to social protections such as health care coverage, injury and disability pay, sick time, and pensions in old age. In the report, the ILO outlines the ongoing need for such protections, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, many governments instituted fiscal stimulus plans in order to counteract what was quickly becoming a depression. Unfortunately, in 2010 a new mood of austerity began to sweep the globe (ILO, p. 119-120). Far from alleviating the problem, these policies actually impeded recovery.

Consider, for example, that the number of individuals at risk of poverty in the European Union increased from 116 million in 2008 to 123 million in 2012; this includes an additional 800,000 at-risk children (ILO, p. 136). Moreover, the fact that 116 million people in the European Union—more than 20 percent of its population—were facing poverty even before the financial crisis speaks profoundly to the intense and persistent need to protect and enhance social security systems.

The New UN Peacekeeping Mandate in South Sudan: What Does it All Mean?

The United Nations is now warning of a potential famine in South Sudan. Though South Sudan had agreed to ceasefires in January and again in early May, they did not last. The UN had to act quickly because with the surges of violence, there has been an increase in secondary deaths due to starvation and disease. The conflict has heavily interrupted the crop-growing season by displacing farmers, and the UN estimates that if the violence does not stop, famine will ensue.

On May 27th the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2155, which renews the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), but makes some important amendments. From this resolution, a civilian protection mandate was added to address the growing humanitarian and security needs. This stems from un-subsiding violence that broke out in December when President Salva Kiir fired his rival Riek Machar from the deputy president position. This event fueled underlying ethnic tensions between the Dinka who support Kiir and the Nuer who support Machar.

This action of civilian protection from the UN is a huge step in the right direction with regards to UN involvement in conflicts. The UN has a record of not taking appropriate action quickly enough, most notably in Rwanda in 1994; hopefully this is a sign of changes to come.

The Holy See and the United Nations: Sovereignty vs. Rights

For months an ongoing battle has emerged in world headlines as the Vatican, the center of the Catholic faith, has been embroiled in an ongoing investigation from the UN’s watchdog agency on torture.

The reason for the UN’s involvement is the Holy See’s membership to the Convention against Torture (CAT), which a sustained global campaign from victim advocacy groups say is being violated by the Vatican’s past and present actions in dealing with victims of child abuse.

According to the Vatican the United Nations Committee against Torture, which oversees the implementation of CAT, has recently found the Holy See not to be in violation of the treaty. However, the CAT Committee refuted this interpretation, with Felice D Gaer CAT’s American vice-chair stating, “we don't use the word 'violation'; others do. But it's quite clear [the Vatican is] not in conformity with the requirements of the convention."

This case set a new precedent ,as Al-Jazeera reports, “it was the first time the Vatican had been scrutinized since it signed up in 2002 to a global convention banning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.”

To give context to the situation, consider that over 848 priests have been defrocked and another 2,572 given lesser sanctions over the past decade, according to Fox. As with many abuse-related crimes, only a tiny percentage are ever reported, let alone prosecuted.

The Gender Pay Gap: How We Can Escape the Double-Standard

1967 - "Commission begins consideration for Economic Rights for Women"

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, President Obama really showed what he was made of. With jokes on everything from his rollout to the Chris Christie bridge closure debacle, he showed that he can take criticism and laugh about it. Obama also took a stab at the gender pay gap and the prospect of Hilary Clinton becoming president, saying that, “as the first female president, we could pay her 30 percent less. That's a savings this country could use." While a funny remark that elicits laughs, what people need to realize is that it is actually not far from the truth.

In a recent study it was found that women earn on average 77 cents to every dollar that men earn in the same profession. In a supposed democratic and equal-opportunity country, this is absurd. To try and fight this President Obama recently issued two executive orders that allow employees to discuss their pay and require employers to report pay data based on gender and race, hoping to increase transparency in the workplace and close the ridiculous pay gaps that exists.

Indian Elections: The Power of the Millennial Vote

 After winning a landslide victory, Narenda Modi is now officially the Prime Minister elect of India. The race was far from close: Modi won by the largest margin in 30 years for a prime ministerial candidate. Alongside Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to win far more than the 272 seats it needs to form a majority, a feat not accomplished since the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent change in public sentiment towards the Congress – the leaders of the current government and BJP’s bitter rival for decades.

India, much like the US, has a two-party system. The key to such an astonishing victory has many parallels to the US election of Barack Obama in 2008, in which the BJP was able to pull in a record number of Millennials (those 35 and under).

In fact, Millennials play a larger role in Indian politics than they do in US politics. Why? The answer, some analysts say, may be as simple as a faster-growing demographic, the effect of which is compounded by the rapid adoption of mobile technology throughout the country.

The city which perhaps best exemplifies this trend is Bangalore. Bangalore is India’s third-largest city and second-fastest growing, where an astonishing 63 percent of its population is under 25. The influence of such a young population has repercussions throughout the state. “We have no toilets in my home village, but everybody has a smartphone, and we all check every day for what’s happening in the [2014] campaign,” states 22-year-old Hanamanthray Biradar, who is from a city in the same state as Bangalore.

The Peace of Westphalia?

The Peace of Westphalia?

Nearly 300 young girls are still missing in Nigeria where they were kidnapped nearly a month ago by a murderous group of extremists calling themselves Boko Haram. They have claimed credit for this crime and intend to sell the young girls as sex slaves to help pay for future murders and crimes.

There are many contributing factors to this mass kidnapping, but the primary reason these girls were not rescued immediately or shortly thereafter is the world's persistence acceptance of "national sovereignty" as the dominant paradigm of global governance.

In other words, humanity still accepts the right of every national government to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants within its own borders. This barbaric paradigm was established nearly 400 years ago by the Treaty of Westphalia and remains today as the primary agreement between nations.

President Obama recently claimed there is nothing we can do about this crime against humanity because Nigeria is a Sovereign state. We offered some help once that government responded to our diplomatic cries, but that took weeks. Now it will be infinitely harder to find these girls and return those that are still alive to their grieving mothers.

The mind-numbing reality is that even if the UN had decided to take action immediately, it couldn't have done so without first getting a decision by the UN Security Council. And, even with it, the UN has no established police force or SWAT team with a mandate or the capacity to protect innocent lives on short notice. National governments, including the US, has made sure of that. That is how strongly we still believe in the supremacy of nations' sovereignty.

The Revocation of Nationality: Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Most of us take our citizenship for granted, thinking the world belongs to people of one nation or another, but imagine being stripped of it completely.

In a world run by nation-states, there is no universal form of citizenship or birth registration. There are only those recognized by national governments that can and do revoke it for various political motives. The estimated number to date by the UNHCR of stateless persons, families and communities who have no nation to legally call home is 10 million.

The most recent of these tragedies occurred in September, when the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic passed a ruling which de-nationalized an estimated 210,000 Haitian citizens by denying them citizenship and the right to an official ID. This simple act by courts, which has deeply affected the lives of nearly 7 percent of the country’s population either directly or indirectly, receives an overwhelming 83 percent of support from Dominicans.

Having your citizenship taken away can deal a powerful blow to your wellbeing. As one rights activist featured in an Aljazeera piece states, “It’s not that I feel Dominican. I am Dominican. I was born here in the Dominican Republic, and all my documents are from here… I have never been in another country.”