The Global Citizen

Search form

Category: Human Rights

Cosmopolitanism and the Responsibilities of Global Citizenship

Photograph of the Eastern Hemisphere (Source: NASA)

What does it mean to be a global citizen?

A citizen of the world, or cosmopolitan, is someone who values the equality of all people regardless of where they're born. Where the modern civil rights project has worked to provide for the civil, legal, and social equality of people regardless of race, sex, class, religion, sexual preference, disability, and more, a cosmopolitan wants to say that there's another group of people who are just as equal as everyone else: all the people who live or were born outside the borders of their state. People aren't morally responsible for the place in which they're born any more than they're responsible for their race, how tall they are, or whether they can jump up and down on one foot while singing "Row Your Boat." We all belong to one vast community of humans in addition to each of the smaller communities we belong to, and that most populated community matters just as much as our families, neighborhoods, cities, provinces, and nations.

The central tension here, though, is between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, or in a multi-national state like the United States, as a tension between cosmopolitanism and patriotism. Rather than owing special respect to our fellow citizens in the nation-state, the cosmopolitan believes that moral worth belongs equally to all, regardless of nation, state, or ethnicity of origin. In global politics since the 17th century, the main unit of concern has been the nation-state, so saying that you care about individuals at the global level is somewhat radical.

Remember the Victims in North Korea

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (from left): Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Michael Kirby (Australia), Sonja Biserko (Serbia)

It’s easy to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program, its constant antagonism with South Korea and the United States, or the long-standing cult of personality built up around the Kim family.

But as last week’s report by a commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea makes plain, we can no longer ignore the plight of ordinary North Koreans. The key concept in their daily life is often terror: fear that they will say or do the wrong thing and end up in one of four massive political prison camps (kwanliso), currently housing an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners.

That’s an entire city’s worth of people disappeared (without trial or judicial order), often never to be heard from, or heard of, ever again, just because they are suspected of having spoken or acted in a way detrimental to the Workers’ Party of Korea. Once imprisoned, these people can expect to be starved, tortured, raped, and/or executed arbitrarily, with punishments not dependent upon the severity of the alleged crime.

But if fear of arbitrary detention and execution were the only kind of terror in North Koreans’ lives, perhaps life would be bearable: in a society highly stratified according to songbun, a kind of caste system, the further you are from the top of the system, the less likely you are to receive even the most minimal of necessities. As North Korea experienced famine in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the regime did not apportion food according to humanitarian principles: if you were politically pure and of a desired caste, you were fed. If not, you went hungry, and in many cases, people starved to death.

Duality in the Ukraine: East v. West

Violent protests in the Ukraine arise from disputes over whether to align with the West or the East. (Photo:

The history of the Ukraine is one of East versus West, sitting as it is on the border between westernized Europe and a more easterly focused Russia. The root of the nation’s name, край (krai), meaning edge, reflects this duality. The Ukrainian people, especially in recent decades, have struggled to find their place in this precarious position on the edge between the Russian and European spheres of influence. 

In November 2013 President Yanukovich signed a deal with the Russian government rather than with the European Union. The decision tightened ties with East at the expense of closer relations with the West. It did not sit very well with many Ukrainians who viewed closer ties with the EU as key to strengthening the country's economy and reducing the influence of Russia.

The resulting protests and violence and the collapse of the Russian-backed government this week have dealt a blow to Putin's aspirations in regard to the Russian-Ukrainian relations and the goal of renewing Russia as a leading power in both Europe and Asia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has struggled to maintain their influence over the former Soviet territories, particularly the Ukraine, with which there is a deep political and cultural history. Russia has always been wary of Western pressure seeping into their sphere of influence and now Putin’s government is faced with an unevenly divided Ukraine with the majority embracing the West.

Finally addressing the upheaval, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev discredited the interim government that took over after Yanukovich fled the country, calling it “the result of an armed mutiny” that threatens the legitimacy of every branch of power. This “armed mutiny” however, only represents the western regions of the nation. Those regions have garnered the most media attention, while the Eastern areas favor ties with Russia over those with the EU.

The Death Penalty Contravenes Human Rights

In the first 58 days of 2014, the Iranian government executed 95 people. Many of these executions were for drug-related offenses, and two were for blasphemy. While this represents a spike in the number of death sentences the country carries out, it was shocking enough that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) "urged" the Iranian government to stop carrying out executions earlier this week. 

Worldwide, between 2007 and 2012, more than 24,000 people were sentenced to death and 6,221 were executed by their governments. These figures are not complete, in part because data on death sentences in China has not been available since 2009. As a result, the figure of 6,221 deaths likely underestimates by many thousands the total number of executions carried out in this period. China executed, for example, 1,718 people in 2008 and is far and away the world's leader in executing prisoners. Iran comes in second, followed by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States. This is a not a statistic for which we want to be a world leader.  

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: A Small Ray of Hope

There is hope for victims of domestic abuse (Photo:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has backed down from a national law that would have effectively legalized domestic abuse. The bill, colloquially termed the “anti-women gag law,” required that relatives of accused persons not be allowed to testify against them, meaning that any crime committed among only family members—including sexual assault, forced and child marriage, and honor killings--would go unpunished.

Thankfully, President Karzai has ordered amendments to the bill before final signature, intending for the law merely to allow relatives the option of refusing to testify. It would appear that he has listened to the protests of the international community and chosen to stand for women’s equality. 

However, there is cause for caution in our optimism. As The Guardian points out, even with this revision, the law is a departure from international protocol: most countries allow only spouses of the accused not to give testimony. In Afghan villages with far-reaching blood and marriage bonds, a law exempting all relatives coupled with social pressure could easily impede successful prosecutions. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the amended law will be approved by the conservatives in parliament who have blocked previous efforts to reform the legislation.

Nevertheless, President Karzai has taken a necessary first step toward protecting the women of Afghanistan. Groups like Women Thrive Worldwide have underscored the importance of continued international engagement on this issue to promote women’s rights and freedoms. 

3 Fundamentals for a More Humane World

Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz at the Nuremberg Trial

Ben Ferencz is an inspiration to many members and supporters of, world federalists and human rights advocates worldwide.  For those unfamiliar with Ben, he was the youngest member of the Nuremberg legal team in 1945 which prosecuted the Nazi leadership.

Like many young men and women in the U.S. armed forces today, he had enlisted as a soldier and served in Europe where he witnessed terrible atrocities being carried out as part of the Holocaust. As the Allies realized the scope of the horrors being committed, a war crimes team was set up. With his law studies background, Ben was assigned to this team, visiting the concentration camps afte their liberation, interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence of war crimes. Following his discharge from the U.S. Army, he was recruited to join the team at Nuremberg and was assigned as the chief prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen trial, the ninth of the twelve Nuremberg cases carried out by the Allies. 

Policy to Stop North Korea’s Atrocities

North Korea’s state control over where people live and work, and the practice of arbitrarily arresting and executing citizens evokes images of the “Hunger Games.” 

Sadly, it is without the "Games" aspect --  just state-sanctioned death. A brief look of the Human Rights Council (HRC) summary of North Korea depicts citizens subject to revolting, inhumane punishments. There are stark parallels between North Korean society and that of Nazi Germany. (This is not a violation of Godwin's Law; that comparison was made by no less than John Everard, the former UK ambassador to the authoritarian state.) However, the key differences, such as not being outwardly aggressive, make it nearly impossible for the international community to stop North Korea’s crimes against humanity.  

The UN report shines a light into the darkest corners of North Korea and the treatment people receive there. North Korea’s political prisons purposefully degrade the inmates as sub-human through acts like ordering someone to kneel, open their mouth and swallow the spit of several guards; any sign of disgust is reason for further punishment. People are regularly forced to remain in a position that’s neither standing nor sitting for days upon days, exhausted, dehydrated, and living in their own waste. Women are very often raped, impregnated, and forced to abort the pregnancy or kill the child at birth. These are just a few of the more grotesque atrocities the North Korean authorities commit. The political camps are modern-day versions of Nazi concentration camps; human rights doctrines are rooted in our rejection of these death camps.

Stealing Debt Relief

Vulture funds operate by buying up poor countries' debt then sue for debt relief otherwise used for poverty reduction

On Tuesday, the government of Argentina appealed to the United States Supreme Court in a landmark case against predatory creditors seeking more than $1 billion in old debts. 

With wonkish phrases like “bondholder” and “sovereign debt restructuring” peppered throughout the news coverage, following this case may not be as exciting as others before the court.  That’s a shame because for millions of people living in extreme poverty the implications are enormous.

In 2001, Argentina defaulted on its obligations and reached agreement with around 92% of its creditors to restructure the country’s debts.  Some creditors held out, however, including a number of hedge funds that had bought Argentine debt for pennies-on-the-dollar.  These colorfully named “vulture funds” operate by buying up old debts of poor countries cheaply from creditors and then swooping in when the debtor country has been granted debt relief, demanding the original loan amount plus interest and fees. They target debt relief funds that otherwise are generally earmarked to fund social services like health care, education, and AIDS prevention.

In Zambia, for instance, such funds purchased $15 million worth of debt for $3.3 million, then sued the Zambian government for $55 million when debt relief allowed that country to save about $40 million a year and use much of that to fight poverty.  A court awarded the funds $15.4 million, a 467% profit for its shareholders at the expense of Zambia’s poorest. In many cases, the people tasked with repaying these loans had little say in contracting them in the first place, further exacerbating the injustice of having debt relief monies snatched away.   

Censorship, Incarceration and Subtitles

Turkey leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists two years in a row. (Photo: EPA/SEDAT SUNA)

In a disturbing report on journalist safety around the globe, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently announced that the world’s top jailer of journalists was not Iran or China, but Turkey, with freedom of the press in the country reaching its worst state in recent memory.

This NATO member state has now led the world for the two worst years on record in terms of journalist imprisonment. Turkish journalist groups have also been protesting throughout Istanbul recently, complaining of intense pressure being put on private media groups by the AK Party and the government. One journalist was even quoted as saying that “the prime minister is interfering with live reports and even subtitles.”

Making matters worse, on Tuesday Turkey’s President signed into law a highly controversial bill aimed at tightening government control of the internet. Under the new legislation, the Communications Ministry will have the authority to take down websites without a court order, and the Directorate of Telecommunications will wield similarly broad authority to restrict access to webpages at their discretion. The bill had been the subject of numerous protests throughout the country in recent weeks, but was pushed through Parliament with the support of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party.

An Unfulfilled Promise

Militia members in northern Central African Republic (Photo: Wikipedia)

War has been declared, but is it enough?

It has been less than a week since Central African Republic (CAR) President Catherine Samba-Panza stated that she will “go to war” with the anti-Balaka, the Christian militia on what is widely seen as an ethnic cleansing mission against Muslim citizens.  Now the UN OHCHR has advised that “authorities be will be held personally accountable for the serious human rights violations committed in the country,” according to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

With reports of growing violence outside of the capital city of Bangui, the CAR is on the verge of spiraling into complete chaos. According to Ms. Pillay, Ex-Seleka members are now regrouping in the north which has sparked renewed violence including “scorched earth tactics” which include destroying villages and killing civilians.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is set to brief the Security Council on the developing situation in the CAR, giving the international community a chance to act. A chance to take action and just provide political rhetoric and commentary while pledging money in hopes the problem will be resolved.

To ensure hundreds of thousands of innocent people won’t have died in vein, it is time to fulfill our promise, "never again”.