World Citizenship, World Citizens, and the Necessary Rule of Law

Glen T. Martin

Global Peace Meet – UNESCO – Presentation on World Citizenship

How are we to conceive of world citizenship?   Is world citizenship merely a self-designation of those who believe they think globally?  This is certainly one possible legitimate meaning of the phrase.  Or is world citizenship defined by the passing certain educational requirements and receiving approval from certain authorities?  Who might these authorities be, we might ask.  And how have they themselves arrived at their definition of world citizenship?  A third way of looking at world citizenship would be to associate this with those who have signed the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  Such persons may or may not have an appropriate knowledge as determined by those who educate for world citizenship.  But they have affirmed a truly new world paradigm, and apparently understood the significance of a planetary democratic world system with regard to protecting the environment, protecting human rights, and ending war everywhere on the Earth.

Historically citizenship has often been associated with a legally recognized community.  Philosopher of law John Finnis identifies four different forms of community.  One important meaning of a community is a group of people bound together under the protection of common laws, usually within the framework of a constitution.  When a community is constituted under common laws, then the law supplies (at least in theory) the rules of just and fair living for all those designated as “citizens” under those laws.  Out of this arrangement arises the idea of the common good of the community, something in principle differentiated from the selfish individual goods of the citizens. To be a citizen, therefore means to recognize the common good of the community in addition to the particular goods that I may wish to realize in my own life. 

What then is a citizen? It is clearly possible to imagine a citizen as someone who is concerned with social issues of the community, even apart from his or her legal status.  And a world citizen might be understood as someone concerned with global issues, whatever country he or she might have legal status within. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has a right” to this or that.  It appears to assume a common humanity that might be defined as the community of the species, following Marx’s concept of our common “species-being.”  In this sense world citizenship appears as a moral category.  All people share a common dignity and should be treated in ways appropriate with that dignity.

However, even though many nations have a concept of human dignity and the idea of human rights written into their constitutions, human rights today are massively violated in nearly every country on Earth. Apparently a merely moral category is not sufficient to protect human beings as human, that is, as world citizens who are part of the global human community.  This community and these rights are “mere ideals” at present, which nations routinely violate with impunity.

We can conclude, therefore, that world citizenship as a moral category as define in the UN Universal Declaration is not sufficient to establish the world as an effective legal community, nor to establish world citizenship as a viable social category.  One these same grounds neither is education sufficient to establish a world citizenship that has the capacity to participate meaningfully in the actualization of a global common good.  People who think globally and are educated properly in global issues have no vote in a world governing body, no rights protected by any global laws, and, by and large, very little voice in what goes on in the world. 

Those with a voice in what goes on in the world are vast multinational corporations and the leaders of sovereign nations-states, neither of which is subject to any criterion of a planetary common good.  Multinational corporations are responsible to make a private profit for their investors and the heads of sovereign nations are responsible to promote the “national interests” of their respective nations.  World citizens who are educated to think of a planetary common good, therefore, are disenfranchised and marginalized. Their voices are practically mute for determining the course of historical events in conformity with the planetary common good.

Today the world is not governed by world citizens directing their efforts toward a planetary common good. The phrase commonly used in “global governance.”  We are deluded that some sort of “governance” is regulating things as imposed by the World Bank, the IMF, powerful nation-states, the UN, the World Trade Organization, etc.  But none of these are aspects of a legally constituted community and none serve an authentic planetary common good. The world system at present has no legal citizenship, no common legal status, no democracy, and no legitimacy, moral or otherwise.

The consequence of this immoral and illegitimate world disorder is reflected in the failure of international law to function as genuine law.  International law is a collection of treaties under which sovereign nations voluntarily agree to keep their promises to act in certain agreed upon ways.  International law is voluntary and obeying it requires each sovereign state to interpret the law and its obligations under the law for itself.  The laws are not binding and there is no binding court or other authority to interpret the responsibility of nations under these treaties.

Take, for example, the US war on terrorism. Under the Geneva Conventions captured enemy soldiers who are obeying the laws of their respective nations (even in the event of war). Hence, the Geneva conventions agree that they should not be mistreated when taken prisoner in a war situation. They cannot be tortured, arbitrarily executed, etc.  Similarly, anyone with citizenship within a sovereign nation, must be treated with due process of law if they are suspected of committing a crime. They cannot be tortured, arbitrarily executed, etc. 

However, under the lawless world of today’s “global governance,” the US has interpreted international law to suit itself, developing in a hybrid concept that combines the right to kill a perceived enemy under war conditions, and to capture and hold that enemy without due process of law, with the laws internal to nations in which criminals (who have no right to fight back) can be captured by police and tried for violation of the laws of the nation.  This arbitrary and illegitimate construction shows how worthless the world disorder of “international law” and “global governance” really is.

Not only does the war on terror give the militarized imperial nations the ability to treat perceived “enemy combatants” apart from the laws of the nations in which they may have citizenship, the world system of sovereign nations that only recognizes legal citizenship within nations, has resulted in hundreds of millions of persons who have no identity papers and no way to prove they are citizens of this or that country. Such “stateless” persons, are deprived of all legal rights, of all rights to have a community with a common good, and of all rights outlined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Those perceived as enemy combatants, millions in refugee camps around the world, those who are smuggled by human traffickers, and those millions who have had their passports confiscated to become slave labor in foreign countries, are all victims of a world disorder in which there can be no real world citizenship because there is no common lawfulness that can define humanity as a community with a common good and common rights respected and enforced for all persons.

Even though the word “citizen” has various legitimate meanings, and even though the phrase “world citizen” has a variety of uses in common discourse, it should be clear that the only effective and meaningful use of the word citizen for considerations of global political discourse is that of a legal person, a person recognized as having rights and duties under the rule of legitimate enforceable positive laws.  Stateless persons, like enemy combatants and many others have lost their status as legal persons and are left to the mercies of power, torture, exploitation, and murder.

That is why if we are to develop a really meaningful concept of “world citizenship” it must be one linked with a common world law.  Only under a common world law will everyone have meaningfully protected rights; only under a common world constitution will there arise a global common good independent of particularized local or national or corporate goods. 

World citizenship is a concept inseparably linked to the idea of an Earth Constitution. Otherwise the phrase has little substantive meaning.  If we wish to educate people for world citizenship we should be educating them to be advocates of the Earth Constitution.  Without legal personhood for every person born on the Earth, we have only images and illusions to guide us, and we continue to have no effective voice within the chaos and disorder of world history.  Education for world citizenship is simultaneously education for effective, democratically legislated world law.  The Earth Constitution provides the best model for this goal.  Let us link the concepts of world citizenship with those of the Earth Constitution in all our discourse.  The very future of humanity is at stake.