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Are You a 'Global Citizen'?

Really? What does that mean?

Michael Byers 5 Oct

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[Editor's note: Michael Byers, author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict and professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, delivered this talk on campus earlier this week.]

The term "global citizenship" is being used with increased frequency, especially in Canada. In 2004, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation organized a roundtable on the promotion of an "active global citizenship". In a recent issue of Canadian Geographic, Pico Iyer wrote: "Canada has become the spiritual home, you could say, of the very notion of an extended, emancipating global citizenship." Here in Vancouver, Martha Piper emphasizes: "As a major research-intensive public university, UBC has a responsibility to provide educational and research programs of the highest intellectual quality that will contribute to educating global citizens."

But what does global citizenship mean? If there's one thing that millennia of philosophy and literature have taught us, it's that words-and our choice of words-matter. Words provoke and shape social, political and economic change. Words are complex, contingent and open to multiple meanings. And what better place to question, explore and debate words-and the ideas expressed through them-than at a university, an institution of higher learning, a cathedral of ideas built on an ever-growing, ever-shifting foundation of words? Today, I want to seize on the opportunity provided by Martha Piper in her invocation of global citizenship at UBC, to open the term up to argument, in the marketplace of ideas.

Millions without nations

Let's begin by asking what citizenship means. My Canadian citizenship gives me the right to reside, vote, express my opinion, associate with others, travel freely within and leave and enter this country. It does not give me the right to reside, vote, express my opinion or associate with others outside this country; indeed, it does not give me the right to enter any other country. If such a thing as global citizenship exists, it clearly doesn't amount to the rights of national citizenship, transposed to the planetary level. There is no world government, since the UN is little more than a collection of member-states, many of them non-democratic. And there are many parts of this world where the local inhabitants have no right to reside, vote, express opinions, associate or travel, not even as part of a national citizenship.

Stateless persons provide the clearest demonstration of the absence of citizenship rights at the international level. Statelessness can arise in several ways. For example, a child with foreign parents might be born in a country that accords citizenship solely on the basis of parentage, and his or her parents' country of origin might accord citizenship solely on the basis of birth taking place on its soil. Or, to take another example, five years ago I acted as an expert witness in a case involving a man, born in Montreal, who in the early 1970s had surrendered his Canadian citizenship to become a US citizen. Decades later, the US government discovered that he had lied in his application for US citizenship. They stripped him of his citizenship and tried to deport him back to Canada. The Government of Canada refused to let him in, on the basis that he was no longer a Canadian. He later died-of old age-under the detention of the US immigration service.

There are tens of millions of stateless persons in the world today. They have no right to reside, vote, express opinions, associate or travel anywhere at all. Their lack of national citizenship, and their consequential, desperate need for governmental assistance and accountability, makes them the most obvious candidates for global citizenship. Yet they languish, many for their entire lives, in the very worst of the third word's shanty towns and refugee camps, without work, education, medical care-without any legal rights or protections at all.

Acts of citizenship

Citizenship could also be understood as being different from-or additional to-the ability to assert legal rights against institutions of power and governance. It might mean something as simple as engaging in the multiple spheres of community within which every individual lives. From this perspective, merely attending this lecture is an act of citizenship, and all the more so if you ask a challenging question at the end. And engagement in community could imply a certain concern for others, an awareness of our human commonality. And so, volunteering at a soup kitchen in the Downtown Eastside could be an act of citizenship, as could a donation to tsunami relief. In some sense, such acts of citizenship might exist on a broad spectrum, from Au Sung Su Chi's choice-to spend her life under house arrest in Rangoon rather than concede her peoples' claim to democracy-to your choice of saying "thank you" to the next bus driver or janitor you see.

And from at least one "communitarian" perspective, citizenship is as much about obligations as it is about rights, for example the obligation to pay taxes, to serve in the military, to obey laws and respect authority. The move to supplement the discourse of human rights with the language of obligations achieved prominence during the 1990s, with leadership from a mix of political figures including Helmut Kohl, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Today, curiously, one finds it in the mission statement of UBC, which states that students "will acknowledge their obligations as global citizens". The mission statement makes no mentioning of rights. Nor does it recognize that the acknowledgment of at least some obligations might-perhaps should be-a matter of individual choice. Arguably, it seeks to turn citizens into subjects.

So, what could the word global mean? I hold a research chair in global politics, and it was always my assumption that global means planetary, the entire world. But I'm certainly biased about this, since the politics that I study involve interactions between and amongst nation states, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, transnational corporations and even terrorist groups, quite literally around the world. But global could mean something much more local, even personal. Global could mean spherical, well-rounded, so that describing someone as global would mean that they were widely-read, holistic in their appreciation of the world around them, and therefore understanding of the situations and perspectives of others. Global could even mean adaptable, like a travel plug for a hairdryer or electric razor. In this sense, a person who was global could readily fit into various positions, locations, even countries and cultures.

Small, fickle world

Things become even more complex when we join citizenship and global together. Those who invoke the term global citizenship could be thinking of very different things, or combinations of different things. They could be thinking about people who are well read, generally aware, engaged in their communities and concerned and caring for others, the kinds of people that universities have always claimed to produce through the provision of a good "liberal arts" education. This would seem to be the approach originally taken by Martha Piper, to quote from her Killam Lecture in 2002:

[E]ach of us dwells, in effect, in two communities-the local community of our birth and the broader community of human argument and aspiration.

It is the values inherent in these two communities coming together within an individual that I believe constitutes global citizenship. In other words, we need not give up our special affiliations and identities … but we do need to work to make all human beings part of our community of dialogue and concern …

But it's just as likely that those who invoke the term "global citizenship" are thinking about the growth of exchanges and interdependencies-including shared economic, environmental and security vulnerabilities-among the political entities and peoples of Planet Earth. As the result of low-cost airfares, the Internet, the hegemony of the English language and the rise of the transnational corporation, we're increasingly sharing social, cultural, identity-forming experiences. David Beckham is no longer British, Nicole Kidman is no longer Australian, McDonalds and Microsoft are no longer American. The searing memory of the collapse of the twin towers is common to us all.

Collective responsibility

It's even possible that those who invoke the term global citizenship-and many of those who hear the term invoked-are thinking about some sense of collective responsibility that unites the peoples of this planet. Such thinking is certainly manifested, sometimes quite powerfully: in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001; in the first few weeks following the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and in the buildup to the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, this past July.

But it's also true that such manifestations are episodic, as dependent on the fickle attention of the "global" media as on any genuine, sustained core of common concern. While western governments obsess about the threat of global terrorism, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our global atmosphere is rapidly approaching 375 parts per million-almost 35 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. And such a dramatic change in the atmosphere-the thin, fragile, life-giving envelope of this planet-is leading inexorably to changed rainfall patterns, extreme weather events and rising sea levels that will imperil hundreds of millions of innocent people, especially in the developing world.

But how many of us actually consider the inevitable impact of climate change on our daily lives, and the cumulative impact of our daily lives on climate change? How many of us drove a car to work or school today? How many of us fly regularly on business or vacation without giving a second thought to the acutely deleterious impact that burning jet-fuel at altitude has on the atmosphere and, with time, the devastating effects it will have on the billions of people who already live at or below sea level, from New Orleans to Tavulu, from Bangladesh to Richmond, BC?

Isn't it ironic that our country, in which the term "global citizenship" has become most prevalent, is also the country that produces more carbon dioxide, per capita, than all but a handful of other nation states?

Rescue fads

Earlier this year, while billions of dollars were being raised for tsunami relief, food shortages in Niger took 2.5 million people to the brink of starvation, with pleas from the United Nations being almost totally ignored. Without denigrating the importance of tsunami relief, it was for a few brief weeks the latest fad. And fads come and go. Six months after the tsunami, the US government had paid out only 43 percent of the money it pledged, as compared to Japan (100%) and the European Union (95%). Canada was worse than the US at 37 percent; Australia (with the second largest pledge) was even worse at less than 20 percent. Millions of people still need assistance because of the tidal wave, but the fact of the matter is that they're yesterday's story. And sometimes stories don't even become stories, or at least not in time. In Malawi today, 5 million people are facing the prospect of starvation. In August, the United Nations appealed for $88 million in emergency aid for them; as of last month, not one penny had been received.

In Darfur, hundreds of thousands of people have been terrorized by their own national government and its mounted militia, the Janjaweed. Canada's response has been to send money to the African Union, an organization that has said it will only intervene with the full consent and cooperation of the very same government that is responsible for the atrocities. And the atrocities continue: last week, more than thirty people were murdered in a camp, monitored by African Union peacekeepers, to which they'd fled in search of safety. Sudanese government aircraft participated in the assault.

In Zimbabwe, the average life expectancy is just 34 years, as a result of both HIV/AIDS and extraordinarily bad government. Yet Robert Mugabe, the tyrant who's turned one of Africa's most bountiful countries into a failed state, remains firmly in power. In May, he launched a slum-clearance programme know as Operation Murambatsvina-Shona for "drive out trash"-that destroyed the homes of 700,000 already impoverished people, many of them children. Yet nobody, anywhere, is even talking about the possibility of using military force to achieve regime change.

How many of you have contacted your Member of Parliament about these crises? It's not difficult. Here in Vancouver Quadra, your MP is Stephen Owen. The number at his constituency office is (604) 664-9220. You might want to call him after this lecture and ask him to explain the difference between Kosovo (where Canada participated in a humanitarian intervention in 1999) and Darfur, or between Kosovo and Zimbabwe. You might even ask him about the purpose of this country's $14 billion annual military budget.

Profiting from global misery

In Burma, an eight-year long government campaign against minority ethnic groups has destroyed nearly 3000 villages and forced hundreds of thousands of people into internment camps where they are raped, tortured and forced to work as slaves-yes, slaves. Burma might seem like another planet to you but it's a profitable source of revenue for Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines, thanks to a joint venture that Ivanhoe has with the Burmese military junta. But don't blame the directors and shareholders of Ivanhoe Mines, who are acting entirely within the law. Blame yourselves, as citizens of this country and residents of this province, for doing nothing to prevent our democratically constituted laws from permitting such corporate behaviour. I wonder what the people of Burma would say if they heard that we were gathered here, in Vancouver, talking about global citizenship?

Some of you might think I'm over-dramatizing the situation, and that our governments have made real progress towards implementing a form of global citizenship on our behalf. You might point to developments in international human rights and international criminal law, or to the related concepts of "human security" and a "responsibility to protect".

As one of the lawyers who worked for the coalition of human rights organizations in the Pinochet Case seven years ago, I'm not one to denigrate those developments. But I'm acutely conscious that we've a long way to go. Amnesty International estimates that some 140 national governments are involved in torture. After the tragedies of Abu Ghraib Prison, Bagram Airbase, Guantanamo Bay and Canada's own Maher Arar, we know that the governments of the United States and Canada belong on that list. Two of the worst perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia-Herzogovina-Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic-remain at large 12 years after the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Court, created in 1998, has yet to issue even one indictment, let alone hear a case. And two weeks ago in New York, the UN General Assembly endorsed a version of the responsibility to protect that is so tightly constrained that it precludes humanitarian interventions when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to act-which, if you recall the Kosovo intervention, was precisely why a previous Canadian government sought to develop the concept in the first place.

And even if we've made some progress on some rights, how much good are those rights to the one billion people who live on less than one dollar per day, or the almost three billion people who live on less than two dollars per day? Most of us will spend more today on coffee than half of humanity has to spend on food, accommodation, fuel for cooking and heating, health care and education combined. Are those who invoke global citizenship proposing a radical system of economic redistribution that would eliminate global poverty? And if not, why not?

Ruthless citizens?

In fact, the situation on the global citizenship front is even worse than I've described so far. For not only have we failed to live up to what some of us might consider a benevolent vision of global citizenship, we might also be ignoring a potentially dark side to the term. For instance, it's entirely possible that some of those who invoke the term global citizenship are thinking of the ruthlessly capitalist economic system that now dominates the planet, where goods, capital and services move seamlessly across borders, where corporations have abdicated any fidelity to individual nation-states, where workers are abandoned whenever it makes cold economic sense to outsource their jobs overseas, and where a small but growing cadre of multi-national lawyers, accountants and executives stride boldly from business-class lounge to business-class lounge, equipped with the Economist Magazine, a Blackberry, and an LLM or MBA from an American, British or even a Canadian university such as UBC.

The world's largest transnational corporations are now more powerful than all but a handful of nation-states, and even those states-think of George W. Bush's relationship with Exxon and Halliburton-are heavily influenced by powerful corporations. Believe it or not, some of these corporations have explicitly branded themselves as "global citizens". Now, how many of you have read or seen Joel Bakan's The Corporation? Is this what you want global citizenship to be?

Three weeks ago, I hosted a symposium on the "meanings of global citizenship" with the support of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. At that symposium, Eunice Sahle, a Kenyan-born Canadian who teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, argued that those who invoke global citizenship tend not to address the deep power structures that constrain any potential for change on the part of those who would claim greater influence for civil society, for concepts of redistributive justice, for the voices and interests of those who live in our world's least developed states.

What we need to talk about

If we're going to have a serious discussion of global citizenship, we need to be talk frankly about the "Washington Consensus" that permeates the hugely influential policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the G-7 group of the most powerful industrialized states.

We need to talk about TRIPS-the WTO agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights-and agricultural tariffs and subsidies, and conditionality, and the appallingly low levels of overseas development assistance. And in that context, isn't it ironic that Canada, the country in which global citizenship is most often invoked, is the country most frequently derided for failing to exercise leadership on the 0.7 percent of GDP target for overseas development assistance, a target pioneered by one of our great former prime ministers, Lester B. Pearson?

If we're going to talk about global citizenship, let's talk frankly about how and where power vests and is wielded in today's world, about our own country's complicity in the global power game, and about the hypocrisies and hollowness of less rigorous or more benevolent conceptions of global citizenship, whether at UBC or elsewhere.

Bush's world, and Point Grey

At the same symposium, Barbara Arneil, a political scientist from UBC, suggested that the term global citizenship could even be invoked deliberately and specifically in support of George W. Bush's foreign policy. The U.S. president, after all, professes to be seeking "democracy and freedom" for all, to be bringing at least some of the rights enjoyed by American citizens-to vote in national elections, to worship, to buy and sell-to all the people of this planet. As Arneil explains, the "aspiration to liberal empire" has, as one of its central features, a "civilizing mission"-a mission expressed by Bush in the following words in November 2003: "[T]he United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. … The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country."

Of course, it's easy to criticize George W. Bush. But, in doing so, we have to be careful not to become arrogant ourselves. David Ley, a geographer here at UBC, has pointed out that those who invoke global citizenship risk isolation and hubris, since they typically do so from a position of class privilege-such as the gentrified older neighborhoods of Manhattan, North London, Sydney, and yes, Dunbar and Point Grey.

I wrote this speech in a coffee shop on West 10th that is frequented by white 30-something moms pushing $500 baby-joggers, most of who undoubtedly think of themselves as progressive, cosmopolitan and environmentally-friendly, but who probably wouldn't dream of taking their babies for a stroll through the Downtown Eastside, or the slums of San Paulo, or even forgoing the annual mid-winter vacation in Honolulu or Acapulco. As Radhika Desai of the University of Victoria has observed, the parochialism and paternalism associated with many invocations of global citizenship is the same parochialism and paternalism that was linked to imperialism and colonialism.

'Take back Global Citizenship'

James Tully, a world-renowned philosopher, also at the University of Victoria, has made the important point-to which I alluded earlier-that one can conceive of democracy in narrow or broad terms. And of course, democracy exists on a spectrum, from merely voting once every four or five years to playing an active, daily role in the political and social communities in which we live. Global citizens, whatever they are, can't be content to remain within the narrow, formal constraints of a voting democracy, since democracy of this kind simply doesn't exist on the global level. Whatever global citizens are, they must be engage in other manners and forms of democracy, to be activists of some kind.

It is in this context-of a potentially broad and active conception of global citizenship-that I wish to speak now to the many young and hopefully still idealistic people in this room. The term global citizenship is not only complex and contingent; it's also relatively new and therefore still open to appropriation. So here's what I think you should do. Just as women have decided to "take back the night", you should decide to "take back global citizenship", to make it what you want it to be, rather than what Martha Piper, George W. Bush, or some corporate advertising guru might wish to make it. Now, I can't presume to speak for you, but here's one possible definition that might possibly appeal:

Global citizenship empowers individual human beings to participate in decisions concerning their lives, including the political, economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions in which they live. It includes the right to vote, to express opinions and associate with others, and to enjoy a decent and dignified quality of life. It is expressed through engagement in the various communities of which the individual is a part, at the local, national and global level. And it includes the right to challenge authority and existing power structures-to think, argue and act-with the intent of changing the world.

Deciding whether you like this definition, and deciding how it should be improved, will require an honest and rigorous conversation, a debate, a straight-up intellectual contestation of the kind that could and should be occurring in this university, a contestation that you can make happen, in your classrooms, in the pub, on the Internet, on the steps and in the corridors of political and economic power. All you have to do is care about words and ideas, and the impact they're having on your world, and want to turn that caring into committed engagement and action. Global citizenship is a powerful term because those who invoke it do so to provoke and justify action. And understanding the power of words, and your own ability to appropriate and give them new meaning, is a first step towards acquiring power yourself.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005).  [Tyee]

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