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The World Passport: A Human Rights Tool for Claiming Rights

Proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Arthur Kanegis

The World Passport, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a key tool for people to claim their human rights around the world. 


In a Christian Science Monitor article, Stephanie Hanes wrote: "The United Nations estimates that nearly 12 million people around the world are stateless. Statelessness has nudged in alongside better-known issues such as access to clean water, refugee rights, and education as a top priority on the global humanitarian agenda of the United Nations, governments, and advocacy groups."   Read the Article 


As the article makes clear, millions of people are stateless, including people born in disputed territory, denied citizenship because of ethnicity, driven from homelands by wars, or even whose nation no longer exists, as was seen in the movie "The Terminal."  Children of stateless people are often born stateless and few manage to escape that status.


These are the forgotten ones, denied the right to work, to health care, to travel, to marry or to enjoy basic human freedoms. Incarcerated for years for no crime, they have no place to turn to for protection.


In 1919 one man, Fridtjof Nansen, took the initiative to launch the Nansen Passport, issued to stateless refugees in the wake of World War I and the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia. Adopted by the League of Nations, his passport was eventually recognized by 52 governments and won the Nobel Peace Prize.


When the League of Nations ended, so did the passport, and yet World War II left even more refugees stateless.  In 1948, at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, the United Nations took up consideration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which among other rights, declared that all people have the right to a nationality and the freedom to travel. 


As the American delegate to the UN, Mrs. Roosevelt lobbied for months to get the UDHR passed, but it was vehemently opposed by the Soviet Bloc, which blasted it as infringing on their sovereignty. After 81 meetings, and 168 amending resolutions, the UDHR remained stalled.


However on December 9, 1948, Garry Davis, a World-War II bomber pilot, who had given up national citizenship and declared himself a World citizen, rallied 20,000 people in Paris where the UN was meeting, with supporting demonstrations around the world. The very next day the Soviets stepped aside and the UDHR was passed unanimously.  


Garry Davis asked the UN to recognize him as its first citizen, paving the way for all the stateless people to gain a new political status - citizen of the world.  However, the UN refused, saying it was not a government but merely an organization of sovereign states.  As the Soviet delegate put it: "Davis is a world baby. States may join, diapered citizens, nyet!" 


Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her My Day newspaper column (December 15, 1948): "How very much better it would be if Mr. Davis would set up his own governmental organization and start then and there a worldwide international government." 


Garry Davis went on to register 750,000 people as world citizens, more than the population of 80 nations in that era.  Then, on September 4, 1953, Mr. Davis took the advice of Mrs. Roosevelt.  After consultation with leading constitutional lawyers, Davis declared a government of, by and for the citizens of the world.  


The new government then established the World Service Authority, an agency which issues passports and other documents, not only to stateless people, but also to others who want to add the top level - World - to their existing city, state and national citizenship.


Like Fridtjof Nansen before him, Garry Davis recognized a huge unmet need, and instead of saying somebody ought to do something about it, he stepped forward and started a new enterprise at the very highest moral level.  Davis invented something that had never existed before - the World Passport, issued under the authority of article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since 1954, the World Service Authority (WSA) in Washington DC has issued over two million documents as sanctioned by the UDHR, including World ID Cards, World Marriage Certificates, World Political Asylum Cards, International Exit Visas, International Resident Permits, and World Press Cards (for professional media).  World Birth Cards provide vital certification to undocumented children so they can obtain life-sustaining inoculations and attend elementary school.

Of the 193 UN member nations, 174 have stamped visas in WSA World Passports on one or more occasions, thus giving them de facto recognition.  


When I was doing some videotaping at the WSA office a while back, I reached into the incoming mail box and found, amidst the many exotic-looking letters with colorful postage stamps, this letter from Africa: Aujourd'hui je peux dire que "JE SUIS LIBRE." Today I can say that "I AM FREE." He continued: "You are the best organization promoting fundamental rights and freedoms in the world. Thank you for making me a World Citizen.  My future children will become active members of our organization. You are more "real" than all other human rights organizations, even more than the UN and the UNHCR." 


Of course the UN and the UNHCR are very real and are doing fabulous work.  But from his perspective, “real” meant getting him out of a hopeless situation.  And that is exactly what this human rights tool enabled him to do.


It took one person, Nansen, to prompt the League into undertaking such an effort for refugees.  What if the United Nations, or an affiliated agency, could be prompted into building on the work of the WSA to fill this crucial need of stateless people for identification, for papers that make possible travel, work, marriage and more?


David Gallup, the attorney who heads the WSA, showed me passport applications from 900 Ogoni who were forced to flee Nigeria because of the heavy repression during their struggle to recapture their ancestral lands decimated by the Shell Oil Company.  Desperate for freedom after years of being stuck in the Ouidah refugee camp, they sent in applications, but could not afford the $45 issuance fee.  


David was struggling to raise funds to meet their request.  WSA coordinates a charitable World Refugee Fund to raise funds for issuing passports to indigents.  Over the past 25 years, WSA has issued more than 10,000 gratis World Passports to refugees residing in camps throughout the world.  So far the WSA has sent out 120 passports to the Ogoni, and is currently seeking additional donations to fund the rest.


There is no guarantee the passports will be accepted, but acceptance is often the case.  For example, when a priest came into a detention center in the basement of the Thai immigration office and issued world passports, the officials were only too glad to find a legal way to get rid of these people that they had to feed. With the cooperation of the WSA, the immigration office was able to empty the detention center repeatedly. 


Despite having no publicity budget, WSA receives 100,000+ requests per year for its UDHR-based global documents and for human rights assistance.


The Legal Department of the WSA serves as an advocate for people denied basic human rights. Recently, we interviewed a man whose passport was confiscated by US Homeland Security officials even though it had already been stamped with a visa by Saudi Arabia, where he had a job waiting.  WSA wrote a detailed legal brief and successfully negotiated the return of the passport, so the man could resume his journey.


WSA provides legal advocacy, amicus curiae briefs, and letter writing campaigns to individuals throughout the world.  For 12 years, WSA has provided internships to law and graduate students, providing first hand experience in human rights law and in pro bono advocacy for individuals suffering from human rights violations.


While this work of the WSA is impressive, in the long run the most important contribution is likely to be the vision it projects of a new way of thinking - World Citizenship. Garry Davis observes that "one world" is not a hope or a dream, it is reality. We are one planet.  We humans have photographed it from space. We have proven that our DNA is 99% the same.  What is segmented is our thinking.


Throughout the ages wise sages from Socrates to Thomas Paine have called themselves Citizens of the World.  It is the spiritual concept that we are all one embedded in physical form – a potent symbol you can hold, feel and use.  Moreover, the World Passport is embodiment of a new kind of whole-systems thinking that is required for humanity to create the systems and institutions required to advance human rights on a global scale and to build an environmentally-sustainable, just and peaceful world. 


Honorary passport holders include the Dalai Lama, Joan Baez, Levar Burton, Peter Fonda, Mike Farrell, Isaac Asimov, eight Nobel Prize laureates and Prime Minister Nehru who said “this is the passport Gandhi would have carried.”

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