Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights

Notes on a talk I gave at a roundtable during a conference at the University of Roehampton in London on 10-12 July 2013. 

It is a vast topic, and I want to make a few points in the next 10 minutes or so about the meaning of the term cosmopolitanism, how it correlates with the idea of human rights, and the wider debate in the present context. Some of you may find my view on the topic somewhat pessimistic. I should also add that I am going to make an argument that is essentially economic. Cosmopolitanism derives from the Greek terms cosmos, meaning the Universe, and polites, referring to citizen. Therefore, cosmopolitanism has come to be understood as “citizen of the world.” It is not difficult to understand that the concept of cosmopolitanism has developed with society. Social development involves two apparently contradictory, and at the same time, complementary processes. A growing society has a greater need to feed its people and ensure their welfare. That, however, is not enough, because human needs grow with development: better homes, roads, transportation, hospitals, education and training, entertainment and comfort – all these require more raw materials and skills. Any society which aims to achieve all of these requires a balance in its workforce. It is perhaps the most fundamental reason for both internal and cross-border migration, which has gone on through much of history.

The next problem concerns the allocation of space and resources, which in turn raises many political, moral and ethical questions. For example, if a society has shortages of certain skills for development, it will require people who have those skills from outside until its own citizens are trained, which takes time. Should a country open its doors to foreign workers it needs? If so, to how many and for how long? Should people with those skills be considered for entry, irrespective of their nationality, color or ethnic origin? Or only of selected backgrounds? These are some of the most important questions which must be resolved to start with. For they eventually determine the kind of society that there is, and how others will see it in the wider world. Of course, such matters must be decided within each society. However, wise rulers will consider the implications of how they settle these issues.

In Britain and other European Union member-states, there is supposed to be free movement of people to work and live, which in turn has meant stricter controls on immigration from the rest of the world. As I have already said, this is a government’s sovereign right. But once a foreign worker arrives in a country, his or her place in society can become a topic of contention. As well as legal migrants, a second topic of contention is that of refugees, often described these days as asylum seekers, fleeing their countries for safety. But I want to limit myself here to when there are not dramatic and unexpected events straining a society’s will.

Let us suppose a cosmopolitan society develops gradually as planned by government and policy makers. It consists of citizens of different nationalities, cultures, religious faiths – secularists as well as atheists. Suppose one faith or nationality is dominant. On what basis should it be organized? The total wealth in each society, even if vast, has a limit. For the sake of organization, how should the population be divided up into units, groups or categories? And how big a share of the national pie should go to each section? In other words, how much should each be paid? And what rights should they enjoy? That essentially is the debate at this time of increased globalization – not merely for economic reasons, but also because of the movement of people within and across continents due to political turmoil.

The nature of debate about cosmopolitanism keeps changing. Why? Because there are powerful opposing arguments. In his fourth inaugural address in January 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of other nations, far away.” From that idealistic sentiment toward the end of the Second World War arose the idea that all people belong to a single family, and unless they feel they have their fair share which ensures their security, there cannot be order and peace in society. It remains true today. And so the argument founded on global justice and universalism – right to live, to have a family, property, security, free speech, a say in governance, freedom of thought and organization, and so on, irrespective of gender, ethnic, religious or political background.

Against this is the argument which appears to be on the ascendancy – the argument for fenced societies; fewer and fewer migrants; minority voices even advocating repatriation and expulsion of migrants. Disturbingly, such demands have begun to shape the overall debate. In the post-9/11 world, wars, and the inevitable social and economic price being paid force introversion in individuals and groups alike. So we hear: “We were here first, we are entitled to more of what our society has.” This majoritarian argument clearly has won the day, for now at least, among policy makers.

[END]

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