This article first appeared on VICE US
On January 14, rapper, actor, and activist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, tried to board a plane to Ethiopia when he was detained by South African immigration authorities. Bey was arrested for breaking local immigration laws, including overstaying his tourist visa, and, most notably, presenting a "world passport" as his travel documentation for departure.
Media outlets were quick to report that Bey's passport was fraudulent (or, as the NY Daily News put it, "Mos Definitely wasn't valid"). He's being charged with using a false identity and an "unrecognisable travel document." But what exactly is a "world passport," and why was he using one?
The history of the world passport goes back to 1954, when Garry Davis – a World War II bomber turned peace activist, who had renounced his American citizenship years earlier – founded the World Service Authority (WSA). He envisioned a world without borders, and the WSA was to be an administrative agency that would act like an international government, issuing world passports and recognising "world citizenship."
Even early on, there were problems with recognition: Davis was arrested multiple times for using the world passport as a travel document. Arthur Kanegis, a filmmaker working on a forthcoming documentary about Davis, recounted the time Davis was charged in 1987 by French authorities for creating a counterfeit passport.
"Garry responded, 'Are you saying this is a counterfeit copy of a real world passport?'" said Kanegis. "And they said 'There's no such thing.' And he said 'So I'm being charged with creating a counterfeit copy of a document that doesn't exist?'" He was released after that.
Today, the WSA doesn't guarantee that any country will accept its passports or other travel documents. The agency operates as a small non-profit in Washington, DC, staffed mostly by volunteers and funded by fees from processing requested documents, plus donations.
By its own count, the WSA has released 750,000 world passports to date, among 4 million total documents issued to verify "world" identity, births, and marriages. According to current WSA president David Gallup, a human rights attorney, each of these forms of certification is intended "to affirm human rights for anyone regardless of their economic, social, religious, ethnic, [or] sexual orientation status."
The WSA issued the largest wave of world passports between 1988 and 1995, when the Soviet Union dissolved into a plurality of newly independent states. Gallup says the group is issuing much fewer now – between 5,000 and 10,000 documents, including passports, per year. But Gallup believes the sustained demand is a sign the documents are still proving their usefulness.
When they're accepted, world passport, card, and certificate holders use these documents to open bank accounts, apply for licenses and employment, and fulfill many of modern society's bureaucratic demands that most people with proper documents take for granted. For example, the WSA has issued world passports to Afghan and Iraqi refugees in Norway, who used the documents to get bank photo IDs that allowed them to travel to other Scandinavian countries to find work. Gallup also told me about a child born in Russia to non-Russian parents, lacking papers from the country of origin, who used a WSA-issued birth certificate to obtain pediatric medical care. According to a representative, Bey was using a world passport because it was "more representative of his personal ideals and philosophies" than his United States passport.
The agency requires world passports to be periodically renewed, just like national passports, and WSA scans each returned page for entry, exit, and visa stamps, archiving examples online. The organisation uses this as proof that the world passports are being unofficially accepted by more than 170 countries and territories around the globe, despite only being officially recognised by six (Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Mauritania, Tanzania, Togo, and Zambia).
After his arrest, Bey pointed out that the South African government has, in the past, recognised world passports "on numerous occasions... in ports Johannesburg and Cape Town, as early as 1996 and as late as 2015". Gallup says this kind of de facto recognition of world passports could undermine the charges against Bey, though the legal experts seem divided on how this defense could play.
Richard Boswell, an immigration law professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, says he doesn't see how "unofficial" past recognition would obligate the government to recognise the documents in the future. "In the US, [this] would be regarded as an error," Boswell told me. "I just don't see how one low-level border official could bind a nation to recognise this passport."
On the other hand, when a country has a history of not exercising certain laws and then suddenly does so against an individual, it can be considered pretextual use of the law, according to Holly Cooper, associate director of Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis. "Here, because Yasiin Bey has taken controversial political positions, it is very likely that South Africa is using its immigration laws to punish Mr. Bey for his opinion[s] – if it is true that in the past [South Africa has] accepted WSA passports."
Gallup, for his part, says the WSA sent Bey's attorney "very recent stamps from South Africa – one of the most recent ones, from August, was a work authorisation and residency stamp in a world passport given by the Home Affairs office. There were also ones from 14, 13, 12, so for them to say they don't recognize it is a misrepresentation of the truth."
Gallup also wrote a "legal validity letter" to the South African government on Bey's behalf to assert the state's legal obligation to respect Bey's freedom of travel. Gallup noted that this is considered an innate, inalienable right by most governments, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Gallup says that the WSA grants this kind of supportive advocacy (but not legal representation) to anyone who calls for help in asserting rights to travel, identification, or recognition –n regardless of whether the caller actually possess WSA documents. They fully advise applications on both the legal limitations of world documents and the best practices for persuading authorities to accept them.
There have been accusations that this unquestioning support could allow world passport holders to use the documents for criminal purposes: In 2006, an American-born terrorist used one to travel around South America, where he planned two hotel bombings; in 1996, a cruise ship hijacker used one to flee from Italy to Spain before he was eventually recaptured. But of the 750,000 world passports issued since 1954, the rate of abuse seems fairly low.
Gallup emphasized that WSA strictly complies with US national security laws: They don't work with anyone based in heavily sanctioned countries like Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, and North Korea (despite these states' dire human rights regimes), or support anyone who appears on an FBI or terror watch list, and they claim to fully research the background and identity of all applicants.
While the practical effect of WSA's advocacy may not always be as apparent, as in cases like Bey's, their philosophical logic regarding international human rights is sound—that is, "the World Passport represents the inalienable human right of freedom of travel on planet Earth."
Bey is due to appear in South African court on March 8 to face the charges against him.
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