By Svene Berlein
Feb 13, 2013
Traveling is a great way to learn about other cultures and ways of thinking. While most of our encounters with a host country’s legal system usually revolve around visas and Customs offices, there is a much broader and underlying set of laws that guides the flow of daily routines and reflects a people’s values and beliefs.
Here are 23 laws from around the world that, while maybe not perfect, could be steps in the right direction to make the United States a better place to live.
The Law of Mother Earth
Bolivian President Evo Morales recently enacted his country’s Law of Mother Earth (Pachamama) and Integral Development to Live Well, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that redefines the Earth and all its inhabitants as a living system with rights instead of a commodity to be exploited.
Gross National Happiness
Expanding conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurements of wealth to include non-monetary factors like psychological well-being, community vitality, and environmental quality, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population’s general level of well-being. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review similar to an Environmental Impact Statement in the US.
Renewable Energy Act
Germany’s Renewable Energy Act mandates that 80% of the country’s power will come from renewable sources by 2050. With new wind and solar installations as well as huge investments in overhauling its entire grid, a complete conversion to renewable energy by 2050 is now becoming a realistic target.
Climate Change Act
The UK and Mexico are the first two countries in the world to have put long-term climate targets into national legislation. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act mandates an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases from its 1990 baseline by 2050, along with a range of measures to achieve this goal. Mexico’s recently adopted law establishes the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, a centralized agency to oversee the implementation of all its climate policies.
While about 90% of American corn, soybeans, and cotton are currently grown from genetically modified organisms (GMO) and 70% of all American processed foods contain GMO ingredients, a growing number of countries have enacted partial or total bans on GMO seeds and products. Kenya and Peru are the latest additions, joining Russia, a number of EU countries, and Bolivia, which has enshrined a GMO ban into its Law of Mother Earth.
Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, India, Chile, and South Africa don’t have outright bans on the import or cultivation of GMO crops, but they do require labeling for foods containing GMOs. A recent ballot initiative in California (Prop 37) that would have enacted GMO labeling failed by the narrowest of margins, but it may have signaled the beginning of a growing awareness surrounding this issue.
Urban Agriculture Law
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, eliminating over 50% of Cuba’s food imports, the country had to adapt to feeding its own population almost overnight. The Cuban government realized the huge opportunity not just for a healthier but more sovereign and efficient food base by enacting an urban agriculture law that makes it not just legal, but free to adapt unused, public land into food production plots.
Countries around the world have come to recognize that promoting the value of environmental stewardship to its youngest citizens is instrumental to the future of the planet. In Costa Rica, one of the pillars of its comprehensive eco legislation is the Environmental Protection Awareness in Primary and Secondary Education Law. In the Netherlands, a bicycling ordinance requires children to take a written as well as a riding test, administered by the police at around age 10.
There are special traffic laws for cycling in the Netherlands. The Dutch Bicycle Master Plan of 1999 spells out these traffic laws designed to make cycling safer and encourage a growing bicycle culture. For example, if there is a collision between a car and a cyclist, the driver’s insurance is automatically held liable.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Mexico, and Canada all permit same sex marriage. Most recently, Argentina became the first country in South America to let gay couples marry and adopt children, despite its overwhelmingly Catholic population.
Third gender recognition
Following a Supreme Court ruling that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Nepal recently began implementing its Third Gender Law by issuing citizenship certificates to people who don’t want to be identified as male or female.
Automatic voter registration
While voter registration in the United States is voluntary and often leads to election day confusion and low turnouts, a number of other major democracies have federal voter rolls that automatically register individuals as soon as they turn 18 or become citizens. In Canada, for example, 93% of eligible citizens are registered to vote, compared to 68% in the US. France and Chile also have automatic voter registration laws resulting in election turnouts over 90%.
Campaign finance laws
While the Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court has all but sold American elections to the highest bidder, other countries have strict campaign laws. Israel imposes a ceiling on money allowed to be spent in elections. The United Kingdom prohibits paid political advertisements, giving parties and candidates free air time on public television instead. In France, campaigning for President is not allowed to begin until two weeks prior to the first ballot.
Ten countries, from Singapore to the Democratic Republic of Congo, enforce compulsory voting. In Australia, for instance, the 1924 Commonwealth Electoral Act requires all citizens over 18 to show up at the polling place on election day and cast a ballot. To facilitate voting, elections are held on Saturdays and citizens can vote at any polling place or mail in their ballots.
Universal health care
While passage of the Affordable Care Act moved the United States closer to providing health care coverage to all its citizens through compulsory purchase of private insurance plans, almost all other developed nations have mixed models that provide basic universal coverage through public funds, supplemented by private payments through employers or additional insurance.
The UK’s National Health Service is a good example of a completely publicly funded and operated health care system where everyone is covered and patients have no involvement in the financial and administrative aspects of their treatment.
All but four of the world’s nations have some form of parental leave policy enabling workers expecting a baby to stay at home with their child for a period of time. Vietnam grants six months of leave at 100% of pay. Estonia, Hungary, and Spain guarantee three years of unpaid leave.
In Canada, parents can split a year of leave at 55% of their salaries. The US is in the exclusive company of Liberia, Swaziland, and Papa New Guinea as the only countries that do not guarantee parents paid time off to take care of their newborn children.
Mandatory paid vacation
While US law does not mandate any paid vacation for employees, European Union labor laws grant workers a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation a year, in addition to holidays, sick days, maternity leave, and other paid leave under European law. Last year the EU’s Court of Justice even ruled that “a worker who becomes unfit during his paid annual leave is entitled at a later point to a period of leave of the same duration as that of his sick leave.”
Flexible work hours
As Americans’ work days are getting ever longer and more numerous, EU labor laws, such as the requirement for part-time hourly pay to be on par with full-time pay for the same work, have been shifting workers’ gains made in productivity towards more leisure time.
Europeans now work only 80-85% as many hours as Americans, thanks to legislation such as the UK’s Right to Request Law or Holland’s landmark Working Hours Adjustment Act that allows employees to reduce their work hours without the threat of losing their jobs, benefits, opportunities for promotion, and pay.
Balanced budget amendment
The Basic Laws of Germany, Spain, and Italy, as well as the Swiss Constitution, all require the state to spend no more than it takes in. While most US states have balanced-budget provisions, the federal government is under no such restraints.
Focused on a cooperative rather than a retributive process, restorative justice practices originated in indigenous cultures, from the Maori in New Zealand to First Nations in North America. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission assembled after Apartheid in South Africa gave both perpetrators and victims the chance to recount their experience and heal the wounds of the past. In Norway, the National Mediation Service Act defines criminal acts as conflicts, enabling actors to repair the harm caused by the offense.
Strict gun laws
With some 300 million civilian firearms in circulation and 20 times the homicide rate of all other western nations combined, no other developed nation makes access to guns as easy as the United States. Japan, the developed country with the fewest guns and second-lowest murder rate in the world, has had a law on the books prohibiting the possession of firearms since 1958. Countries like Australia and the UK have seen gun-related deaths drop significantly after passing strict laws in the wake of gun massacres in the 1990s.
While the Netherlands, with its famous coffeeshops, is best known for the decriminalization of marijuana, countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Croatia, Czech Republic, and Mexico all have varying degrees of tolerance towards the personal use of it. In Cambodia, marijuana can easily be purchased and smoked in public areas without the threat of arrest.
Portugal is the first country in the world to decriminalize the use of all drugs, treating drug users as sick people instead of criminals. In the US, the states of Washington and Colorado recently voted to legalize marijuana, but it is still illegal at the federal level.
Beer purity law
In the end, what’s the point of it all if you’re drinking crappy beer? Germany’s “Reinheitsgebot” (Beer Purity Law) dates back to 1516, when the Duchy of Bavaria decreed that the only ingredients to be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops.
While the 1993 Provisional Beer Law slightly expanded the Reinheitsgebot to allow yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar to be used in certain beers, Germans like to still refer to their national beverage as “Gerstensaft,” or barley juice. Cheers!