by Michael Caster
This piece was originally published in Cascadia Spoke, a community publication dedicated to raising awareness of the Cascadia movement and bioregionalism.
The world is burning, scorched by the dual evils of the climate crisis and rising nationalism.
While there is a legal and political framework for promoting and protecting our human rights in the form of international conventions and other statutes, the rights framework has been too often sidelined or twisted in the name of national security, economic expediency, or xenophobic and bigoted populism.
The human rights to be free from discrimination, take part in public affairs, be secure in one’s privacy, exercise the freedoms of expression, opinion and belief, assembly, and association, to have a fair trial and be free of police violence, and other civil and political rights are being steadily stripped away. For many, they were never protected in the first place. The rights to enjoy the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” access to education, safe and healthy working conditions, and the protection of unique cultural identities and life are likewise under constant attack at the national and global levels.
Dictators and demagogues from local government officials to world leaders have denied, twisted, or engaged in gaslighting, such as narratives of cultural relativism or environmental fascism, to weaken the human rights framework. Why? Because at its core the human rights framework is about rearticulating power: restraining the State and empowering the people. After all, it was in direct opposition to the fascism of the 20th century that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. was born in 1948.
At the bioregional level, we can return the human rights framework to its radical purpose by drawing from the foundation of the human rights city movement to make the case for the human rights bioregion.
Following years of authoritarian rule in Korea, on 18 May 1980 a group of university students in the Southern city of Gwangju took to the streets in opposition to ongoing martial law. In the ensuing days, the government responded with utmost brutality leading to untold deaths in what has become known as the Gwangju Uprising, an event and its intergenerational trauma recounted beautifully in Han Kang’s 2014 novel Human Acts. Gwangju is often credited as the catalyst of Korean democratization. It is from this history of defying authoritarianism, that the city of Gwangju has emerged as a pioneer in the human rights city movement.
Defined at the 2011 World Human Rights Cities Forum in Gwangju, it is “not just a social and political process operated by the philosophy in which human rights is the most fundamental principle as well as the principle to be abided by, but also human rights governance in which members of the city cooperate to improve quality of living for all based on human rights norms.”
The human rights city concept emphasizes that all inhabitants, citizens and non-citizens, including the most marginalized, are respected regardless of racial, national, social, gender, economic, or cultural identity, and freely participate in and take responsibility for decision making and policy setting. It emphasizes the localization of international human rights norms and fundamental freedoms, a framework seemingly tailormade for bioregional action.
Declaring a human rights bioregion recognizes that we do not exist as a series of cities, and would arguably ensure a greater place for environmental justice than a strictly urban approach to the localization of rights. It is about committing to action on climate change and the promotion and protection of human rights at the regional level, while fostering cooperation between localities and denouncing discrimination and nationalism.
If bioregionalism is about the rearticulation of economic, cultural, and political power, then the declaration of a human rights bioregion is as much about the rearticulation of rights power.
Arriving at a human rights bioregion means embracing the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its succeeding instruments. It means deliberation on a charter for human rights in the bioregion. For this, inspiration might be found in the Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City, but adopted to the bioregion.
A provisional charter of a human rights bioregion would be grounded in the principle of non-discrimination and a duty of solidarity. It may include such things as articulating the right to participatory politics and the transparency of public administration. It may include the right to physical and mental safety, including human rights training and delimited power for law enforcement, but also representative and transparent judiciaries. The rights to freedom of expression and access to information could not be curtailed but by the strictest parameters in line with international norms, while the right to privacy, against government or private company overreach, would be guaranteed to the highest standard. The rights to peaceful assembly and to form trade unions must be upheld.
Health, and education rights, enshrined in international conventions that the United States has unconscionably not ratified, should likewise be enshrined in the charter of a human rights bioregion. Housing and land rights will need serious rearticulation from their current state of denial. Likewise, cultural rights, with a special emphasis on indigenous traditional knowledge and practices, must be enshrined in the charter of a human rights bioregion. A right to a healthy environment, including the necessary policies to promote green zones and address climate change, should be conceptualized within such a charter, while the declaration of rights for the environment itself would position the charter for a human rights bioregion as truly radical.
The idea of a human rights bioregion draws from the existing innovative movement for rights and power confined to the level of the city. It might begin with a symbolic declaration, evolve through the deliberation of a charter, and take form through local, national, and international human rights activism. It will not be easy.
Declaring a human rights bioregion is one way to make human rights more relevant in our daily lives, from social and cultural practices to policy making, and remind us why it is important to stand up for social justice.
Michael Caster is a Cascadian and human rights researcher specializing in China and Southeast Asia. He works with Article 19, where he manages projects on internet freedom and digital rights, and is a board member of the Department of Bioregion.