World Human Right Cities Forum Advances Interdisciplinary Rights Dialogue

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gwangju, the "City of Light" and capitol of Jeollanam-do province in South Korea, is also the country's historical epicenter of democratic activism and civil disobedience. In addition to being known for its flavorful food and spicy kimchi, the city has made a name of itself as a champion of human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi accepted an award for democracy there in 2013 (that had been awarded to her in 2004, while she was still under house arrest), and the city hosts an Annual World Human Rights Cities Forum. I am so proud of the fact that my own time in Korea was there, and that I became actively involved in the Gwangju International Center - a non-profit organization focused on cultural exchange that organizes and co-hosts the forum - while I was there. My husband and I both still have a strong affinity for Gwangju, which is why he chose to do his internship for his Master of Global Policy Studies program at the GIC. He had the good fortune of attending this year's forum and even had the opportunity to speak with several panelists. He graciously agreed to share his experience and observations - even those that relate to public health - so that I could feature them here. What follows is his coverage (and photos!).

Note: This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

Gwangju, South Korea - From May 15th to May 18th Gwangju, South Korea played host to the 5th Annual World Human Rights Cities Forum. Begun in 2011, the World Human Rights Cities Forum (WHRCF) has grown into a premier forum for human rights advocacy and policy with an emphasis on community-level programming. The foundational concept for the forum is that of the “human rights city,” which, according to the Gwangju Human Rights Charter, is a city built on “the historical assets and the infrastructure of democracy and human rights the city has, a democratic administration of participatory autonomy, and civic consciousness that functions as a catalyst in implementation of the human rights.” Gwangju’s interest in human rights stems from its history as the site of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, a popular revolt that played a key role in South Korea’s transition to democracy in the 1980s.

The WHRCF aims to draw activists, community organizers, and city government officials together in order to encourage the exchange of policies and ideas involving human rights advocacy and implementation. While acknowledging that city-level government is often unable to set a national tone for human rights policy, the role of municipal governments in implementation of human rights policies is key. Sessions at the 2015 WHRCF covered a variety of different themed sessions including topics of state violence and torture, gender, disability, education, and social economy. In total, over one hundred speakers from twenty-three countries presented or participated in panel sessions.

Public health interests were well represented among the panelists. The thematic session on disability placed a significant focus on self-determination in access to care, particularly for patients with mental disabilities. Discussions involved the rights of the disabled to humane treatment when institutionalized in long-term facilities, and how municipal and provincial policies can encourage proper oversight and legal protection for long-term patients at psychiatric facilities. Areas of additional concern were policies protecting the disabled from involuntary sterilization and strategies to advance public education capabilities for developmentally disabled children. Many of these are areas where local ordinances or regional organizations can have a major effect on at-risk populations, even in situations where national healthcare and education policies are lacking in their protections for the disabled.

Panelists and audience members listen to a speaker at the
special session on psychological support for torture victims
participating in legal proceedings.
A topic of particular relevance in many countries, including even the United States given the ongoing racial tensions and unrest in places like Baltimore or Ferguson, was the thematic session on assisting victim of state violence and torture. In an interview following the session, panelist Pinar Onen, a clinical psychologist working with the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, spoke about the need for psychological treatment for victims of state violence, and the difficulty of finding treatment for victims who distrust state authority and state-operated healthcare system due to their association between oppressive violence and state authority. Other speakers talked about the challenges facing legal activism in support of victims of state violence, particularly re-traumatization associated with the legal challenges needed to get redress for state violence or torture. An additional concern is the need to relax or eliminate statute of limitations laws for state violence and torture, as they prevent accountability of government figures and represent an inherent conflict of interests when the body instituting the statute of limitations stands to directly benefit from the inability to hear legal action involving state violence and oppression.

Assembled dignitaries and representatives at the closing of the
2015 World Human Rights Cities Forum on May 17th, 2015.
The WHRCF is particularly valuable as a platform for coordinating research and policies involving human rights across a variety of different fields and locations. The opportunity for dialogue and discussion helps activist gain insight on how to institute local government policies or to effectively run advocacy organizations working to increase access to human rights protections across the world. More recognition needs to be given to worker on the regional and municipal levels who are actually involved in policy implementation and development, as broad, national directives can make a statement about human rights but cannot actually benefit citizens without effective implementation on the ground. It is absolutely essential for those in need of assistance and expertise in implementing these policies to have platforms such as these to gain knowledge and information on managing and implementing the desired programs.

As the WHRCF continues in the future, there is great need for further participation of researchers, policy-makers, and professionals in related fields to continue this dialogue regarding methods for ensuring human rights protections. Public health plays a crucial role in this endeavor, as evidenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25, which establishes access to medical care and social services as a basic human right. When protections are needed for children, elderly, infirm, or disabled persons, public health professionals are best equipped to provide input on the needs and challenges of these at-risk populations, and their input is absolutely necessary for administrators and policy-makers to be able to craft the laws and regulations necessary to realize human rights protections for all.

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