Human Rights as a Way of Life in the City of Gwangju

Text by: Sofie Viborg, Academic Assistant

The 7th World Human Rights City Forum 2017 recently took place in South Korea, and I was one of the three delegates from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute to take part in the forum. This year had the theme “Do we live in peace”.

This year the forum brought together more than 1000 visitors throughout the four days. Representatives from local government and human rights institutions from across the world were gathered to discuss the role and relevance of cities in the work to promote and implement human rights and peace. Gwangju city itself is an inspiriting case of how to transform a society in the mist of conflict and how to work directly with human rights in the city.

Gwangju is one of the largest cities in South Korea and is located in the southwestern part of the country. The city is known for its cultural engagement and for being a global frontrunner when it comes to promoting local democracy and human rights in the city.

Gwangju used to be the ‘corn chambers’ of the country, thus the region has presumably been overexploited by central government for its natural resources. According to Dr. Shin from the Gwangju International Centre, this developed a rebellious spirit amongst the citizens of the region and many of South Korea’s social battles for justice have taken place in the city throughout history. The famous May18 movement in 1980 took up popular armed resistance to protest the killings of students who were demonstrating against the Chun Doo-Hwan government.

Today, the Metropolitan Government of Gwangju has developed comprehensive and institutionalised ways of implementing human rights into the city’s policies, and the Mayor YOON Janghyun was an active participant in the forum. As the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, and the newly elected President, Moon Jae-in, Yoon Janghyun is also a human rights lawyer.

The Human Rights and Peace Cooperation Office implements programs and monitors progress by following the Gwangju Guiding Principles, adopted in 2014, and they work with indicators developed for the purpose. The Director of the office, KIM Soo A, explained to me how they also attempt to institutionalise a mind-set of human rights in all aspects of the work that the Metropolitan Government does by working across offices and initiating cross cutting dialogue and collaborations on human rights-related matters.

The official delegation visited the May 18th National Cemetery which is a cultural heritage sight and a symbol of freedom and democracy as it is the graves of victims from the contention for democracy in May 1980. The total number of deaths is unknown and figures vary from 200, 600 up to 2000 depending on the source. A new investigation committee has recently been established by the new government to look into the evidence again.

Beside this, it is clear that the ambitions with the human rights work in Gwangju goes beyond the legislative work by policy makers, lawyers and other public employees. KIM Soo A emphasises that they work across sectors and with diverse stakeholders in an attempt to promote more direct democracy and participation. They are, for example, forming “expert groups” of diverse segments of Gwangju citizens who are directly impacted by the policies and programs, which they are implementing. This way there is a strong feedback loop and they increase access to power for regular citizens. The emphasis on engaging the public through models of direct democracy and human rights education, together with the conservation of its cultural heritage and strong narrative of solidarity is a big part of the effort to preserve the Gwangju spirit for the generations to come. It works as a way of making human rights a way of life in Gwangju.

In times where human rights are under pressure, the Gwangju approach might be a source of inspiration, as a way of trying to make human rights relevant and present in peoples everyday life to remind us of the importance of standing up for social justice.

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