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- Anson Steven-Bolles
4. Indigenous communities around world helping to win legal rights of nature
In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers their ancestor, as a living entity with rights. The Guardian reported it as "a world-first," although the surrounding Te Urewera National Park had been similarly recognized in a 2014 law, and the U.S. Supreme Court came within one vote of potentially recognizing such a right in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton, expressed in a dissent by Justice William O. Douglas. In addition, the broader idea of 'rights of nature' has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia and some American communities, noted Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation.
The tribe's perspective was explained to The Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.
"We consider the river an ancestor and always have," Albert said. "We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management."
But that could be just the beginning. "It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world," Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote:
"In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature."
"[If the New Zealand Whanganui River settlement] was able to correct the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government," DeVault wrote.
The same could be done with a wide range of other environmental justice disputes involving Native American tribes.
Tanasescu described the broader sweep of recent developments in the "rights of nature," noting that significant problems have resulted from the lack of specific guardianship provisions, which are integral to the Whanganui River law.
"By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system that still sees oceans, mountains and forests primarily as property, guaranteeing nature its day in court," Tanasescu concluded.
"A few corporate media outlets have covered the New Zealand case and subsequent decisions in India," Project Censored noted. "However, these reports have not provided the depth of coverage found in the independent press or addressed how legal decisions in other countries might provide models for the United States."
5. Global decline in rule of law as basic human rights diminish
According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017–2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before Trump's election. Fundamental rights – one of eight categories measured – declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries' scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.
Fundamental rights include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association and labor rights.
"All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement," Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian the day the index was released. "Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality."
This reflects the thesis of Moyn's most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.
Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, World Justice Project stated in a press release. "While all subfactors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power – based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures – declined most markedly," the press release stated.
The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.
"With scores of .50 for equal treatment and absence of discrimination (on a scale of 0 to 1), .48 for discrimination in the civil justice system and .37 for discrimination in the criminal justice system, the U.S. finds itself ranked 78 out of 113 countries on all three subfactors," World Justice Project stated.
The four Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden – remained in the top four positions. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.
"The WJP's 2017–2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media," Project Censored noted.
The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on The Guardian's coverage. This pattern of ignoring international comparisons, across all subject matter, is pervasive in the corporate media. It severely cripples our capacity for objective self-reflection and self-improvement as a nation.