The Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Republic of Korea
Mr. Kim Byoung-joo
Lawyer (MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society)
Firstly, I thank FORUM-ASIA for this invitation. And it’s my pleasure to be here with Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, and other honourable guests. I know that the Special Rapporteur continually pays attention to the human rights situation of the Republic of Korea, and I would like to express my gratitude for her efforts.
Also, I am fully aware that on January 20, this year in Bangkok, Mr. Kim Nam-geun, a Lawyer, already explained the situation of human rights defenders of Korea. Now, I would like to inform you of the current human rights issues of Korea and the situation since Mr.Kim’s presentation.
2. National Human Rights Commission
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Korea investigated human rights violations that occurred during candlelight vigils and recognised faults of the police. They recommended the Korean Government discipline to commanders of the police and to revise standards of using water cannon, fire extinguisher, shield and baton which could possibly injure human rights defenders. Unfortunately, public offices including police, prosecutors, and the Ministry of Justice ignored these recommendations and even criticised the NHRC for their lawful and appropriate actions.
Subsequently, newspapers reported that the government proposed a cut down of size and structure of the NHRC in half. Also, the government began pressuring enterprises to stop their donations to certain civil society organisations which have actively participated in candlelight vigils.
Recently, Mr. Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, sent a letter concerning NHRC to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea. In this letter, he wrote as follows;
As you may know, the NHRCK has been highly regarded as a model for others to follow at the regional and international levels. It is a member of the Asia-Pacific Forum of NHRIs, serves as Deputy Chair of the ICC, and is likely to become its Chair in the near future. It is also a Member of the ICC Sub-Committee on Accreditation(SCA). Any measure that will negatively impact on the NHRCK will directly influence its regional and international reputation and functioning as well.
While fully respectful of the prerogatives of your Government with respect to budgetary matters and the difficult challenges posed by the current financial and economic crisis, I would like to urge the Government of the Republic of Korea to review its plans regarding the staff and organizational structure of the NHRCK with a view to preserving its independence and reputation at home and abroad.
Furthermore, Asian NGOs Network on National Human Rights Institutions(ANNI) also sent a letter concerning the NHRC to the chairperson of the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions(ICC). In this letter, it is written as follows;
We understand that some steps have already been taken to make known to the government of the Republic of Korea the repercussions of the proposed measures. We received information that in a letter dated 20 February 2009, the High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote to the government ““to review its plans regarding the staff and organizational structure of the NHRCK with a view to preserving its independence and reputation at home and abroad.”” We hope, however, in addition to this step, the ICC can publicise this proposed plan of the government on its website and recommend the intervention of other national human rights institutions. We also recommend that the ICC, together with the OHCHR, engage with national and international media to publicise this issue.
We sincerely hope that the ICC takes strong action to protect the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, not only to ensure the independence of this progressive institution, but also to send a clear message of support to national institutions everywhere struggling against efforts to constrain their capabilities.
However, on March 3rd, 2009, the Minister of Public Administration and Security of the Republic of Korea said that the government of Korea will continue the downsizing project.
3. Drastic Legal Measure against Human Rights Defenders
Already, twelve main staff members of Mad Cow Countermeasure Committee – the committee that organised the candlelight vigils – and several dozens of human rights defenders who participated in candlelight vigils were arrested. Around two hundred human rights defenders who simply participated in candlelight vigils were under indictment and furthermore, around one thousand human rights defenders were investigated by the police and could potentially be indicted by the prosecutors.
Moreover, on January 20th, 2009, Korean Police carried out a brutal operation to dismiss protesters in Yongsan re-development area who were in demand of appropriate compensation. Five protesters and one police officer lost their lives during this violent and excessive operation. Activists of Korean civil society have formed a committee to protest against the operation and organised public demonstration. However, Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Korea recently requested a warrant for the committee members’ arrest to the court.
Despite of international society’s growing concern, the Korean Government has been taking various actions which may seriously harm human rights condition. Downsizing of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and using drastic legal measures against human rights defenders are clear examples. Negative effect from such actions of Korean government clearly impinges on the pursuit of human rights. NGOs of the Korean society will make every effort to prevent further breach of human rights in Korea. We kindly request attention from the international society regarding Korea’s situation.
Thank you for listening.