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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • UN Advocacy
  • 2015.10.19
  • 4209

115th Session of the Human Rights Committee
19 October 2015 – 6 November 2015


NGO Briefing on the Republic of Korea


Oral Statement Delivered by Ms. Gayoon Baek(People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy) and Mr. Youngsoug Chang(MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society) 
on Behalf of South Korean Human Rights Organizations Network (83 NGOs)


We are presenting this statement on behalf of 83 civil society organizations in the Republic of Korea who jointly submitted the report to the Committee. All the rights mentioned in the Covenants are our areas of focus.


Human rights were once a pride for Koreans. But today, we are grieved to present the report with shame. Civil and political rights in the Republic of Korea have been drastically deteriorating year after year. We fear that the Republic of Korea is reverting to the dark era of authoritarian regime that we believed to have overcome. One can easily find human rights defenders in the Republic of Korea, on the streets, on top of factory chimneys, in front of the court, and in prison. Sewol ferry victims’ families have been living on the streets to protest for more than a year, workers have been on a hunger strike for more than 45 days, and villagers have been protesting against the naval base construction for more than 9 years.  As we speak today, hundreds of high school students are protesting on the streets opposing the Government’s plan to impose state history textbooks, which is suspected to idealize past military dictatorship. The Government has failed to protect people’s civil and political rights and people are compelled to run to the streets with candles. 


Although rule of law, freedom of expression and independence of judiciary are guaranteed in the Constitution, the laws have been used as tools to justify restriction and suppression of human rights and people have lost their freedom after expressing their views. The judiciary no longer defends human rights defenders, and is no longer a safeguard for human rights victims. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea also cannot play an active role in monitoring implementation of the Covenant and we have a serious concern that transparent and independent selection process of the Commissioners are not yet guaranteed which brings doubts on human rights competency and expertise of commissioners. 


The number of people who have been charged and indicted for violating the National Security Act, which the Committee and other UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly recommended to amend or repeal, has increased threefold in 2013 compared to 2008. Government officials and agencies consistently punish people for defamation  or insult  who criticize the Government, sometimes even those who state facts or simply express feelings or opinions. On the other hand, human rights defenders and social minorities become targets of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. However, there is no legal framework nor gestures from the Government showing any political will to protect them. The society is now at a critical juncture. 


People who gather to peacefully protest against Government policies or development projects are being arrested, detained and indicted. The police use excessive force against barehanded protesters to suppress assemblies, such as water cannons loaded with capsaicin and tear gas liquid and bus barricades to block assemblies. Even human rights lawyers and journalists have been arrested during protests. Around 550 people including family members of the victims were arrested during the Sewol ferry related protests from April 2014 to May 2015. We are not allowed to stand in solidarity with our friends, not to mention participating in assemblies. One worker who visited labor strike sites to deliver support statements has been punished for aid and abetment of Obstruction of Business. 


The Republic of Korea has the highest Internet penetration rate and the fastest wireless broadband in the world. With this technology, the Government is watching and intervening in people’s private lives. The police can identify those who are at protests by seizing and analyzing all phone call histories from the nearby base stations. Phone or internet users’ personal information can be seized without warrants, and such seizure is significantly increasing, amounting to about 13 million accounts in 2014 in a country with just 50 million people. Children under 19 years old must use mobile phones equipped with applications enabling the parents and service providers to monitor and remotely control their phones. 


We are also subject to human rights violations under the name of counter-terrorism. All currently pending counter-terrorism bills grant excessive authority to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) which is notorious for its abuse of power and human rights violations. The NIS systematically intervened in the 2012 Presidential Election by posting and tweeting 786,000 online messages. Also, the NIS was found fabricating evidence of an espionage case.   


In face of gross violation of civil and political rights in the country, people cannot gain full access to justice and are unfairly treated during investigations. Only 0.2% of investigators are indicted of maltreating the accused.  Even though lawyer’s participation is crucial to prevent such harassment, the police and prosecutor’s office arbitrarily interpret the Criminal Procedural Act to minimize lawyers’ participation. Generally, lawyers are limited in presenting their views during the interrogation and sometimes, lawyers are even threatened by the investigators.   

The human rights situation in detention centers is also problematic. The disciplinary punishment committees of prisons are not guaranteed of their independence and fairness, as the prison warden appoints members of the committee. Almost 90% of the actual punishment in the prison has been executed in the form of solitary confinement, which is the most severe disciplinary measure. 


In particular, children, transgenders and foreigners in detention centers are facing more serious human rights violations. Children are denied protective measures under relevant regulations in the criminal procedures. Moreover, detention centers have no guidelines on the treatment of transgenders.  Because of this, transgender inmates are denied underwear of their own choice and there was a case where a transgender inmate was punished for refusing to get a haircut.  Furthermore, foreigners detained in detention centers may be subject to indefinite detention due to lack of legal regulation on maximum detention periods. In the event the Minister of Justice commenced detention that is not subject to independent judicial review, the detainees are prevented from disputing the legality of the detention. The deportation rooms at Incheon International Airport practically function as detention centers since detainees are restrained from outside contact and denied access to attorney.


Recently in 2014, the existence of the DPRK Defector Protection Center (former Central Joint Interrogation Center) was widely known by testimony of one detainee. When DPRK defectors come to the Republic of Korea, they are sent to the center for interrogation, but nobody knows what exactly is happening inside. We do not know how many DPRK defectors are being detained for how long, and whether they are being deported or not. Access to the center is strictly regulated by the NIS. Also, there are some DPRK defectors in the Republic of Korea who wish to go back to the DPRK, but their return is not allowed by the Government on grounds of violations of the National Security Act.  


The military, where all Korean men are mandated to serve, is another blind spot for human rights violations. Almost 3,600 human rights violations such as assault and other cruel acts have been reported in the last five years, but only 1.4% of perpetrators were sentenced to imprisonment. The Military Court, which deals with assault and cruel acts in the military, is not independent because commissioned officers and commanders, who are not judges, exercise judicial power. Soldiers may be detained for up to 15 days in military prison as disciplinary action without a warrant and judicial scrutiny. The decision for detainment is not even made by the military court, but only by military superiors. 


When a country’s human rights situation regresses, marginalized groups become even more marginalized. Women, persons with disabilities, LGBTIs and people with HIV/AIDS, and children continue to be discriminated against. Since the last review in 2006, the gender wage gap still remains the highest among OECD countries and more than half of female workers are non-regular workers. The right to equal recognition before the law of persons with disabilities’ continues to be greatly affected.


We have two LGBTI friends in this room. They experience discrimination on a daily basis. They are discriminated against when they go to the police to report their annual pride parade, when they become victims of rape, when they want to enjoy same rights as heterosexual couples, and even when they want to set up an NGO to advocate their own rights. They are even punished under sodomy provisions in the Military Criminal Act. Persons with HIV/AIDS are suffering from stigma and discrimination when they receive medical services. The Government is turning a blind eye to this injustice and homophobic/transphobic groups who incite hatred against LGBTIs and persons with HIV/AIDS, and do not show any political will to legislate a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Act. 


Even though UN human rights mechanisms such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly recommended to the Government to abolish corporal punishment, it is still prevalent in schools and at homes. Examples of these punishments include staying down in push-up position for hours, repeatedly sitting up and down 100 times, or raising one’s arms above the head for one hour. These severe punishments can be explained in line with widespread military culture in the society. 


Finally, the rapid economic growth of the Republic of Korea has expanded the geographical boundaries of human rights violations. Many companies from the Republic of Korea are responsible for forced labour in Uzbekistan and violation of indigenous people’s rights in India. However, the Government does not provide legal framework for the implementation of extra-territorial obligations under the Covenant. Narrow definitions of human trafficking in the Criminal Act limit protection of victims, as seen in the incident of abuse of disabled men and homeless in the salt farm, sexual exploitation of foreign women, and exploitation of migrant farm workers.  


As is clear from our presentation, the Government of the Republic of Korea does not comply with the Covenant and does not fulfill its commitment as a member of the Human Rights Council. We do not wish to go back to the time when we could not speak out freely. To bring people on the streets back to their normal lives, we hope our areas of concerns will be reflected in the Committee's concluding observations. 


We thank you. 


Concluding Remarks by the Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee Fabián Omar Salvioli


Obviously a great number of issues have been raised, and I’m not going to give you an exhaustive list, but I’d like to highlight that we’d like to see the withdrawal of the reservation of art. 22, just as we’ve seen the withdrawal of reservation under art. 15; because we don’t really see from the dialogue why you need to maintain the reservation. Now your Excellency said that you are going to give the highest priority to the HRCttee’s observations and comments. So we very much hope that you will do this through effective mechanism in order to be able to comply with our recommendations and the provisions of the optional protocol, particularly when it comes to conscientious objection. Here the Committee has a very clear stance on this issue. And for me, I’ve had trouble hearing conscientious objectors described as criminals when really they are exercising a right. So, we very much hope that you will be able to comply with the provisions of the Covenant in this area, and also to ensure that the human rights provisions are aligned with the principles. And when it comes to the operations of Korean businesses abroad, want to ensure that they comply with human rights. Mr. Iwasawa raised the issue of equality and nondiscrimination when it comes to various groups of people, particularly LGBTI population. Counter-terrorism measures must also effectively comply with the provisions enshrined in the Covenant as Mr. Shany articulated in his concern. Regarding torture and mistreatment, this is another issue of concern, the use of certain protective measures sometimes as a form of punishment is not compatible with the Covenant. Obviously the right to integrity is crucial. Legal aid, access to lawyer, I would refer you to our General Comment 32 which provides very helpful guidelines for the state to be able to bear in mind the need for the exercise of defense. 


Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are crucial in a democratic society. We have had difficulties during this dialogue to ensure that this issue is fully understood. We very much hope that after this dialogue you will take legislative measures and other measures necessary to ensure that these rights are fully given effect to. Finally, groups that are particularly vulnerable that require attention, like those living with HIV, and the need not to stigmatize these individuals based on the various measures my colleagues referred to. And of course the migration population, due to their various situations, needs more protection in general in order to ensure that their human rights are guaranteed and upheld. I’d like to thank you all very much.

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