United Nations' Human Rights Committee examines the Fourth Periodic Report of the Republic of (South) Korea

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Geneva, 23rd October 2015

The United Nations' Human Rights Committee this morning completed its examination of the Fourth Periodic Report of the Republic of (South) Korea under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Since a delegation from Korea last appeared before the Committee in October 2006, the Committee has published its “Views” - quasi-judicial verdicts - on five groups of individual cases brought under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant concerning more than five hundred conscientious objectors, all of whom had been imprisoned for eighteen months for their refusal of military service. The Committee expressed its concern that, despite the delegation's protestations of respect for its obligations under the Covenant, none of these views had been implemented.

This morning, Committee member Professor Sir Nigel Rodley addressed the specific issue of Korea's treatment of conscientious objectors.

The written replies to the questions posed by the Committee in advance, he said, showed a complete refusal of the State Party to accept its obligations under the Covenant. Korea merely repeated yet again that its position was special because of security concerns and the state of public opinion. It claimed to have conducted research on public opinion about introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors. Civil society had however reported to the Committee other research using slightly different questions which did not confirm the findings of the government research.

Freedom of conscience, like the right to life, was a sensitive human rights issues on which a national consensus was rarely available. Studies in States which had abolished the death penalty showed that on average it takes public opinion 25 years to catch up and accept this. Much the same was probably true of freedom of conscience. In any case, the fulfilment of human rights obligations was not a matter for public opinion polls.

It was not clear exactly what was so specific to the situation of the State Party as to cause it to resist the global trend towards the establishment of a system of alternative civilian service and to cause it to imprison more than 600 persons per annum for conscientious objection.

As for paragraph 70 of the written replies, which revealed that the State Party intended to publish the personal details of conscientious objectors on the internet, his reaction was one of absolute disbelief. Was this not a direct incitement to harassment? And this over and above the problems which conscientious objectors already face in the labour market, being banned from public employment and also effectively by many large private employers, who want to know details of military service.

The Republic of Korea's approach on this issue was a direct challenge to the Committee, and made their fulsome expressions of respect ring rather hollow. The NHRCK (National Human Rights Commision of Korea) had apparently advocated the installation of a system of alternative civilian service. Perhaps the State Party should on this issue show some respect to its own National Human Rights Institution despite its clear lack of respect for the Human Rights Committee.

Responding, Park Jin-young of the Ministry of Defence said that the defence of the nation was the constitutional duty of every Korean citizen. Conscientious objectors must be punished to avoid tensions and conflict in society. The Korean Supreme and Constitutional Courts had confirmed the correctness of the State Party's interpretation of its treaty obligations.

Regarding alternative service, the State Party would have to review the future development of the security landscape, but in any case a popular consensus would be needed before this could be instituted.

Regarding public disclosure of names, this was appropriate because these people were illegal objectors.

With time for further discussion running out, Sir Nigel noted the answer regarding illegal conscientious objectors, but observed that he had not been told what possibilities there were for legal conscientiousobjection in the State Party.

In his closing remarks, Professor Fabien Salvioli, Chairman of the Human Rights Committee, welcomed the State Party's expressions of respect for and determination to conform with the Covenant. It could start by implementing the Committee's “Views” under the Optional Protocol, particularly regarding conscientious objection. He was disturbed to hear conscientious objectors described as criminals, when in fact they were exercising a human right.

The Committee's concluding observations on the Republic of Korea and the other six States it is examining in its present Session (Greece, San Marino, Austria, Suriname, Benin and Iraq) will be published shortly before the end of the session on November 6th.

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