South Korea: Constitutional Court recognises conscientious objection

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A photo from activists' press release following the court decision

Last Thursday, in a landmark decision, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ordered the government to introduce alternative service of a civilian nature for conscientious objectors.

The court ruled that Article 5 of the Military Service Act (MSA), which fails to provide alternative forms of national service, is unconstitutional and obligated lawmakers to change the law by the end of 2019. Meanwhile, regrettably, the Court also ruled that Article 88 of the MSA , which provides up to 3 years of imprisonment for anyone who fails to enlist without justifiable grounds, does not violate the Constitution.

The decision recognising the right to conscientious objection was welcomed by peace and human rights organisations in South Korea, including our affiliate World Without War (WWW)In a joint statement, organisations including Center for Military Human Rights KoreaMinbyun Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, as well as WWW, said

The decision brings us closer to a more mature society, where the conscience of various individuals is respected and human rights are guaranteed, opening the door of peace for many who were forced to choose between military service and imprisonment. 

The organisations also called on the government for “a swift introduction of an alternative service for conscientious objectors”. Read their full statement here.

In South Korea, there are more people imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military than the rest of the world put together. Since the 1950s, more than 19,000 men have been imprisoned for their refusal - including over 200 young people who are in jail right now, with 18 months sentences.

On the International Conscientious Objection Day (15th May) this year, War Resisters' International called for actions to support conscientious objectors in South Korea. Hundreds of people across different countries sent messages of protest to the Korean authorities and messages of support to conscientious objectors in the country.

As WRI, we will keep standing in solidarity with conscientious objectors in South Korea. Alongside our affiliate WWW, we welcome the court decision recognising the right to conscientious objection. But we continue our call to the South Korean Government to immediately release all conscientious objectors in prison now and take all the necessary steps immediately to make sure no-one refusing military service is imprisoned in the future.

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