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South Korea: Rights Bill Excludes Many

South Korea: Rights Bill Excludes Many

The South Korean cabinet should re-introduce categories protected from discrimination that the justice ministry this week dropped from a proposed federal law, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the cabinet.

In particular, Human Rights Watch highlighted language the Ministry of Justice withdrew from the non-discrimination bill that extended protection to sexual orientation and urged the cabinet to make explicit that the proposed law covers discrimination based on gender identity.

The draft legislation, Announcement No. 2007-106, was announced on October 2, 2007, by the Ministry of Justice. It included sexual orientation along with a range of other categories as prohibited grounds of discrimination. According to Democratic Labor Party officials and news reports, the current version of the law excludes protection from discrimination on the basis of military status, nationality, language, appearance, family type, ideology, criminal or detention record, sexual orientation, and educational status (Christian Today 11/2/07).

The existing National Human Rights Commission Act addresses discrimination on the basis of all the categories that have been excluded from the proposed law except language and military status. However, the proposed federal law would have strengthened those protections. It would require that every five years the president develop and implement a national plan to eliminate discrimination and that every level of government implement their own version of the presidential plan. The law would reinforce the National Human Rights Commission's capacity to investigate and remedy the cases of individual petitioners.

"The current version of the bill is a disappointment," said Jessica Stern, researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program of Human Rights Watch. "What could be a landmark non-discrimination law has been hollowed out to exclude Koreans who are in need of protection."

The inclusion of sexual orientation in particular had come under attack. The Congressional Missionary Coalition, a coalition of Christian right members of the National Assembly, plans to hold forums in November to oppose the law. A petition, spearheaded by an organization called the Assembly of Scientists Against Embryonic Cloning, was sent to all branches of government claiming that if the bill becomes law, "homosexuals will try to seduce everyone, including adolescents; victims will be forced to become homosexuals; and sexual harassment by homosexuals will increase." The organization is directed by Professor Gill Wonpyong of Pusan University, who has stated, "If homosexuality is allowed, the morals of our society will immediately collapse and the society will become a world of animals" (Newspower 10/23/2007). Such untrue and prejudicial allegations are not only insulting and degrading to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Koreans, but they create a climate of hostility and hatred that can endanger their well-being.

International human rights law is clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited, and South Korea's treaty obligations require South Korea to enforce that prohibition. South Korea has previously demonstrated international leadership on this issue. At the third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, South Korea, along with 53 other nations, delivered a statement recognizing the abundance of evidence of human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and calling on the UN to give these issues attention.

With respect to transgendered people, while the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last year that individuals who have undergone sex reassignment surgery are entitled to change their legal identity, it seems unlikely that the proposed new law would cover discrimination against them. Human Rights Watch called on South Korea to ensure that the law would extend to discrimination based on gender identity.

"South Korea has previously shown domestic and international leadership by condemning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but this commitment must be consistent," said Stern. "The government should maintain its track record and reintroduce comprehensive categories for protection."


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