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South Korea: Human Rights Institution Losing

South Korea: National human rights institution losing any trace of independence fast

An Open Letter to the International Coordinating Committee of
National Institutions for Human Rights by the Asian Human Rights

Last year, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) sent you two open letters, dated July 31 and October 162009, requesting the downgrading of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea's (NHRCK) status and highlighting the important requirement for there to be a study into the NHRCK's increasing subordination to the government. We are contacting you again at this point to update you concerning further serious degradation of the NHRCK's internal regulations and systems, which increasingly threaten the institution's ability to function in favour of human rights. Efforts are underway to alter the NHRCK's internal regulations in ways that the AHRC considers to be of serious concern.

Before Mr. Ahn Kyung-Whan, the former chairperson of the NHRCK resigned, the NHRCK petitioned the Constitutional Court requesting an Adjudication on Jurisdiction Disputes regarding the around 21 percent downsizing of the NHRCK by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security that was in process. The Constitutional Court dismissed the petition on October 28, 2010 based on the findings that the NHRCK is not a constitutional body and therefore is not qualified to file such petition to the Constitutional Court.

In the meantime, the NHRCK, led by Mr. Hyun Byung-Chul, the current chairperson, together with some non-standing commissioners, proposed a draft amendment to the NHRCK's managerial regulations to its Plenary Committee.

According to the current managerial regulations, the standing committee considers and deliberates on matters relating to human rights, expresses opinions and make recommendations on urgent matters and decides on whether to refer matters to the plenary committee. If three standing commissioners agree, the NHRCK shall make a recommendation on a particular issue without intervention or influence from either chairperson, who is appointed by the President, or non-standing commissioners. At the time of this regulation in 2006, the standing commissioners were appointed among people who had good knowledge on human rights according to the NHRCK Act.

However, the essence of the draft amendment is that it gives power to the chairperson to decide whether or not the NHRCK will express opinions or make recommendations and restricts power of the standing committee. In protest, two standing commissioners - Mr. Yu Nam-Young and Ms. Mun Kyung-Ran - left a meeting and resigned soon afterwards, on November 1. Mr. Cho Kuk, a non-standing commissioner then also resigned on November 10. 61 out of the 160 members of various committees including the specialised committee, the advisory organ and the conciliation committee appointed by the NHRCK returned their appointment letters and resigned on November 15.

All political parties, except the ruling party, strongly opposed the draft amendment and called for the resignation of Chairperson Hyun Byung-Chul. 15 former commissioners, 334 legal scholars and lawyers and 660 civil and human rights organisations such as women's groups and persons with disabilities' groups also joined these calls.

In resigning, Mr. Yu explained his decision based on problems relating to the institution's internal management, including:

A statement denying the independence of the NHRCK by the chairperson to the National Assembly; The Chairperson's unjust denial of a request to holding temporary plenary committee and standing committee under article 5(2) of the managerial regulations; The dismissal of staff on the request of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security; The Chairperson's unilateral suspension of a meeting discussing the submission of the NHRCK's opinion on the case of Youngsan <
, and the resignation of staff who helped to prepare the draft of the opinion; The Chairperson's submission to members of parliaments of an opinion about a matter which the plenary committee had been discussing , without a resolution by the committee, making his opinion appear to be the NHRCK's official opinion, in February 2010; When three standing commissioners took up the matter relating to No. 5 above, they were instead subjected to an investigation; Plenary committee's decision that a standing commissioner is unable to submit a matter to the standing committee.

It is reported that the NHRCK has kept silent on sensitive human rights violations cases or issues that are directly related to the current government, such as: the case of Mr. Park Won-Soon, the prosecution's investigation into the report about mad cow disease by the Munwha Broadcasting Corporation's programme, PD Notebook; a formal request on the constitutionality of the Act on Assembly and Demonstration concerning night time assembly; the landmark Minerva case; and the surveillance by the government of civilians, including UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, during his official mission to South Korea in May 2010. While the chairperson of the NHRCK met Mr. La Rue, he prohibited standing commissioners from doing so. Concerns about the cases above were also found at his findings after his mission to the South Korea.

The AHRC believes that there are many more issues of concern that were not cited above, however, which are also of concern and calls for a thorough investigation into developments at the NHRCK.

In this context, the attempt to amend the managerial regulations is being seen as an attempt by the Chairperson to exert authority and nullify the standing committee. The proposed amendment is seen as being a move by the chairperson of the NHRCK and some commissioners recommended by the ruling party to be able to block issues they do not want to speak about from being submitted for discussion. Under the amended regulations, the NHRCK's Chairperson will have excessive power concerning decision making relating to the consideration of human rights matters. This adds to previous concerns in this regard, highlighted in the AHRC's previous communication on October 16 <
last year. While the standing committee has often made recommendations about the government's policy and laws concerning sensitive issues, there are concerns that the plenary committee is now unlikely to do so.

The AHRC is forced to conclude that this national institution, which had been hailed as a model for other countries in the region, has now significantly deteriorated, notably due to the appointment of commission members who have limited or no expertise or prior involvement in the protection and promotion of human rights. The NHRCK's increasing subordination to the government and executive has been accompanied by growing self-censorship and inaction concerning sensitive human rights issues mentioned above. The AHRC fears that the NHRCK is becoming completely incapable of defending human rights or fulfilling its mandate, and will instead become another appendage of government that will only function to praise the government locally and internationally.

On November 11, a new standing commissioner was appointed by President Lee Myung-Bak, from an organisation that supports government policy and is linked to the ruling party. Statements and press releases issued by this organisation - called "Lawyers for citizens" - are of concern, as they show no regard for recommendations or views made by international human rights instruments.

The AHRC would like to remind the ICC that the role of the ICC was publicly questioned by a member of parliament during an inspection by government agencies at the National Assembly conducted on November 13, 2009.

The AHRC calls on the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) to look into the decline of the independence of the NHRCK. Having already requested the downgrade of the NHRCK, the AHRC believes that the worsening situation requires that the ICC intervene with the government and the chairperson of the NHRCK, and take all measures available to it to shed light on the worsening situation of the institution. In particular, the government must ensure the independence of the NHRCK and put a halt to all actions taken to undermine this. It is imperative that the ICC determine whether the NHRCK complies with the Paris Principles, notably concerning its competence and responsibilities, composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism, and methods of operation. Without action, the AHRC is concerned that the ICC will have lost an opportunity to save this institution from damage that will be long-lasting and severely detrimental to the protection of human rights in the country.

We thank you for your careful consideration of these matters and remain at your disposal should you require anything further. We also look forward to your reaction to this pressing situation and hope to hear back from you in this regard.

Yours sincerely,
Wong Kai Shing
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission


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