“South Korea should widen the space for human rights defenders,” UN expert says

SEOUL (7 June 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, called on the Government of the Republic of Korea “to bring certain laws and practices in full compliance with international standards, such as provisions affecting the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.”

“South Korea has a vibrant and committed civil society working on human rights issues but they face important challenges when doing their work,” Ms. Sekaggya noted at the end of her first official visit* to the country.

“Over the past decades, South Korea has gone a long way in establishing the foundations of democracy and economic development and nowadays has a well-established legal and institutional framework,” she said. “Now it has a unique opportunity to bring human right issues forward by widening the space for defenders to carry out their activities and fostering a spirit of dialogue and constructive criticism.”

The Special Rapporteur warned that the existence of defamation as a criminal offence, and the use of vague and broad provisions in the National Security Act and laws regulating Internet content “unduly punish those who are critical of Government policies and considerably reduce the space for defenders to exercise the basic right to freedom of expression, which is key to claiming other rights.”

“In addition, a ‘de-facto’ authorization system of demonstrations seems to be in place, despite an explicit ban on licensing assembles in the Korean Constitution,” she underlined. “It imposes undue limitations to the organization of peaceful gatherings and heavy penalties, including exorbitant damage claims, on defenders who try to demonstrate peacefully in order to defend and promote basic rights.”

Ms. Sekaggya expressed concern about the use of force by the police when handling ‘unauthorized’ demonstrations and stated that more needs to be done to train the security forces on crowd control and the role of defenders.

“I am also concerned about undue restrictions placed on the legitimate right to freely associate of certain groups of defenders, in particular those claiming labour rights and those working for the rights of migrant workers,” she said. “The use of provisions such as ‘obstruction of business’ in the Criminal Act unduly criminalizes and stigmatizes those who use the right to peaceful assembly as well as the right to go on strike to claim basic rights.”

“More should be done by all stakeholders to raise awareness about the UN Declaration on human rights defenders at the domestic level as well as about the definition and role of defenders in society,” the independent expert said.

Ms. Sekaggya pointed to the serious challenges faced by certain groups of defenders, notably journalists, trade unionists, or those claiming the right to live in a safe, clean and healthy environment who try to exercise their legitimate right to protest against large-scale development project such as the local residents in Miryang and Jeju Island. She also drew attention to the plight of those working for the rights of migrant workers and students’ rights defenders. She will elaborate about the challenges faced by other groups of defenders in her full report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014.

During her eight-day visit, Ms. Sekaggya met with the Prime Minister, Government officials at national and local level, representatives of the legislative and judicial branches, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, representatives of Korean corporations, members of the diplomatic corps, UN officials and a broad range of civil society actors and human rights defenders.

Margaret Sekaggya was appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders by the Human Rights Council in March 2008. Ms. Sekaggya is a lawyer from Uganda with over 30 years of experience with justice and human rights issues, including as Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, as a judge and as a university lecturer. She is independent from any Government and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more, log on to:

(*) Check the full end-of-visit statement by the Special Rapporteur
English: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13423&LangID=E
Korean: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Defenders/EndMissionStatementKoreanVersion.pdf

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Republic of Korea: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/KRIndex.aspx

Check the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights:

For further information and media enquiries, please contact Ms. Dolores Infante-Cañibano (+41 79 752 0483 / dinfante@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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