NOVEMBER 27, 2015
In July and August 2015, over 600 young men imprisoned in South Korea submitted complaints to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Working Group). Each of the men has been prosecuted for refusing military service because of his personal religious beliefs, criminally convicted, and sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment.
The Basis for the Complaints
On October 15, 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted the decision finding that South Korea was guilty of arbitrary detention when it punished conscientious objectors with imprisonment. This decision is the basis for the complaints of the imprisoned men submitted to the Working Group.
The mandate of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is to “investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or otherwise inconsistently with . . . international legal instruments accepted by the States concerned.”
Du-jin Oh, the attorney representing the complainants, explains why the imprisonment of conscientious objectors is arbitrary.
The international standard is for governments to provide acceptable alternatives to their citizens who refuse to perform military service for reasons of conscience. It is because the right to conscientious objection to military service inheres in the right to freedom of conscience and religion. But the government of South Korea continues to ignore calls from the international community to provide alternative civilian service.
An impartial observer would be justified in considering “arbitrary” the obstinate refusal of South Korea to solve a problem that has existed for 60 years and has affected the lives of more than 18,000 men and their families. The government has failed to provide an “effective remedy” for the men in order to comply with the urgings of five separate decisions by the UN Human Rights Committee. Certainly it is unjust and incongruous to imprison as criminals men who take a resolute stand to harm no one.
The Request to the Working Group
The South Korean men who filed complaints with the Working Group ask that it act in their behalf to:
“Conclude that the imprisonment of the complainants for their conscientious objection to military service constitutes arbitrary detention.”
“Direct the Republic of Korea to immediately release the complainants from prison and to expunge their criminal record.”
Imprisoned for His Faith
One of the imprisoned complainants is Jun-hyeok An. Like the others, he does not consider himself to be a criminal. His mother trained him from childhood to understand and apply Bible principles. While still a young man, he made a personal decision that serving in the military would not be in harmony with his religious beliefs and his conscience. * Knowing the situation in South Korea, he gave his decision sober consideration, aware of the consequences of refusing military service. He stated:
I do not believe that I should be punished with imprisonment for holding to my personal religious convictions. If the government made alternative civilian service available, I would accept it. My sincere personal conviction to bring harm to no one certainly does not merit a criminal conviction and punishment.
How Will South Korea Respond to the Pressure to Change?
The Working Group will forward a total of 631 complaints to the South Korean government for comments and observations. Once the government responds, the Working Group will render an opinion and make its recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council. If the council agrees that the imprisonment of conscientious objectors constitutes arbitrary detention, South Korea will face severe criticism for neglecting its human rights obligations as a member of the international community. Mr. Oh further observed:
Until now, South Korea has refused to respond to international pressure to adopt legislation providing for an acceptable alternative service program for conscientious objectors. At the same time, pressure from domestic courts continues to mount. In recent months, two district court judges have issued not-guilty verdicts in cases involving six conscientious objectors. Since 2012, local judges have referred seven cases to the Constitutional Court, which heard arguments on the issue in July 2015.
At present, the South Korean government convicts and imprisons from 40 to 50 Witnesses each month, in defiance of international law. Mr. An and all the Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors in South Korean prisons eagerly await the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the UN Human Rights Council.