JULY 13, 2016
Since January 2016, more than 50 South Korean men who are conscientious objectors have submitted complaints to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Working Group). The objectors allege that the government of South Korea is guilty of arbitrary detention by punishing them with imprisonment for the legitimate exercise of freedom of religion and conscience.
Basis of the Complaints
Two UN bodies, the Working Group and the UN Human Rights Committee, have determined that imprisoning conscientious objectors to military service is “arbitrary detention.” * The Committee’s 2014 decision on this issue determined that the government of South Korea should stop this unjust punishment of conscientious objectors, compensate those whom it has imprisoned, and expunge their criminal record. On the basis of that decision, a total of 682 South Korean Witnesses have brought complaints before the Working Group. *
International and Domestic Scrutiny
After the Working Group communicates the complaints to the South Korean government and receives the government’s input, the Working Group will render its opinion. If it agrees with the complainants that South Korea is guilty of arbitrary detention, it will request the government to take necessary steps to remedy and avoid the criminalization of conscientious objectors.
In addition, the issue of the constitutionality of the Military Service Law is currently before South Korea’s Constitutional Court, and a decision is imminent. That Court is aware that over 600 complaints have been filed with the Working Group. The Court is also aware that the UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly urged South Korea to recognize conscientious objection as a right and to provide a program of alternative civilian service. The international community is closely watching whether South Korea’s highest court will uphold the fundamental right of conscientious objection to military service.
^ par. 4 Human Rights Council, Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Opinion No. 16/2008 (Turkey), UN Doc. A/HRC/10/21/Add.1, p. 145, par. 38 (May 9, 2008). Human Rights Committee, Views, Young-kwan Kim et al. v. Republic of Korea, Communication No. 2179/2012, UN Doc. CCPR/C/112/D/2179/2012, par. 7.5 (October 15, 2014).
^ par. 4 In 2015, 631 conscientious objectors filed complaints, and 51 more have done so thus far in 2016.