JANUARY 25, 2017
On December 9, 2016, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission (Commission) submitted its opinion regarding cases of complaints now under consideration by the Constitutional Court. That opinion examined the right to conscientious objection to military service. Reasoning from the latest human rights standards, it concluded that it is a fundamental human right beyond any restriction and one that the government must protect.
Significantly, the Commission’s opinion determined that this fundamental human right is a “justifiable ground” for not performing military service. It urged the government to harmonize the constitutional values of freedom of conscience with the duty of military service through “a socially meaningful alternative service.”
The current practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors serves no purpose, the opinion observed, stating: “Punishment should have the effect of suppressing or preventing criminal offenses. However, most conscientious objectors do not regret their decision or give up on their decision in fear of punishment. . . . Therefore punishment has no effect.”
The Commission reaffirmed its December 26, 2005, decision that the Republic of Korea should introduce an alternative service that allows the right to conscientious objection and the duty of national defense to harmoniously coexist. * Compelled by its mandate to support human rights, the Commission submitted its opinion to the Constitutional Court for the Court’s deliberations.
“The right to conscientious objection to military service is protected under freedom of conscience prescribed in the Constitution and international human rights laws. Punishing conscientious objectors for violating the Military Service Act when there is a way to allow them to perform their duty of national defense in forms of alternative service interferes with freedom of conscience.”—National Human Rights Commission, Decision of November 28, 2016.
Opportunity for Success
Commenting on the Commission’s decision, Professor of Law Jae-seung Lee stated: “If the government of South Korea determines that it will respect the ‘universal human right’ of conscientious objection, it may decide to implement an alternative civilian service. If it does so, I recommend that it take care to observe the international standards for alternative civilian service, so that it gives the fullest opportunity for the success of its program.”
Dae-il Hong, a national spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “Since August 2012, when the Constitutional Court again undertook to examine this issue, more than 2,000 young men of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned. We look forward to a decision from the Constitutional Court that will be harmonious with international standards that respect human life and peace. We hope that the road to imprisonment will end and young Witness men will be able to serve their community in a way that does not conflict with their conscience.”
^ On July 11, 2008, the National Human Rights Commission for a second time urged the Minister of National Defense to establish and implement alternative service for conscientious objectors. Additionally, the Commission submitted an opinion on November 26, 2007, against the practice of repeatedly punishing reservists who conscientiously object to military training.