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FEBRUARY 19, 2015

South Korea Guilty of Arbitrary Detention of Conscientious Objectors

South Korea Guilty of Arbitrary Detention of Conscientious Objectors

The UN Human Rights Committee has condemned the government of South Korea for the arbitrary detention of conscientious objectors and for violating their right to freedom of conscience. This is the fifth decision that the Committee has issued against South Korea for imprisoning conscientious objectors, but for the first time it finds their imprisonment “arbitrary.” *

In the previous four decisions involving a total of 501 conscientious objectors, the Committee found that South Korea violated their freedom to thought, conscience, and religion as guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This latest decision, adopted on October 15, 2014, and made public on January 14, 2015, involving 50 young Witness men, * went further. The Committee found that by punishing these men with imprisonment for exercising a fundamental right, the government also violated Article 9 of the ICCPR, which prohibits arbitrary detention and guarantees the right to compensation. The Committee stated that “‘arbitrariness’ . . . must be interpreted more broadly to include elements of inappropriateness [and] injustice.” It thus concluded that “detention as punishment for legitimate exercise of freedom of religion and conscience as guaranteed by article 18 of the Covenant” is arbitrary.

Obligation to Resolve the Issue

In its decision, the Committee called upon the government of South Korea to expunge the criminal records of the 50 Witnesses and to provide them with adequate compensation. Further, it stated that the government “is under an obligation to . . . [adopt] legislative measures guaranteeing the right to conscientious objection.” Within 180 days of the decision’s adoption, South Korea is required to provide “information about the measures taken to give effect to the present Views.”

South Korea has consistently objected that it cannot implement an alternative service program because of threats to its national security and the lack of national consensus on the issue. For the fifth time, the Committee dismissed the government’s reasoning on these points, referring to the position expressed in its earlier Views issued in 2006. In these Views, the Committee stated that South Korea had “failed to show what special disadvantage would be involved for it if the rights of conscientious objectors would be fully respected.” On the issue of social cohesion and equitability, the Committee considered that “respect on the part of the State for conscientious beliefs and manifestations thereof is itself an important factor in ensuring cohesive and stable pluralism in society.” The Committee therefore maintains that South Korea has no justification for imprisoning conscientious objectors.

By its arbitrary detention of conscientious objectors, South Korea is clearly out of step with international jurisprudence and practice on this issue.

Although South Korea became a signatory to the ICCPR in 1990, it has consistently refused to abide by the obligations set out in this treaty regarding conscientious objectors. In fact, the Korean authorities continue to imprison hundreds of young Witnesses every year. The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly spoken out on behalf of conscientious objectors in South Korea. Time will tell if the government will respond to mounting international pressure by ending the arbitrary detentions and adopting legislation that respects the conscience of its citizens.

^ See CCPR Communication No. 2179/2012, Young-kwan Kim et al. v. Republic of Korea, Views adopted on October 15, 2014, par. 7.5.

^ In the photograph above, 30 of the 50 young Witness men stand in front of the Supreme Court of South Korea, to which they first appealed.