SOUTH KOREA: NHRCK should take a stand for universally declared human rights rather than for government policy
The Presidential Office announced that the current chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) will be reappointed for three-year tenure. According to the office, the main reason for his reappointment is that since Mr. Hyun Byung-cheol has been appointed as NHRCK chairperson in 2009, the NHRCK has played a leading role in protecting the human rights of people with a neutral and balanced perspective. In addition, Mr. Hyun has been an excellent administrator, held a series of international meetings and contributed to creating public discourse on the issue of human rights in North Korea both inside and outside the country. Despite these praises, the news of the re-appointment has triggered criticism from many sectors of society, and thus needs to be objectively assessed.
In 2009, when Mr. Hyun Byung-cheol was appointed, criticism arose as to the procedure by which he was appointed, in accordance with Paris Principle (AHRC-OLT-020-2009). Since then, through the amendment of the law, it has become statutory procedure for a candidate hoping to be chairperson of the NHRCK to go for a hearing at the National Assembly. However, there remain concerns that the procedure, in practice, will be done anyway with due to the political power structure therein.
As per the recent request of the Presidential office, the public hearing is scheduled for July 16. It seems that the Presidential office plans to reappoint the current chairperson because the NHRCK has obtained confidence from the Office. On the other side, rights activists, scholars, lawyers and civil society members, have strongly opposed the reappointment of Mr. Hyun Byung-cheol. Therefore, it may be necessary to understand the background of the NHRCK, and how it has been able to obtain such confidence through an assessment of the NHRCK's activities over the past three years.
1. What does it mean by a neutral and balanced perspective?
The Presidential Office has not explained what they mean by a 'neutral and balanced perspective.' In general, this phrase refers to the practice of not taking sides in a controversy. In fact, opinions or recommendations that the NHRCK made before 2009 were occasionally incompatible with the policy of other government institutions or the President. For this reason, when the previous NHRCK took sides, this created tension among institutions and against the will of the President. When it comes to the issue of national security in particular, the recommendations of the NHRCK which took sides had been criticised without being reasonably discussed, despite the fact that they were simply a repetition of recommendations that UN human rights bodies have repeatedly made for years.
Apparently, the current government is not satisfied with the activities of the NHRCK and its opinions or recommendations were deemed to be a challenge to the governments' policy. In 2009 when Mr. Hyun was appointed as a chairperson, it was widely reported that serious human rights issues that were considered sensitive to the government had not been taken up. This does not mean that the issues had not been discussed, but that the chairperson had obstructed those issues from being discussed at the plenary committee meetings. Even when an issue was discussed at the committee in the voting process, the chairperson allegedly played a major role in dismissing those cases.
The cases that were dismissed or not taken up by the NHRCK are criminal defamation cases (such as producers of the 'PD Notebook', a programme of MBC (Munwha Broadcasting Corporation) which raise concerns with the governmental policy on the importation of beef from the US, and a civilian who claimed that the National Intelligence Service (NIS)'s told companies not to donate to the organisation that the civilian has been running. The dismissal of a case where a civilian was under illegal surveillance and was then forced to resign from his company by officials of Prime Minister's Office is another indicator. The withdrawal of a recommendation that the previous NHRCK has made is yet another example. No voices on the excessive use of force by the police against peaceful protesters have been raised. These issues are only a few of many.
From the Presidential Office's point of view, for the last three years, the NHRCK has been neutral and balanced because it has not raised a voice against other government institutions, and it has not taken a side in controversies where a recommendation or opinion might have been incompatible with government policy. In this regard, not taking a side in a controversy is understood by the Presidential office as the NHRCK's attempt to take a stand for government policy, rather than giving an opinion or recommendation based on a human rights perspective.
2. What does it mean to be an excellent administrator?
For the last three years, four standing and non-standing commissioners have resigned as a sign of protest against the method of administration led by the current chairperson. In addition, an expert group in an advisory position also resigned in protest. Early last year, an investigating staff member employed on a contract-basis who specialised in the area of discrimination based on sex as well as union membership, criticised the leadership methods of the chairperson. No other reason was given besides this for the end of the contract. Technically, such a termination is not illegal but it is enough to be criticised as a retaliatory and malicious action. After the termination of the staff, eleven permanent staff members each held solo protests. These staff members later received disciplinary actions as a punitive punishment.
If we are to look at the measures taken, it is clear that this practice has been used by other government institutions to deter staff from publicizing their complaints about malpractice or undemocratic ways of administration. The people who speak out are the ones who receive disciplinary punishment. Now, it is noted with concern that the NHRCK has adopted the same practice.
3. Holding a series of international meetings
From a study on the NHRCK's expenditure, it is clear that a significant portion of the budget was allocated to allow the chairperson to attend and host international meetings. Holding a series of international meeting should not be considered a way to spend the finances allocated. Rather, it can be understood that the NHRCK plays a role in making public opinion through such meetings. However, it needs to be assessed whether these meetings have been carried out for the improvement of the NHRCK's work.
On the one hand, attending or holding an international meeting is the easiest way to spend the budget allocated within a certain time frame. On the other hand, there is no further explanation as to why this should be taken into account as an achievement. In fact, it is not something that should necessarily be considered as an achievement.
4. Making public discourse on the issue of human rights in North Korea
In May 2011, the NHRCK made a public announcement that it would receive complaints and investigate human rights violations in North Korea. Accordingly, it received about 80 cases of complaints by North Koreans re-settlers in South Korea. Shortly thereafter, the NHRCK made a policy recommendation to the Prime Minister's office. However, it is reported that the NHRCK made an internal decision a couple of weeks ago to dismiss those complaints due to legal and practical limitations.
When the public announcement was made, many civil society and academic scholars criticised the fact that the NHRCK has neither the power to investigate alleged human rights violations in North Korea nor the clout to make recommendations to the North Korean government. It was not only an abuse of power in accordance with the NHRCK Act itself but the withdrawal of an earlier decision made by the NHRCK in 2006. Moreover, it is reported that the publication overlapped with others publications made by government bodies, such as the Ministry of Reunification. As such, the recommendation to the Prime Minister's Office is nothing new but only the repetition made earlier by other government bodies.
For some, the NHRCK seems to have paid special attention to the issue of human rights in North Korea by ignoring its mandate under the existing law. Interestingly, as far as North Korean human rights issues are concerned, the NHRCK does not have neutral and balanced perspective by taking a rather firm stand. Clearly, it is a different approach to what the NHRCK has been dealing with in terms of the domestic human rights issues narrated above. What makes it different? The fact that the President asked the current chairperson of the NHRCK to pay attention to the human rights issues of the North Korea when the chairperson received a certificate of appointment by the President in July 2009.
Indeed, not taking a side in a controversy is not the work of the NHRCK. Rather, it is important for the NHRCK to take a stand towards the protection and promotion of human rights, which have been universally declared and adopted by the international community. Obviously, taking a stand for the President or for government policy implies that the NHRCK is nothing but another government apparatus under the influence of the President. While the NHRCK announced that it would receive complaints and investigate human rights violations in North Korea, it was fully aware that investigation would not be possible, and the complaints received would be dismissed in accordance with the law. However serious the NHRCK was, it turns out that their actions made a mockery of those who filed a complaint to the NHRCK with a genuine belief that the NHRCK would act ethically and transparently. It was a completely misleading performance.
Above all, the recent news that the current chairperson was thrown out led a local theatre to play a documentary film on the Yongsan case, which caused the death of five protesters and one policeman in early 2009. The fact that he decided not to take up the issue, represents an agony of the people with regard to the performance of the chairperson over the past three years.
If the reappointment is made at the National Assembly, this will indicate that the legislature acknowledges that the NHRCK is no longer independent, but performs its work as per government policy and under the will of President, like other government institutions. It will be the right time for human rights activists and civil society members to declare locally and internationally that the NHRCK plays only an administrative role for the government's policy and has become a state institution whose role it is to silence human rights violations across the country.