SOUTH KOREA: The government must respect the National Human Rights Commission

The pronouncement by Prime Minister Mr. Han Seung-Soo that he cannot accept the recommendations of of Korea (NHRCK) regarding the police abuse of power relating to the handling of candlelight protests, amounts to the condoning of serious violations of basic human rights by the police and is an expression of political unwillingness to deal with a matter of serious importance to the South Korean people. The right to demonstrate peacefully goes to the very heart of democracy and to interfere with this right goes directly against the South Korean people’s hard-fought battle against military dictatorships and authoritarianism.

The NHRC is a national institution for the protection of human rights. The credibility of the institution lies in its capacity to deal with the state authorities that violate rights without fear. A national human rights institution that would not condemn the violations of rights by state agencies does not deserve to bear the name of a national institution for the protection of rights. The Paris principles on which the national institutions are built expressly states that the state should guarantee the independence of such institutions and respect this independence.

The prime minister, speaking on behalf of the government, expresses the political perspective of the government. Therefore the prime minister’s rejection of the recommendations made by the NHRCK will be seen as an attempt by the government to undermine the role and function of the Commission. Since the recommendations relate to taking serious action against errant police officers, these officers are likely to see the prime minister’s statement as an expression that the government will not carry out the recommended measures. The errant officers and others who may in the future engage in similar activities may find encouragement in this and thus discipline within the police is likely to be further undermined due to these comments.

The rule of law, democracy and human rights depend on high levels of the preservation of discipline within the police. Authoritarian actions often result in the undermining of the discipline within the institutions of law enforcement; if that were to happen it would be tragic. In its very recent history, South Korea has achieved an international reputation for making strenuous efforts to abandon its militaristic past and develop viable democratic institutions. In this long journey, all setbacks cause great damage to the nation and its people. The encouragement of errant police officers and the discouragement of independent national institutions by the government will only spread demoralisation and pessimism. For South Korea to maintain its dynamism and its vigorous democracy, abiding law enforcement agencies to strict democratic discipline is essential.

Once again South Korean civil society and the country’s legal community, in particular lawyers, judges and others should step forward to ensure that the recommendations of the NHRC are implemented by the government. The prime minister must be held accountable for his statements, and strong critique of such statements is necessary if the rights of the people are to be respected.

We reiterate below the recommendations of the NHRC (unofficial English version):

1. The Commission concludes that on some occasions during the candlelight rallies, the police suppressed the protesters in excessive and aggressive manners, which led to the violations of their rights, for example the wounding of some protesters. Therefore, the Commission recommends the Minister of the Public Administration and Security to give a warning to the National Police Agency Chief in accordance with the chain of command responsibility.  
2. The Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to instruct the police to strictly abide by defensive guidelines (as oppose to offensive actions) during protests in order to protect the security of citizens and prevent human rights abuses.

3. The Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to censure the chief commander of the riot police as well as the 4th riot police division commander attached to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, in accordance with the chain of command responsibility, regarding the human rights abuses that occurred during the suppression operation at around the Angook-dong Rotary in the morning of June 1, 2008 and Taepyeongno and Jongno at around midnight of June 28, 2008, respectively.

4. The Commission acknowledges that the protesters, the residents nearby and many passers-by passing the protest area suffered due to the police’s extensive blockage of traffic. The Commission therefore recommends the National Police Agency Chief not to restrict traffic unless it is confirmed to be involved with the protest.

5. The Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to make a legal regulation higher than a Ministerial ordinance, which defines the specific use of water cannons, for example the maximum water pressure and the minimum range, as it may cause serious injury to a person.

6. The Commission is concerned that when the police use fire extinguishers in dispersing protesters, the fire extinguisher gas may cause harm to persons and its use creates a smoke screen that can hide the riot police’s acts of violence and encourage the violence. Therefore, the Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to instruct the police not to directly spray the fire extinguisher at persons and restrict its use for the purpose of firefighting.

7. The Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to take measures to prevent riot police from the throwing of objects, as this causes high risk for the unarmed protesters.

8. The Commission recommends the National Police Agency Chief to stop the police’s practice of extracting reflective statements from arrested protesters in violation of The Act on Assembly and Demonstration.

9. The Commission recommends that the National Police Agency Chief ensure riot police wear name tags on their uniforms as well as riot gear so that they can be easily identified.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-284-2008
Countries : South Korea,