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[Op-Ed] Human Rights Commission Chairman

Posted July. 28, 2009 08:23,   


All previous chairmen of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea headed civic groups before taking over the commission as progressive or left-leaning figures. The first chairman Kim Chang-guk and his successor Choi Young-do were both members of the Lawyers for Democratic Society and the People` Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. The third Cho Young-hwang was a democratic activist and lawyer who a defended victim of sexual torture at Bucheon Police Station in 1986. He also headed an anti-corruption activist group under the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice. The fourth Ahn Kyong-whan was a progressive lawyer who headed the People` Solidarity for Participatory Democracy before joining the commission.

Three of the commission’s first four chairmen failed to complete their three-year terms, showing that the body is a problem-ridden organization. Choi stepped down only after three months due to false resident registration and real estate speculation allegations. Cho quit after 18 months after boycotting work due to conflict with other commission members. Ahn, who was appointed by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, returned to Seoul National University with four months left in his term due to discord with the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration.

The newest chairman Hyun Byung-chul took office last week amid demonstrations by human rights groups protesting his appointment. One group said he had no academic background in human rights let alone relevant field experience. Hyun is a legal scholar who has served as the dean of Hanyang Cyber University, as well as the chairman of the Korea Comparative Legal Studies Association. His resume, however, does not include experience in human rights or civic groups. Hyun defended his appointment by saying he has learned that human rights and justice are the highest values after 40 years of studying law. He might not be the best, but he is certainly not the worst.

Left-leaning human rights groups opposed Hyun’s appointment in a public letter ahead of selecting the Asian candidate to host the International Coordinating Committee of the National Human Rights Institution, just a step before making the final decision. Do these groups have the right to take such action given their silence about the dire human rights situation in North Korea? They do not deserve to call themselves human rights activists if they continue to act as if North Koreans were born without universal rights. Critics call them political groups disguised as human rights activists who care only for their rights while denying the legitimacy of law enforcement. Human rights transcend ideology, and it could be a blessing that Hyun stands neither on the right nor left.

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)