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Power of Human Rights Body Waning Under Lee Gov`t

Posted September. 07, 2009 08:27,   


The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has greatly contributed to the country’s improvement of human rights since its inception in 2002. Despite this, the organization faces criticism for lax management and waning influence in correcting human right abuses.

The criticism stems from two reasons. The first is that the commission has issued a host of idealistic recommendations without considering reality by excessively focusing on the importance of improving human rights. Its intervention in every minor matter has also backfired.

Second, the commission lost ground due to the change in the presidential office. Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the human rights watchdog was led by officials who gained the president’s confidence and exerted major influence over agencies. Though they had complaints over the commission’s recommendations, government offices had no choice but to follow the recommendations so as not to displease the president.

Things have changed since the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration, however. Public organizations and companies are now increasingly rejecting the commission’s recommendations.

○ Unrealistic recommendations backfire

In October last year, the commission urged Korean Air to allow men to apply to work as flight attendants. The airline has rejected the recommendation, however.

A Korean Air official said, “Though we explained to the commission that our practices are not biased against men because we give opportunities to male workers in other positions to become flight attendants, the commission issued the recommendation.”

“We regret that the commission failed to consider the unique environment in personnel management at airliners.”

Public organizations and companies also recognize the positive role the commission plays in improving human rights, but they say it must avoid excessive intervention and inflexible attitudes.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government last month proposed a measure to protect the socially vulnerable such as the homeless and low-income households from identity theft. The intent was to limit credit services such as lending, subscription to mobile phone service, and registration of businesses and vehicles under names of the homeless or those in dire poverty.

The commission, however, warned that the measure will likely raise discrimination against the homeless. The city government then expressed its regret over this comment, saying out of courtesy that it will respect the commission’s opinion but also push ahead with the measure.

A leading official of the commission said, “We are well aware of the criticism that we lack a sense of reality, but we cannot renounce our principles to approach systems and policies from the perspective that improving human rights is the top priority.”

“Quite a few organizations belatedly lodged complaints when given recommendations after having done nothing when we gave them opportunities to justify and correct themselves.”

○ A paper tiger?

Eighty percent of organizations followed recommendations issued by the government watchdog in 2006, but the figure plummeted to 59 percent in 2007, the final year of the Roh administration. The lame duck status of Roh probably undermined the commission’s authority.

Other organizations reversed their decisions to accept the commission’s recommendations after the change in government, including the proposal for alternative military service for conscientious objectors on religious grounds. The Defense Ministry in September 2007 announced the adoption of alternative military service but scrapped it in December last year.

A ministry official said, “Under the former Roh administration, refusing to accept the commission’s recommendations was tantamount to rejecting the national agenda. So public officials followed the recommendations to avoid being at a disadvantage.”

Lim Ji-bong, a constitutional law professor at Sogang University in Seoul, said, “Government organizations are now unafraid of the human rights commission after the new government downsized it and replaced its head.”

○ Legitimacy of recommendations needed

Criticism lingers over lack of effort by the commission to strike a balance between human rights and other public interests.

The commission said in June last year that the Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Ministry’s measure to help elderly dementia patients violated human rights. The ministry planned to distribute attachable ID tags to such people to prevent them from getting lost.

The commission, however, opposed the idea for fear of personal information leak and potential abuse by criminals.

A ministry official said, “Human rights violations are unlikely because personal information such as names and contact information is codified and managed by organizations for missing elderly people,” adding, “Benefits from the measure are larger than the disadvantages from any human rights violations.”

Kang Kyung-keun, a constitutional law professor at Soongsil University in Seoul, said, “The commission’s authority under the Roh administration was driven more by its alignment with that government’s ideology than the legitimacy of its recommendations.”