UN special rapporteur criticizes government for intolerance of peaceful protests

Posted on : 2016-02-01 18:17 KST Modified on : 2016-02-01 18:17 KST
Saying, “Protests helped make this country great,” Maina Kiai calls on government to implement the international community’s recommendations
Maina Kiai
Maina Kiai

After citing a number of concerns about the human rights situation in South Korea, UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai called on the government to implement recommendations that the international community has made on multiple occasions.

The remark was made by Kiai during a press conference on Jan. 29, after completing his fact-finding survey about demonstrations and protests in South Korea. Kiai is the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Kiai was presumably criticizing the South Korean government for its apparent unwillingness to adopt the recommendations of the international community.

Taking a closer look at what Kiai said during the press conference, it becomes clear just how far removed the attitudes of leading figures in South Korea’s government and ruling party are from global standards about human rights.

“Protests helped make this country great,” Kiai said during the press conference, contradicting Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung, who said last September that the per capita annual income would have already reached US$30,000 if it were not for the “labor unions with their iron pipes.”

Protests are helpful for the government, Kiai said, since they provide a good way to determine what the people are currently thinking. Just as members of the National Assembly can express their opinions through the media, members of the public express their opinions through protests on the street.

But remarks made by Kang Sin-myeong, Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency, during a workshop for the leadership of the national police that was held at the Police Training Institute in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, on Jan. 31 - two days after Maina Kiai’s press conference - illustrate how little the police care about the recommendations of the international community. “We will actively apprehend even those who commit minor infractions of the law in order to instill a culture of law-abiding demonstrations and protests,” Kang said.

International law protects not legal demonstrations but peaceful demonstrations, Kiai said, and that this had already been clearly defined on several occasions by the UN. The instant that the words “legal” and “lawful” are used, demonstrations become subject to government approval. Such an approach turns a right that everyone should enjoy into a kind of privilege, the UN special rapporteur argued.

Fundamental human rights exist whether or not they have received the sanction of some government or anyone else, Kiai said.

Immediately after a nationwide rally held in Nov. 2015, South Korean President Park Geun-hye convened an emergency cabinet meeting at which she said, “We have to stop protestors from wearing masks. That’s what people from the Islamic State are doing right now.” Two days later, the Saenuri Party introduced legislation to ban the wearing of masks.

But Kiai said that the government had gotten things mixed up, since demonstrators were only wearing masks because the government was already trampling on their freedom of assembly.

If the government has a habit of indiscriminately prosecuting people who merely participate in a demonstration, then people will be more likely to wear masks, Kiai pointed out. The key, he said, was for the government to guarantee that it would not prosecute people simply because they had taken part in a demonstration.

Kiai also described a recent ruling by a Korean court banning the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) as an infringement of human rights.

South Korean Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Ki-kweon has argued that, since teachers are public servants and since the current law dictates that only current teachers may enroll in labor unions, the KTU must revise its regulations to be in line with current law. In the view of Kiai, however, this kind of legal interpretation goes against international standards.

Citing General Remark No. 31 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Kiai argued that courts and government agencies are supposed to interpret legal provisions as broadly as possible in order to protect rights, not limit them.

By Heo Seung and Bang Jun-ho, staff reporters

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