UN calls on S. Korea to form independent body to investigate Itaewon disaster

Posted on : 2023-11-06 16:51 KST Modified on : 2023-11-06 16:51 KST
The UN Human Rights Committee also expressed concern about a crackdown on trade union activities
A person stands before a wall of the joint memorial altar for victims of the Oct. 29, 2022, crowd crush in Itaewon erected in Seoul Plaza for the first anniversary of the disaster. (Yonhap)
A person stands before a wall of the joint memorial altar for victims of the Oct. 29, 2022, crowd crush in Itaewon erected in Seoul Plaza for the first anniversary of the disaster. (Yonhap)

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recommended that an independent body be established to investigate, determine the truth, and punish those responsible for the Itaewon disaster that occurred on Oct. 29, 2022, but the South Korean government is claiming that sufficient investigations have taken place.

According to the concluding observations of the UN treaty body, which published its review of South Korea’s fifth periodic report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on Sunday, the committee noted that it “expresses disappointment that a full-scale, independent investigation of the causes of the incident does not appear to have been carried out to determine the truth and that effective remedies have not been provided to victims,” and recommended that the government “establish an independent and impartial body to investigate the disaster and determine the truth; ensure that those responsible are brought to justice, including those in senior positions, and if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions; provide adequate reparation and memorialization for victims and bereaved families; and guarantee non-recurrence.”

The report goes on to state that the committee is “disturbed by reports that authorities have obstructed efforts to memorialize victims of the disaster, including by using excessive force at memorial rallies and investigating human rights activists who participate in such rallies.”

In response to these points, the South Korean government (Ministry of Justice) wrote in a press release, “Since the disaster, there have been extensive investigations, including investigations by the police’s Special Investigation Headquarters, investigations by the prosecution service, and probes by the parliament.” It further stated that “a comprehensive plan to reorganize the national security system, which includes 65 measures to prevent recurrence, has been prepared and implemented, and the implementation status is regularly checked and managed.”

In effect, the ministry is claiming that it is difficult to accept the UN committee’s recommendations.

In the Human Rights Committee’s dialogue with the South Korean government during its consideration of South Korea’s periodic report, one committee expert said that the disaster, in which 159 people were killed and hundreds more were injured during Halloween festivities, was a “social catastrophe that seemed to have been fully foreseeable and preventable.”

“Why did the authorities fail to respond to the report of the crowd crush risk approximately four hours before the disaster? Why were proper emergency measures not taken immediately after the disaster occurred?” the committee asked in the dialogue. “Did the State party intend to enact the Special Act on the disaster promptly, establish an independent investigative body according to the Act, ensure participation of victims in the investigation, hold accountable those responsible, and guarantee non-recurrence?”

A special bill concerning the Itaewon disaster, which would establish an independent special investigation committee to determine the truth of the tragedy, was designated for fast-track legislation by the opposition party in the National Assembly in June and passed the threshold of the National Assembly’s Public Administration and Security Committee in August.

However, it has been pending in the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee for three months amid opposition from the ruling party.

The committee also called for the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, decriminalization of same-sex sexual conduct in the military, increased representation of women in the public sector, follow-up on the guarantee of abortion rights following the Constitutional Court’s decision in April 2019, measures to address the social root causes of suicide to reduce the high suicide rate, and abolition of the death penalty.

The body was also concerned about the situation of labor rights in South Korea, noting that it “is also concerned at a reported significant crackdown on trade union activities since 2022, including alleged judicial harassment and stigmatization of the Korean Construction Workers Union, which has reportedly been subjected to multiple forced seizures and heavy administrative fines, and whose members have reportedly been subjected to investigation, detention and in some cases to imprisonment.”

Civil society groups expressed their regret regarding the fact that the government published a press release refuting major recommendations the UN committee made almost as soon as they were announced. “The government should conscientiously review the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations and execute them by applying them to real policies,” urged the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.

Ever since ratifying the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1990, South Korea has been subject to the committee’s review of is civil liberties status. The UN Human Rights Committee is composed of 18 expert advisors elected by countries that have ratified the convention. Korea University Graduate School of International Studies professor Soh Chang-rok is a member of the body whose tenure ends in 2024.

By Lee Jae-ho, staff reporter; Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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