National Assembly fails to hold debate on comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation

Posted on : 2019-05-31 15:02 KST Modified on : 2019-05-31 15:02 KST
Objections to anti-discrimination bill come chiefly from conservative Protestants
Members of Solidarity to Enact Anti-Discrimination Legislation hold a press conference in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square on Sept. 12
Members of Solidarity to Enact Anti-Discrimination Legislation hold a press conference in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square on Sept. 12

A mood of learned helplessness among lawmakers is undercutting human rights in South Korea, with comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation failing to even come up for debate under the 20th National Assembly and the Moon Jae-in administration.

To date, no comprehensive anti-discrimination bill to bar discrimination in the areas of employment, transactions, and education on bases such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and academic history has been presented before the 20th National Assembly. This stands in contrast with the 18th and 19th National Assembly, where legislation was sponsored. In contrast, lawmaker Kim Tae-heum has presented an amendment to the National Human Rights Commission Act that would remove the category of “sexual orientation” from the list of acts of discrimination that violate equal rights. The provision in question is nearly the only legal basis for barring discrimination against LGBT persons in South Korea. The only exception is the Justice Party, which has been working with the group Solidarity to Enact Anti-Discrimination Legislation to prepare a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill to be sponsored by the end of the year.

In the wake of an anti-discrimination bill plan submitted in 2007 by the Ministry of Justice, a movement of opposition arose, with objections coming chiefly from conservative Protestants. Organized protests have resulted in floods of calls that have tied up phone lines in the offices of lawmakers who added their names to anti-discrimination bills; pastors have summoned lawmakers from their district to apply pressure.

“Over the past few years, [lawmakers] have definitely learned a lesson for this. They say, ‘We support what you’re doing, but we aren’t confident enough to pursue it. It’s futile,’” said Cho Hye-in, an attorney who serves as co-chair of the Solidarity to Enact Anti-Discrimination Legislation executive committee.

This accounts for the repeated cycle of anti-discrimination legislation being proposed and abandoned. Anti-discrimination bills were sponsored during the 17th National Assembly by the late Roh Hoe-chan and the 18th National Assembly by former lawmaker Kwon Young-gil, but were dropped before any debate had taken place. During the 19th National Assembly, former lawmakers Kim Han-gil and Choi Won-sik sponsored bills only to withdraw them after encountering objections.

The administration and ruling Democratic Party have not stated any position on the matter. A party aide noted that there were “a lot fewer lawmakers openly objecting than in the past,” but added that the issue represented “a dilemma for the Democratic Party, since President Moon Jae-in stated his position on it.” In 2017, Moon responded to remarks about anti-discrimination legislation by ministers with the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) by saying it was the “official position of the part that we should prevent unnecessary controversy as a result of additional legislation.” As a presidential candidate in 2012, Moon had pledged to enact anti-discrimination legislation.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) has also been half-hearted about pursuing the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation.

“The opposition has become so powerful that there’s an internal directive for the commission not to comment outwardly on anti-discrimination legislation,” the commission’s special hate and discrimination response committee, which was launched in February of this year, told the Hankyoreh.

Democratic Party members increasingly attending queer parades

At the same time, a movement to attend the Queer Parade event has arisen this year among some Democratic Party members. Kim Min-seok, a dues-paying party member who has been publicly recruiting members to attend, explained, “The party has stated [its support of] gender equality a ban on discrimination against minority in its platform.”

“We wanted to show that there are LGBT individuals and supporters among our party’s members,” Kim said. Around 30 members have been recruited to date.

Observers have expressed strong criticisms of the current situation. Hong Seong-su, a law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, lamented, “People think that it will hurt their support ratings if they so much as mention the word ‘discrimination.’”

Cho Hye-in said, “The situation today, where people accept the argument that particular groups should not even be the subjects of discrimination bans, is itself a step backwards in terms of democracy and human rights.”

By Park Da-hae and Kwon Ji-dam, staff reporters

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