UN CESCR's concern over the 4 Rivers Project

CESCR draws a grim picture of human rights in South Korea

UN representatives points out concerns with migrant workers’ issues and forced evictions, and suggests funds for river project could be better spent elsewhere

The Hankyoreh    Posted on : Nov.13,2009 12:01 KST

Experts of the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has been examining current issues in South Korea, including the Yongsan tragedy, through the lens of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) at the UN building located in Geneva, Nov. 11. The experts stated that the Yongsan tragedy might have resulted from excessive police force and the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project has been pursued without sufficient discussion. This is results of discussion on the South Korean issue.

On the National Human Rights Commission of Korea

An expert questioned why the staff of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) had been reduced by 30 percent. Another expert noted that its budget had also been drastically reduced and that the Chairman of the Commission does not have competence in human rights. One expert wondered if the ICESCR was considered non-judiciable by the Republic of Korea. If so, the government would be denying even the minimum standards applicable to the provisions of the ICESCR.

On pursuing the privatization of public services

One expert said that the privatization of certain public services, such as healthcare, water and electricity, in the Republic of Korea has become a cause of concern because the state risks being no longer able to comply with its obligations under the ICESCR. The expert asked how the state party anticipates being able to comply with the essential minimum obligations to protect economic, social and cultural rights from the influence of third parties.

On the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project

Regarding development projects, an expert noted that the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project is being criticized because of its tremendous budget allocation, and because the economic return derived from it would be too little. They are saying the money used for it could have been better used.

One expert also clarified that she had not previously stated a concern in how the budget for the project had been taken from the government’s welfare budget, but rather had intended to highlight the fact that there have been no prior consultations held with groups directdly affected by the project.

On the downsizing at the Ministry of Gender Equality

An expert noted that the Ministry of Gender Equality has been downsized, and that this has had a weakening effect on plans to improve gender equality.

On labor issues

In addressing working hours, an expert noted that the Republic of Korea had the highest number of working hours in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the highest record of industrial accidents in the OECD area and also had a high rate of deaths in the workplace. There are currently only 350 labor inspectorates in the country. The expert said labor inspectors are apparently more focused on investigating undocumented migrant workers rather that inspecting corporations for safety and occupational hazards.

On demonstrations

Turning to the matter of strikes and demonstrations, one expert noted that holding demonstrations in downtown Seoul have become no longer possible due to an article of the penal code regarding obstruction of business. The expert questioned why trade unions’ rallies and demonstrations were being banned and the exact meaning of “obstruction of business.”

One expert made reference to a disproportionate number of military and police personnel deployed in Seoul around a peaceful demonstration she had witnessed.

On migrant workers

Turning to the situation of migrant workers in the Republic of Korea, one expert noted that there were several problems linked to restriction of labor mobility, safety and health, and services offered to foreign workers.

An expert said Amnesty International had reported about the problem of exploitation and trafficking of workers in the Republic of Korea’s entertainment industry. The country has signed, but not yet ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

In addition, the Republic of Korea seems to have a very narrow definition of trafficking, which only includes trafficking for prostitution. However, there have been incidences of sex trafficking within the entertainment industry. Women from the Philippines are often recruited to work in bars and nightclubs and at the end of the day are very often forced to offer their sex services to the clients by their employers. If they fail to do so, the employer threatens to cancel their work permit and sends them back to their country. These workers do not fall within the definition of trafficking, under the current legislation.

On the Yongsan Tragedy

On forced evictions, an expert cited an event that had taken place in the Republic of Korea where 40 persons had been evicted by force. In response, 1,400 riot police officers plus members of private security forces were sent in and violence was used. This had resulted in the death of five protesters and one police officer. This clearly showed that excessive force is being used in forced evictions. Furthermore, no alternative settlement programs have been offered in this case and the bodies of the victims have not yet been buried as their families are still asking for an official apology and compensation.

The expert said the Republic of Korea must establish a law on forced evictions, and said this could be simply done by adopting the guidelines included in the Committee’s General Comment on forced evictions.

On the issue of the Korean National University of Arts

An Expert noted that the Korean National University of Arts had been asked by the government to concentrate only on practical teaching and its theoretical courses had been cut. The Expert questioned why the state felt that it had the right to dictate to academic institutions at the tertiary level what they should teach and to whom they should teach. The Expert added that this infringed on academic freedom.

On Press Freedom

Another expert mentioned and questioned the arrests of journalists who have written critical reports about Lee administration policies. The expert asked whether this did not amount to censorship of some kind.

Marchan Romero, Chairperson of the Committee, said that he hopes that the South Korean delegation will add leverage to how the South Korean government gives consideration to the Committee’s recommendations.

In response, Paik Ji-ah, director-general for International Organizations Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that the intense discussions have been highly constructive. She believes that the Committee’s advice and recommendations will serve as a valuable guide and source of inspiration for the government in years to come.

This was the third examination conducted in the eight years since South Korea ratified the ICESCR. The Committee will compile final results from its study and will be submitting its recommendations to the South Korean government.

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

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