A global human rights body has deferred its decision on whether to maintain the highest “A” rating for Korea’s human rights watchdog, citing problems that impede its function. This is a serious setback for the reputation of not only the watchdog but also the nation as a whole.
The International Coordination Committee of National Human Rights Institutions said last week it was withholding its grading of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea until October. This is a significant departure from the past, when the Korean commission received an “A” rating in 2004 and 2008.
Detailing its evaluation, the ICC pointed to problems such as the lack of transparency in the appointment of commission members, diversity in commission members and staff, participation of civic groups and the legal immunity granted to its members and staff.
What’s not arguable is that these problems are the very ones without which a human rights watchdog cannot fulfill its mission. It is humiliating that the nation’s supreme rights panel is still in such poor shape.
More shameful is the NHRC’s response. It said that the ICC’s decision had little to do with the actual human rights situation in the country. The NHRC said the ICC evaluations generally focused on laws and regulations, not human rights.
But this sounds empty, considering that the ICC, a global network of about 120 national human rights institutions, gives an “A” to about 70 countries. This means Korea’s institution for protecting human rights is well below average. A country cannot safeguard human rights without proper institutions.
The ICC’s findings seem well founded. For instance, eight of the 11 members of the NHRC come from the legal profession. This proves that the panel lacks diversity.
The National Assembly and the president appoint four panel members each and the chief justice three, and the president appoints the chairperson. This may also hinder the watchdog’s political neutrality and independence.
A bigger problem with the NHRC is that concerns about such problems had already been raised but no one at the commission or in government tried to address them.
It is no secret that the fundamental problem began during the Lee Myung-bak administration, when it put the commission under the president, thereby damaging its institutional independence.
No wonder the Asian Human Rights Commission said that the Korean government regards the commission as a government agency, not an independent body. The regional body even asked the ICC to downgrade the NHRC. Amnesty International also questioned the political independence and fairness of the NHRC.
Local rights groups have questioned the commission’s political independence too, especially since the current chairperson Hyun Byung-chul, who was close to Lee, took office in 2009. Hyun and his commission have faced criticism that they failed to ensure political independence when dealing with major human rights cases.
The ICC gave the NHRC until June to amend the problems. The NHRC should move fast to address the problems raised by the ICC. More importantly, President Park Geun-hye and political parties should commence discussions on how to reform and restore the reputation and authority of the human rights watchdog.