[Editorial] Guarding soldiers’ rights

By Korea Herald

Military’s self-reform not enough

  • Published : Aug 12, 2014 - 21:13
  • Updated : Aug 12, 2014 - 21:13
The military is rushing to announce one measure after another to protect soldiers’ human rights, as public outrage is mounting over the death of an enlisted man who was the victim of torture-like violence and abuse by his senior colleagues.

On Sunday, the Defense Ministry announced a set of measures to protect the human rights of soldiers. The measures are highlighted by the establishment of a military human rights council, which will be responsible for drawing up rights policies, education and monitoring of the rights situation in barracks.

In addition, officers dealing exclusively with rights issues will be posted to each battalion or larger units. The new rules also will also require the military to conduct a “human rights assessment” when it adopts or revises rules involving soldiers.

All these measures were rushed out in the wake of the death of a private first class known by his family name Yoon, who died at the hands of his fellow soldiers in April. But few are convinced that the measures can put an end to violence and abuse in the military.

Granted, tackling rights issues in the military is difficult, partly because of its characteristics and unique environment. Intrinsically, the military is a closed, isolated society and it upholds secrets and hierarchal structure.

This why there are fewer whistle-blowers and witnesses who come forward to report rights violations than in any other groups. Human rights abuses against soldiers are also prone to cover-ups and downplaying.

All this explains why protection of the human rights of our men and women in uniform should not be left only to the military. Statistics at the nation’s top human rights watchdog testify to the importance of putting military rights issues under outside surveillance and monitoring.

Figures at the National Human Rights Commission show that it turned down about 75 percent of petitions regarding rights abuses in the barracks from 2009-2013 because they did not meet the requirement for the commission to launch its own investigation.

The commission dismissed about 10 percent of the cases because they had already been put to military tribunal or investigation by military authorities. This leaves a big loophole.

In the case of Yoon, the commission received a petition and conducted an on-the-spot inspection in June, about two months after his death, but dismissed the case because the military prosecution was investigating it.

It is ridiculous that the NHRC did not chase a case of such grotesque abuses and left it to military authorities, which are susceptible to cover-ups. The truth would not have been known without exposure by a civic group.

The nation’s prime rights watchdog ignored rights issues in the military, even though it is the only outside agency that can investigate rights cases involving soldiers. The NHRC must become a more active guardian of soldiers’ rights.

It is also necessary to legislate a military human rights law, as the NHRC suggested in 2002. It could pave the way for the introduction of ombudsman and other effective measures to protect human rights of soldiers.

The agreement of the ruling and opposition parties to form a special National Assembly committee to improve rights in the military should be welcomed in that it could start discussions on the law and other legislative actions to make the barracks safer for our men and women in uniform.