This week, South Korea was elected chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council for next year. Foreign Ministry officials boast about the fact that it will be the first time that Korea has assumed the leadership post of an international rights body since the establishment of the republic in 1948.
As the officials say, taking the UNHRC chair may attest to the progress this country has achieved in human rights and civil liberties over the past decades.
Indeed, things have changed much since 30 to 40 years ago, when military-backed dictators did not have any qualms about illegal detention of dissidents, torture and suppression of freedom of speech.
As Amb. Choi Kyong-lim, Korea’s permanent representative in Geneva who will take the UNHRC chair Jan. 1, said, the election was a great honor for South Korea, which has not only overcome poverty but also achieved democracy and economic prosperity.
But even considering diplomats’ tendency to blow their own trumpets, one cannot but think that the Foreign Ministry is bragging too much. Regarding the election to the UNHRC chair, the ministry handed out a press release, saying that the number of major international organizations to be headed by Koreans would amount to nine next year.
They include the Economic and Social Council, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Again, it is welcoming that Korea is playing leading roles in such important organizations, but counting the number of such organizations seems immature for a country whose former foreign minister has been leading the United Nations for nine years. Moreover, some of the posts – like that of the UNHRC – are given on a rotational basis among member states.
Nevertheless, Korea’s election to the U.N. rights council could provide momentum for the country to strengthen its commitment to promoting the universal value of human rights.
It will first require a close, objective assessment of the human rights conditions domestically. To be fair, it would be difficult to say that Korean society upholds standards befitting its global and economic status.
Law-enforcement authorities are still accused of high-handed treatment of suspects and infringement of basic rights. There are incessant cases of human rights violations involving migrant workers and foreign spouses of Koreans and their children.
Classrooms and workplaces are not free from cases of rights violations. Frequent victims include innocent students and underprivileged people like temporary, part-time workers and manual laborers. Recently, successive cases of employees of high-end department stores who were forced to kneel down by customers highlighted how vulnerable such people’s rights are. There is a lot of room for improvement on human rights in this society.
One more point not to be missed is the human rights situation in North Korea, which has been a focus not only of the U.N. council but also of the international community for a long time.
None other than the council spearheaded the landmark 2014 Commission of Inquiry report that detailed the grisly state in the world’s most isolated, totalitarian country.
South Korea always has to risk damaging inter-Korean ties whenever it pushes for improvement of human rights conditions in the North, but all considered, 2016 should be a crucial year for pressing the Pyongyang government to listen to the international community and make the life of our brethren there less harsh.