[Newsmaker] Koreans win global prize for candlelight rallies

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Oct 16, 2017 - 17:33
  • Updated : Oct 16, 2017 - 17:40

South Korean citizens, who took to the streets to protest against President Park Geun-hye for months and peacefully removed her from power, have received an internationally recognized award for their commitment to peace and democracy.

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Germany’s oldest political foundation, decided to give this year’s Human Rights Award Prize to a total of 17 million people who participated in the candlelight rallies last year demanding former President Park resign over a corruption scandal involving her friend Choi Soon-sil. 

Sven Schwersensky, resident representative at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Korea office, talks about why Germany’s oldest political foundation picked South Koreans for its Human Rights Prize this year during a press briefing Monday in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

The massive protests pushed the parliament to vote to impeach Park on Dec. 9. It was upheld by the Constitutional Court on March 10, which many hailed as a victory for the people.

“The peaceful exercise of democratic participation and in particular the civic right of peaceful assembly are the essential components of democracy,” said Sven Schwersensky, resident representative at the nongovernmental foundation’s Korea office during a briefing Monday. “In our view, the people’s candlelight demonstrations have given the whole world evidence of this important fact.”

“At the time, authoritarianism was on the rise everywhere in the world, even in the western world,” he said, citing the UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai, who addressed the diminishing rights to public assembly and free speech under the former Park administration during his visit to Korea in 2016.

“People of Korea showed resistance to authoritarianism.”

The organizing committee for candlelight demonstrations -- an association of over 1,500 civic groups, labor unions and student organizations -- took the prize on behalf of Koreans. The committee received 20,000 euros ($23,590) in prize money. How the money will be spent has not been decided yet, it said.

It is the first time South Koreans won the prize. The award ceremony will take place in Berlin on Dec. 5.

“Candlelight citizens received a human rights award in recognition for such efforts from the international community and it is something we should celebrate together,” said Kwon Tae-seon, co-president of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the civic groups that organized the rallies.

“But we have a long way to go,” added Kwon, citing ongoing efforts to root out irregularities facing society and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. “I think the prize is to support and encourage our determination and effort to protect peace and democracy.”

The organizing committee said it would hold a candlelight vigil on Oct. 28 to mark the first anniversary, as it took place last year around this time. It also plans to publish a white paper on the candlelight movement.

The FES Human Rights Prize, which was presented for the first time in 1994, has been awarded annually to individuals and organizations that contributed to improving human rights and peace. It has more than 100 offices across the world.