The Ministry of National Defense is not living up to its promise to better protect human rights, members of a civilian-led advisory panel said Monday.
The 88-member panel – of which 15 have either left or decided to walk out – was put together by the Defense Ministry in late June, amid a public outcry following the death of an Air Force master sergeant who died by suicide after alleged sexual abuse. Her family claims cover-ups led to her death.
“I had thought the ministry was committed. I’m not so sure about it right now,” said one member on the panel who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. The member referred to recent friction between the ministry and the panel over what to do with military courts.
A subcommittee floated the idea of completely getting rid of military courts, which handle first trials and appeals, saying they are often soft on those responsible for wrongdoing and neglect the victims. The military believes it needs first trials to deal with crimes involving military security.
The National Assembly is expected to vote on a compromise bill as early as this week, which gives military courts power to hold the first trials, as long as they do not involve a soldiers’ death, sex crimes and crimes that have taken place before enlistment. Civilian courts will hear those cases.
“The panel is essentially powerless,” Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, said as he resigned. He said the ministry was deliberate in its attempt to thwart the panel’s drive to completely shut down military courts, accusing the panel’s chairman of toeing the line.
The Defense Ministry said it did not try to circumvent the panel because the proposal to take jurisdiction away from the military had not been agreed to within the full committee last week, when the ministry reported to the parliament concerns over abolishing military courts altogether because of a waning discipline.
The panel reached consensus on the issue after the ministry briefed the lawmakers, and they are not expected to reflect the panel’s latest suggestion in the bill pending vote.
“I get that it would be a big jump for the military. But it said it would go through all this and now what? It’s reversing that promise, or at least that’s what I feel,” said another member of the panel who asked to remain anonymous for the same reason.
The defense minter has repeatedly said he would listen to outside advice on bringing about a military culture that better respects human rights, which critics say have been trivialized too often. The panel will wrap up work in September.
By Choi Si-young (email@example.com