Rights group Human Asia may only have been campaigning here for under six years, but the small Korean NGO aims to have a big impact on the region.
The organization which raises awareness on human rights across Asia has set out on an ambitious mission to establish a regional human rights protection mechanism, and it is starting by educating Korea.
And Human Asia program manager Lee Joo-yea thought a Seoul-based organization would be well-placed to lead a forum where representatives of many Asian countries can meet to find common ground on rights.
“Our long-term aim is to get a human rights convention for Asia,” she said. “The first step is getting a lot of human rights organizations together for an NGO-led forum.”
While Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines do not have the economic resources, and others have questionable human rights records to overcome, Lee believes that Korea now has the economic and diplomatic clout to lead in the field.
“We are looking to see who can be the leader of the (Asian) human rights movement,” she said.
“Japan has a past that they are not particularly proud of -― they colonized countries. China is economically successful but has so many human rights violations. It is not that Korea is totally innocent but at least the international community states that Korea is not so guilty ... In that sense we are really proud that we can come in to try to develop the human rights movement in Asia.”
The organization started in 2006 is working to educate people on human rights here and has already drawn interest from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea for a regional human rights forum, hoped to be held in the next three years.
While Lee is optimistic that common ground can be found among Asian countries, she recognizes that there are many hurdles to overcome, including neighboring nations’ differing agendas such as food security in Bangladesh to migrant workers’ rights in Korea.
She also recognized that further education was needed to put human rights on the agenda here.
“It is very hard because people have very different ideas about what human rights are,” she said.
“We don’t have any general human rights teaching in schools or universities. Most of the young students don’t have any basic idea of human rights.
“They think that human rights are something that belong to others. They don’t think of human rights as something they can use to empower themselves.”
To change this, the organization has focused for the last six years on education. It holds regular workshops for activists, human rights academies and has set up a human rights course with Korea University Graduate School of International Studies, with students attending from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh as well as Korea.
But now the charity is working to get more people outside of academia involved.
“We are starting to run more campaigns to bring in ordinary members of the public as we want to expand our activities to include not just education but also toward more active campaigns,” Lee said.
The NGO’s grassroots movement is also developing abroad with branches run by high school students cropping up in America ― in California, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts.
In Korea, the charity has held street campaigns for Rohingya Refugees here, originally from Burma. It has also supported groups such as the Jumma people who fled persecution in Bangladesh to become refugees in Korea, and made a field trip to the country to learn more about human rights concerns there.
As well as helping under-represented people, each campaign aims to accustom participants to the idea that they can become rights activists in their own way, too.
“Korea has developed in various areas including economically, but you don’t have that kind of development in human rights. We need to narrow this gap,” said Lee.
“In Korea we have a very active civil rights and labor movement and the term human rights was always around but here people often associate the term with struggle, or fighting, or something political.
“Even (our country’s) leaders, they think that human rights (can be used as) a tool for them to achieve a leadership position in Asia.”
Lee said Human Asia aims to shift the focus from gleaning international prestige to helping people, avoiding many Asian NGOs often narrow scope that was often “very political and either right wing or left wing.”
She added: “We don’t necessarily represent the whole of Asia but by bringing together other civil society organizations and creating a forum we can discuss our different concerns.”
By Kirsty Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org