Statement by South Korean organisations on the new alternative service law

South korea protest in support of COS

Shame on the enaction of the bill that degrades the significance of the first alternative military service for conscientious objectors

Today (Dec 27), two bills to introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors (COs), Legislative Bill on Incorporation and Service of Alternative Military and Amendment to Military Service Act, passed by the National Assembly. This happened a year and a half after the Constitutional Court decision that stated the current Military Service Act is unconstitutional, because it lacks regulations about substitution services for conscientious objectors. Unfortunately, the alternative service law -adopted following the imprisonment of nineteen-thousand COs over decades- is precarious. This bill is violating, rather than protecting the freedom of conscience. Moreover, rather than reflecting the values of human rights and peace, it prioritizes executive convenience. Thereby, the civic groups including us who have long fought against the government to provide alternative service options, strongly rebuke the National Assembly for passing a bill that limits its significance.

According to the bill, the penalty-like characteristics of alternative service will mean COs spend thirty-six months in correctional institutions’ dormitories. This goes against the Constitutional Court’s decision that “If it's excessive and difficult to choose as an option, it may be a useless option or a punishment”. Furthermore, the bill disregards The National Human Rights Commission’s suggestion, by placing the examination commission under Military Manpower Administration and the right of nomination to the Minister of National Defense, all “to guarantee fairness, objectiveness, and transparency, the judging institution shall be installed separately from the Ministry of National Defense and Military Manpower Administration” (2019, Expression of opinion about the Legislative Bill on Incorporation and Service of Alternative Military).

The bill did not alleviate the problems in the government proposal, and in some parts even backtracked from the original. It first limits the freedom of conscience by not acknowledging soldiers in active duty and abandons the government’s responsibility to inform its people of their rights by deleting the obligation for advance notice. Furthermore, through adjusting the members component ratio and allowing the Minister of National Defense to nominate the chairperson, violates the autonomy of the commission, which is a clear regression. It also goes against the periodic tide to eliminate the part that codified the ratio of female members.

Moreover, this falls short of the international organizations’ standards, which have constantly pressed the Korean government for an adoption of alternative services. David Kay, the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Freedom of Opinion and Ahmen Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, sent a letter last November 28th to express concerns and to point out issues of the alternative service bill Korea will soon adopt.

The problems elaborated in previous paragraphs regressed the historic importance of being the very first adoption of alternative military service for conscience objectors. There seems to be a high chance of this policy lacking power from its onset, or will keep objectors from exercising their rights. In the examination process that the commission (that is not fully independent from the Ministry of National Defense and the Military Manpower Administration) conducts, rejecting military service may be regarded more as a subject of punishment rather than freedom. It is also certain that the international community, like the Human Rights Committee of UN, will continue to press the Korean government.

We who have actively raised voices for the adoption of alternative service and to guarantee the right to reject military service, will continue to call for amendments to this problematic Alternative Military Service Act. The government and the National Assembly should immediately revise the law to prevent problems before the policy is enforced. For a rapid modification, the principles which domestic and international human rights and peace civic groups, international organizations like UN, domestic institutions like National Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Court have proposed, should be taken into consideration.

December 27th, 2019

This comment endorsed by:

Center for Military Human Rights Korea

MINBYUN, Lawyers for a Democratic Society

World Without War

People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD)

Programmes & Projects

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