United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya at the Human Rights Council in 2010. Sekaggya believes South Korea is not doing enough to protect defenders of human rights on the country. Photo by: Eric Bridiers/United States Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

South Korea is poised to become a top aid donor as it increases its official development assistance each year, but claims of suppression of human rights defenders are sullying its reputation.

The country’s official development assistance is on a continuous climb, outstripping the $1 billion mark in 2010 and rising 29 percent every year since. The former aid dependent is expected by the OECD to become the world’s 15th donor by 2015, with a commitment of scaling up its foreign aid from the current 0.15 percent of gross national income to 0.25 percent that year. The top five recipients of South Korean aid are now Vietnam, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

However, the growth of South Korea’s ODA contrasts with the piling complaints against the government’s alleged suppression and violence of various human rights groups and activists in the country.

Earlier this month, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya called attention to what she concluded were the challenges that the government poses to the “vibrant and committed civil society working on human rights issues” in South Korea.

Human rights defenders persecuted for exposing corruption

Sekaggya’s assessment of the situation is shared by the Asian Human Rights Commission, which provided Devex a copy of the confidential report on human rights in South Korea the organization presented to the U.N. special rapporteur when she visited the country.

The document narrates several case studies of human rights defenders held criminally liable by the government for exposing corrupt public officials, and of the government infringing upon the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association of many activists.

According to the report, the government is targeting human rights defenders working on government accountability, environment, disabilities, labor, migrants, students, LGBTs and — especially — escapees from North Korea.

“Several case studies demonstrate that rights defenders in the country have either become criminal offenders or faced trial proceedings while they try to defend the rights of others,” says the briefing note submitted to Sekaggya.

The AHRC has recommended the South Korean government to take the following actions in order to address concerns on human rights:

  • Allow those who are affected by government projects to be entitled to sue, and guarantee the rights of those affected through domestic procedure

  • Stop legal action against those who defend the rights of others as a reprisal

  • Initiate the process of revision or abolition of the National Security Act, particularly restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression

  • Initiate public debate toward institutional reforms in the police, prosecution, and judiciary with full participation of those who have been victimized by these institutions

  • Take appropriate action to fight against corruption through reforms, including the amendment of the definition of corruption, making it compatible with international standards

  • Initiate public discourse on how to make domestic procedure to implement the jurisprudence of the U.N. Human Rights Committee and other recommendations

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.

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