[Viewpoint] Constricting human rights advocacy

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[Viewpoint] Constricting human rights advocacy

When I get together with old college friends, we often talk about “Mr. K.” Many years ago, when we were still students, the notorious intelligence detective would take us into custody one after another. He was a torture master, so skillful that he had been scouted from a local office to work in Seoul. I was one of his prey. A team of three worked together. I would be blindfolded, gagged, cuffed and beaten. Once, I recovered consciousness after a blackout, and found myself completely covered in blood. Mr. K would be there smiling warmly to me and offering me a cigarette. He even asked for my advice on his son’s career and education. I was so moved by the unexpected situation of the torture artist initiating a genial conversation, that I gave him sincere advice on studying tips. A kind father and a professional torture master were juxtaposed on the face of this one man. I am ashamed to this day to have acted in such a servile manner to win Mr. K’s favor. He could not have imagined the depth of my pain and fear.

Cruelty in the process of investigation is the most typical kind of human rights infringement. Most of the time, the assaulter is insensitive to the extreme fear and pain of the victim. And when the act of violence is repeated, the alienation between victim and victimizer grows.

When cases of national security are considered, violence is sometimes justified. But even U.S. President Barack Obama has suggested the possibility of prosecuting those who decided to let the Central Intelligence Agency torture terror suspects under the Bush Administration. Those responsible claim that torture was effective in preventing another terror attack.

Let’s not forget that violence does not stop on its own accord. It was the courageous testimony of Kim Geun-tae that put an end to the cruelty of Lee Geun-an, the torture master during the Fifth Republic.

Times have changed, and obvious cruelty by investigative agencies has ended. However, human rights infringement by national agencies still remains, albeit with less intensity. National intelligence agents, prosecutors, police, welfare facilities, prisons and the military could infringe on human rights. Therefore, constant vigilance by a third party is needed. In 2001, the National Human Rights Commission was organized. The raison d’etre of the commission is to end human rights infringement.

But the commission is now facing a crisis. On March 31, the Cabinet passed a restructuring plan to reduce the size of the organization and cut down its workforce by 21 percent. The commission’s workload reportedly has increased dramatically, so why is the staff being reduced? Many citizens assume that it is the government’s response to the Commission’s findings that human rights were infringed during last year’s police suppression of candlelight rallies.

Constricting the activities of the Human Rights Commission runs against the current of international practice. The commission has been putting a brake on human rights infringement by powerful agencies for the last eight years. It has also raised awareness of the rights of women, the disabled, irregular workers, migrant laborers and women and children of mixed-culture families. While arguably some of its actions have been overblown, the commission endeavored to help the socially weak to live humane, decent lives. As a result of its efforts, Korea, currently the vice chair of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, is highly likely to take the chairmanship next year. As an official development assistance project, public officials in Iraq’s human rights department are to be invited to Korea for training. Korea is proudly becoming a developed country in terms of human rights.

Shrinking the Human Rights Commission does not help the national brand-making strategy of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Canada, which chairs the ICC, sent a letter to the Korean government suggesting a possible downgrade of the Korean Human Rights Commission if it is downsized. The United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights sent letters twice, expressing concern on the damage to the commission’s independence.

It is the commission’s job to watch the government, and by the nature of this role, friction with the government is unavoidable. In a sense, it’s necessary. Even during the Kim Dae-jung administration, which created the commission, the commission and the government clashed.

The government needs to be open-minded even if it is not pleased with the activities of the commission. Of course, the commission needs to break from any ideological bias and operate based on healthy common sense and balance to convince the majority of the citizens of the correctness of its actions. Good medicine can be bitter. By embracing the Human Rights Commission the conservative Lee administration can prove that it accommodates progressive values and seeks better relations with its citizens.

*The writer is an assistant chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-kyung
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