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‘Legislate against discrimination,’ human rights body urges lawmakers

Long-pending bill hoped to pass into law with liberal majority parliament

June 30, 2020 - 18:00 By Kim Arin
National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s chairperson Choi Young-ae speaks to reporters Tuesday morning at its headquarters in Jung-gu, central Seoul. (NHRCK)

Korea’s state human rights watchdog on Tuesday urged the freshly elected parliament to pass the highly contested anti-discrimination act in what is its first public endorsement of the legislation in 14 years.

In a press conference held at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea headquarters in central Seoul, the institution’s chairperson Choi Young-ae said Korea was lagging behind its international counterparts by failing to legislate against discrimination.

“Most member states of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have adopted some forms of laws barring discrimination. Korea is one of the few that remain without one,” she said.

Choi said the bill aims to penalize discriminatory practices on grounds of a person’s sexual orientation, gender, age, race, religion and others. Those found guilty will face jail time of up to three years or 30 million won or less in fine.

The need for an anti-discrimination law officially entered the dialogue in Korean politics in 2007 when the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration pushed the motion for the first time, only to be scrapped. The bill has gone through two subsequent conservative administrations without success either.

Choi said she hoped the liberal majority legislature of the current National Assembly would back the bill’s passing and finally turn it into a law, and that unlike before, there was broad social consensus. According to a Realmeter survey carried out June 22-25, 88.5 percent of the 1,000 respondents said they supported the passage of anti-discrimination laws.

The minor left-wing Justice Party, proposing the bill a day earlier, said the ruling as well as the opposition parties should join the motion to “eliminate structural discrimination.”

Among those most vehemently opposed are Protestant groups who believe the bill is incompatible with their beliefs.

“The anti-discrimination law criminalizes discussing the Bible’s teachings openly. Christians would be punished for voicing opposition against issues like same-sex marriage and adoption, for instance,” said a protester, who declined to provide his name, outside the commission’s building. The sign he held read “Christian solidarity against homosexuality.”

Addressing the hurdles faced by the bill on the religious front, the commission’s chairperson said the liberties to practice faith will not be undermined or restrained. “I have spoken with leaders of the United Christian Church of Korea and we have established this understanding,” she said.

But not all points of objection are based on religion.

A college student, 23, who was one of less than a dozen protesters that showed up Tuesday, said she believed the bill could give state agencies leeway to control free speech and possibly embolden exercise of arbitrary censorship.

“I don’t belong to or represent interests of any particular group. I’m here today as a citizen who is passionately concerned about free speech in the country coming under threat,” she said. “What constitutes hate speech is rather vaguely defined in the bill’s current draft. If the term is left up to subjective interpretations, it could pose restraint on the statutory rights of free expression.”

By Kim Arin (