(New York) - The South Korean cabinet should re-introduce protection from discrimination for categories of people dropped from a proposed federal law this week by the justice ministry, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the cabinet. Human Rights Watch highlighted the removal from the non-discrimination bill of language that extended protection to sexual orientation and urged the cabinet to make explicit that the proposed law covers discrimination based on gender identity.
The draft legislation first announced on October 2, 2007 by the Ministry of Justice included sexual orientation along with a range of other categories as prohibited grounds for discrimination. But according to Democratic Labor Party officials and news reports, the current version of the law was changed to exclude protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, military status, nationality, language, appearance, family type, ideology, criminal or detention record, and educational status.
“The current version of the bill is a disappointment,” said Jessica Stern, researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program of Human Rights Watch. “A supposed landmark non-discrimination law has been hollowed out to exclude Koreans, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, who are in need of protection.”
The proposed new law was intended to strengthen the existing National Human Rights Commission Act, which already bars discrimination on the basis of most categories, including sexual orientation, by requiring the president and other levels of government to develop plans to eliminate discrimination. But as revised by the justice ministry, the new law would actually remove protections many groups.
The inclusion of sexual orientation in particular had come under attack in South Korea. The Congressional Missionary Coalition, a coalition of Christian right members of the National Assembly, plans to hold forums in November to oppose the law. A petition, spearheaded by an organization called the Assembly of Scientists Against Embryonic Cloning, was sent to all branches of government claiming that if the bill becomes law, “homosexuals will try to seduce everyone, including adolescents; victims will be forced to become homosexuals; and sexual harassment by homosexuals will increase.” Such untrue and prejudicial allegations are not only insulting and degrading to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Koreans, but they create a climate of hostility and hatred that can endanger their well-being.
International human rights law is clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited, and South Korea’s treaty obligations require it to enforce that prohibition. South Korea has previously demonstrated international leadership on this issue. At the third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, South Korea, along with 53 other nations, delivered a statement recognizing the abundance of evidence of human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and calling on the UN to give these issues attention.
With respect to transgendered people, while the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last year that individuals who have undergone sex reassignment surgery are entitled to change their legal identity, it seems unlikely that the proposed new law would cover discrimination against them. Human Rights Watch called on South Korea to ensure that the law would extend to discrimination based on gender identity.
“South Korea has previously shown leadership by condemning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but this commitment must be consistent,” said Stern. “The government should maintain its track record and reintroduce comprehensive categories for protection.”