Annual Review 2016: Human Rights Situation of LGBTI in South Korea
3.1 National Human Rights Commission

NHRCK Chairperson Lee Sung-ho defends Commissioner Choi E-woo’s discriminatory statement against sexual minorities

There has been an incident in which the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) defended Choi E-woo, a Commissioner of the NHRCK who made a discriminatory statement against sexual minorities at an open forum. On January 11, 2016, the NGO’s Collaborative Action to Put the NHRCK in its Place (NHRCK-Watch) sent written questions to Commissioner Choi E-Woo and Chairperson Lee Sung-ho.[1] The written questions were aimed at inquiring about their position on the press report[2] regarding Choi’s statement that “The issues regarding homosexuality are being ‘cleverly overlooked’ within the National Human Rights Commission. There will be great consequences if the Koreans churches do not act”, which was made at the “Future Directions and Challenges of the Korean Christian Human Rights Movement” forum on October 27, 2016. Choi E-Woo had received continuous criticism since his appointment for participating in the movement against the anti-discrimination law and inciting discrimination against LGBTI people.

Only Lee Sung-ho provided a response to the written questions. However, Lee clarified his position by stating in his response that “Each Commissioner may have his or her own separate views, hence we cannot apply uniform standards”, and “it is difficult to take action against statements made by individual Commissioners at external events”. In response, NHRCK-Watch held a press conference on November 22, in front of the NHRCK, demanding the resignation of Choi and a meeting with Lee. NHRCK-Watch stated that Choi was not qualified to serve as a Commissioner of the NHRCK as he violated the principle of non-discrimination stipulated in the National Human Rights Commission Act, and urged the NHRCK to take a clear position against incitement to discrimination against sexual minorities. Furthermore, NHRCK-Watch strongly criticized former President Park Geun-hye, who appointed Choi, and stated that she could not be free from responsibility.[3]

Work related to LGBTI people in 2016

Regarding human rights policies, on September 5, 2016, the NHRCK issued a recommendation[4] for the government to establish the 3rd (2017-2021) National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (NAP). The NHRCK’s recommendations included the improvement of the legal system, for the prevention of discrimination against LGBTI people and human rights violations, and the promotion of human rights education. In addition, the NHRCK recommended again the repeal of the crime of “disgraceful conduct” in the Military Criminal Act, countermeasures for outing, health insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgery, and implementation of human rights education as key tasks, and newly recommended the relaxation of requirements for legal gender recognition regarding military service. However, it was revealed at a public hearing in September 2016 that content on LGBTI people was not included in the draft NAP prepared by the Ministry of Justice, causing much controversy.

Regarding remedies for discrimination, the NHRCK found discrimination based on illness in the application guidelines for government-invited foreign scholarship students which excluded people living with HIV/AIDS, and recommended removal of the provision on August 31, 2016. Also, on September 8, 2016, the NHRCK viewed forced HIV tests for foreigners with foreign language instruction visas (E-2) as racial discrimination, and recommended to the Prime Minister and relevant government departments to make legislative amendments and establish countermeasures.[5] However, in relation to the case where a gay soldier in the 37th Infantry Division was placed in isolation for the crime of “disgraceful conduct” in the Military Criminal Act, the NHRCK dismissed the complaint in December 2016 stating that, “It is difficult to conclude that this is a violation of human rights considering the unique circumstances in the military”.[6] Also, the NHRCK dismissed a complaint, where a transgender woman was pressured to undergo testis removal during the draft physical examination, one year and eight months after it was filed stating that the complaint period had expired.[7] Furthermore, the NHRCK dismissed the complaint against the Chairperson of the NHRCK for discrimination, when he continued to delay the announcement of the results of the “Survey on the Situation of Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”.[8]

In relation to international human rights, the NHRCK commented on November 24, 2016 that the Ministry of Justice’s “Draft Follow-up Report on the UN Human Rights Committee’s consideration of the Republic of Korea’s 4th Periodic Report” needed to be further supplemented.[9] On November 5, 2015, the Human Rights Committee requested Korea to provide, within one year, relevant information on its implementation of the Committee’s recommendations on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, conscientious objection, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Although the Ministry of Justice prepared a draft report on November 10, 2016, the NHRCK commented that the report did not reflect the government’s willingness to implement the recommendations and recommended the supplementation of the report. In particular, regarding the rights of LGBTI people, it recommended the government to put in efforts towards the prohibition of discrimination, including the enactment of the anti-discrimination law, and to consider the repeal of the crime of “disgraceful conduct” in the Military Criminal Act.[10]

Regarding studies and research, the NHRCK commissioned the “Survey on Medical Discrimination against People Living with HIV/AIDS” (carried out by Women with Disabilities ‘Empathy’) and revealed the final report in November 2016. In December 2016, it released the report on the “Study on Hate Speech and its Regulation” (carried out by Sookmyung Women’s University Industry Academic Cooperation Foundation).[11]

Amendment Bill of the National Human Rights Commission Act aimed at promoting the respect for human rights by corporations and public institutions, withdrawn due to opposition from anti-LGBTI organizations

The amendment bill of the National Human Rights Commission Act[12], which aimed to promote the respect for human rights of corporations and public institutions, was retracted two weeks after it was introduced due to opposition from anti-LGBTI organizations and conservative Christians. The purpose of the amendment bill, proposed by MP Jung-sook Jang of the People’s Party on November 7, 2016, was to introduce a “human rights respect certification system for corporations and public institutions”, in order to certify corporations and public institutions that implement best practices for the protection and promotion of human rights, and provide them with benefits such as awarding advantages in contract bids. However, anti-LGBTI groups including the Parents’ Coalition for the Upright Next Generation argued that the amendment bill “supports and encourages homosexuality and penalizes Christian corporations that do not recognize homosexuality as a human right” and formed an opposition movement. In response, the office of MP Jung-sook Jang released a statement saying, “It is reasonable for corporations to be penalized for refusing to allow lectures by a gay/lesbian instructor”, and also said that it is unfair to label the amendment bill as a pro-homosexuality law.[13] However, the amendment bill was retracted on November 21 due to opposition; 10,000 comments were posted on the Bill Information system.

Article 2 of the National Human Rights Commission Act stipulates discrimination based on “sexual orientation” in the definition on acts of discrimination. Anti-LGBTI organizations have labeled the Act as a pro-homosexuality law and continuously demanded the repeal of the relevant article. On June 23, 2016, the “One Million Signature Movement for the Revision of the Homosexuality Encouraging National Human Rights Commission Act”, which consists of 83 anti-LGBTI and conservative Christian organizations, sent “Written Questions on the Homosexuality Encouraging National Human Rights Commission Act” to all members of the 20th National Assembly. The questions claimed that, because of the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the National Human Rights Commission Act, there have been attempts to enact an anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation, and schools are using materials that support homosexuality to teach students.[14] These types of attacks by anti-LGBTI groups against the National Human Rights Commission Act have led to opposition of anti-discrimination legislation, and remain an obstacle to the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.

3.2 Local Government Human Rights Bodies

Recommendations on LGBTI people in 2016

In 2016, there were two recommendations issued by the Human Rights Ombudspeople of Seoul City. In 2015, the Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group Chingusai applied to rent the main auditorium of the Seoul Youth Center for its general assembly. However, the Center informed Chingusai that they would not be able to lease the auditorium due to the hosting of internal programs, and Chingusai filed a complaint to the Human Rights Ombudspeople. It was found through an investigation that even though the Center had previously leased the auditorium to five organizations, including a research institute, Chingusai was the only organization that was denied the rental of facilities. Considering the denial of rent as an act of discrimination without reasonable grounds, on February 15, 2015, the Human Rights Ombudspeople recommended the Center to undergo an inspection of leasing situation, provide human rights training for its employees, and establish relevant guidelines.[15], [16]

In addition, on August 9, 2016, the Human Rights Ombudspeople considered the Seoul Boramae Medical Center’s discriminatory medical treatment against a person living with HIV/AIDS as a violation of an individual’s right of personality.[17] In 2015, Boramae Medical Center brought on public criticism when it engaged in excessive infection control, such as using plastic wrap to cover a medical chair in the process of providing dental scaling to an HIV-infected patient. The Human Rights Ombudspeople conducted an investigation and recommended to the hospital to provide human rights training to its employees and establish guidelines to prevent human rights violations.[18]

[1] “Written Questions to Commissioner Choi E-woo regarding Discriminatory Statements against LGBTI People”, NHRCK-Watch, 11/2/2016
[2] “Future Ministry Forum, discusses directions for the Korean Christian human rights movement … Hosts preparatory forum for the launch of Korean Christian Movement Headquarters”, Asia Today, 10/29/2016
[3] “Commissioner discriminates against LGBTI people, defended by Chairperson … ’Is this the Human Rights Commission?’”, BeMinor, 11/22/2016
[4] “Recommendations for the 2017-2021 National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights”, National Human Rights Commission of Korea, July 2016
[5] For more information, see: 16. Health
[6] Rectification Human Rights Violation Committee 1 of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea decision 16-Complaint-0298000, 12/27/2016. See: 7. Military
[7] Rectification Human Rights Violation Committee 2 of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea decision 14-Complaint-0891200, 6/30/2016. See: 7. Military
[8] National Human Rights Commission of Korea decision 15-Complaint-0764900, 1/13/2016
[9] Standing Commissioners Committee of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea decision “Comments on the Government’s Follow-up Measures to the 4th Concluding Observations of the UN Human Rights Committee”, 11/24/2016
[10] For more information, see: 20. International Human Rights Mechanisms
[11] For more information, see: 19. Survey/Research
[12] Revised Bill of the National Human Rights Commission Act (Bill No. 2003349), Bill Information system, 11/7/2016
[13] “Pro-homosexuality companies to be given incentives?”, Kukmin Ilbo, 11/20/2016
[14] “Repeal Article 2-3 of the National Human Rights Commission Act that encourages immoral sexual culture ‘homosexuality’”, Newstown, 6/20/2016
[15] Human Rights Ombudspeople of Seoul City decision 14Application-95, 2/15/2016
[16] For more information, see 5. Access to Goods and Services
[17] Human Rights Ombudspeople of Seoul City decision 15Recognition-1, 15Application-104(Merged), 8/9/2016
[18] For more information, see 16. Health