Ruling allows Korea to continue imprisoning conscientious objectors

Seoul, South Korea - Despite international recognition of the rights of conscientious objectors, a ruling by Korea’s highest court will permit the continued imprisonment of Korean citizens exercising their rights as conscientious objectors to military service. On August 30, 2011, the Constitutional Court of Korea found no basis to declare unconstitutional the laws that penalize conscientious objectors who refuse military service.

Six different Korean courts challenged that these laws violated the human dignity of conscientious objectors or their freedom of conscience. The laws were also challenged by four of Jehovah’s Witnesses who conscientiously refused to take up arms.

A ruling by the Constitutional Court in 2004, regarding Korea’s Military Service Act, stated that the legislators were obliged to introduce an alternative provision that would accommodate conscientious objectors. Since then, some 5,000 conscientious objectors—young men with no previous criminal records—have been routinely convicted. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly ruled that Korea—a member state of the United Nations for nearly 20 years—is violating the basic human rights of conscientious objectors and is in violation of its commitments under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission in Korea has issued numerous recommendations calling for recognition of the right to conscientious objection.

Dae-il Hong, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea, commented: “The decision is disappointing, because the Court had the opportunity to acknowledge the right to freedom of conscience and terminate the trials and imprisonment of principled young men. We hope that the legislature will soon bring Korea in line with the rest of the world by providing an alternative civilian service program. Conscientious objectors are not criminals and should be given the opportunity to serve as productive members of their communities.”

Since 1950, there have been more than 16,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to a combined total of 31,256 years for refusing to perform military service. If alternative service is not provided, some 500 to 900 young men will continue to be added each year to the list of conscientious objectors criminalized in Korea.