They are gradually reducing the right of peaceful assembly to a privilege…

The global union for food, farm and hotel workers, the IUF, has joined the campaign launched by Amnesty International to demand an immediate independent investigation into the alleged excessive use of force by South Korean law enforcement officials against legitimate demonstrations. The campaign is also urging the authorities to bring charges against any officials found responsible for such excessive force, and it is demanding compensation for the 69-year-old Korean farmer Baek Nam-gi and his family for the injuries he suffered during the People’s Rally in Seoul on 14 November, 2015. The Baek family grow wheat, rice and beans in Boseong County in South Cheolla Province.

During this protest against the government’s promotion of casual employment and its support for the free trade agreement with the US known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Baek was knocked to the ground by a water cannon and injured as police continued to aim the cannon at him for about 15 seconds. People who attempted to assist Baek were driven back.

Water cannon are indiscriminate by design, and their use by the authorities must be both proportionate and necessary. In this case, it appears that the cannon were deployed without due consideration. When a major injury occurred, the police were unready to respond properly.

The Korean police’s own internal guidelines say that when an injury is sustained during the use of water cannon, immediate steps must be taken to provide relief to the injured person, but no such help was offered to Baek by the authorities. Baek didn’t reach hospital for over an hour. By that time he was in a critical condition. More than 250 days after the rally, he remains in a coma and his condition is deteriorating. None of the officers who appear to be responsible for causing Baek’s injuries have been charged.

Things are getting bad for workers in South Korea. The IUF has described “the [Korean] government’s ongoing war on trade unions, freedom of association, democratic protest and basic rights and civil liberties”, while the country’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, is something of a cheerleader for free trade in Asia.

In 2014, Park held meetings with US President Obama in Seoul. And in recent weeks she has been on official State visits to Latvia, Mexico, Iran, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and France; visited the headquarters of the African Union; held talks with the Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj; attended the two-day Eleventh Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, saying she hoped “that the ASEM Summit this time will provide an impetus to the spread of free trade across our regions”; and held bilateral meetings with Laos, Vietnam and the European Union’s representatives at ASEM. The emphasis of her administration on “economic democratisation” and its desire to lay the “foundation for peaceful unification” (with North Korea) seem to be designed to buttress the US-led drive for global neo-liberalism through trade agreements such as TTIP, TPP and TSA. Ironically, free-tradeism itself is beginning to lose its gloss as first the German and French governments expressed reservations about TTIP, and then the views of free trade sceptics like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have evidently resonated with a large section of the US electorate.

So, while President Park was promoting Korean culture and proselytising for free trade, two Korean trade union leaders—Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and Cho Sung-deok, vice-president of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU)—were receiving harsh prison sentences of five and two years imprisonment respectively arising from the campaign that culminated with last year’s People’s Rally. Many more trade unionists are still awaiting trial.

The criminalisation of trade union activity in Korea has been met by the mobilisation of international trade union organizations, including the IUF and its affiliates and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), whose president, general secretary and assistant general secretary attended Cho Sung-deok’s sentencing.

But for Baek Nam-gi, there seems little prospect of justice. As a result, Amnesty International Korea launched their campaign to call on the National Assembly to open a public hearing into the People’s Rally events so that a thorough and impartial investigation is completed swiftly, any officers found responsible for the excessive use of force are held accountable, and justice can finally be delivered for the Baek family.

With the help of the global union movement, people from all over the world are joining Amnesty’s Urgent Action to help the Baek family and demand action by Korea’s National Assembly.

“No one has apologised, been held accountable, or punished,” Baek Nam-gi’s eldest daughter, Baek Dora-ji, says.  “I am deeply ashamed that the government hasn’t done a thing. It is incomprehensible that the government hasn’t taken any action on my father’s case. I hope the hearing is held with the opening of the new parliament.”

Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, with Minjuwha Baek in Geneva, 2016The Baek family have also taken their case to the United Nations. In June, Baek Nam-gi’s other daughter, Minjuwha (pictured left), testified at the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “Water cannons can inflict great bodily harm, as the case of Mr. Baek Nam-gi tragically illustrates,” commented the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Maina Kiai (shown with Baek Minjuwha). “Many other peaceful participants told of water cannons being used against them with no apparent justification, and inflicting injuries.”

The Special Rapporteur signed a banner of support for Baek Nam-gi. He had visited Korea in January and reported on the policing of protests.

He noted that the mood in South Korea is increasingly repressive, and commented on the obstacles being erected to union membership. “I sense a trend of gradual regression on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association–not a dramatic shutdown of these rights, but a slow, creeping inclination to degrade them.”

He said that undue restrictions are seeping into every stage of the peaceful assembly process in South Korea, despite what he called a “rich history of protest.” The limitations range from formal legal constraints to practical obstacles. They are gradually reducing the right of peaceful assembly to a privilege. Government officials frequently use national security and people’s “convenience” as rationales for restricting protests. But restrictions often go too far.

You can support the campaign signing Amnesty International Korea’s petition (the website is in Korean and English).

The aims of the campaign are fully explained on the site and there is a standard letter to send to the Chair of the National Assembly Security and Public Administration Committee. Just click the [Send a Letter] button after writing your name and email address.

More details

Click here to sign the petition

UN Special Rapporteur’s report on policing of protest in South Korea (in six languages)





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Gary Herman

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