Twentieth Anniversary of the National Human Rights Commission

Despite the waxing and waning of its authority, the NHRC has been a key force in protecting human rights.

Twentieth Anniversary of the National Human Rights Commission

Photo: President Moon Jae-in gives remark for the 20th anniversary event of the National Human Rights Commission.  Credit: Office of the President.

On November 25, 2001, the Kim Dae-jung 김대중 administration established the National Human Rights Commission 국가인권위원회, an independent government agency that oversees the protection of human rights as defined by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea as well as international law.

Twenty years after its establishment, the NHRC is criticized for its relative lack of power: the most it can  do, critics say, is to issue recommendations, and its authority has waxed and waned depending on whether conservatives or liberals were in power. Under the Lee Myung-bak 이명박 administration, for example, the NHRC lost more than 20% of its staff, and ran a blacklist of the NHRC officials. Even under liberal administrations, the NHRC was criticized for not doing more, particularly as to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Yet the NHRC has done much for human rights in South Korea by raising awareness and leading opinion on pressing issues. In its 20 years of existence, the NHRC received nearly 160k petitions from citizens. Many of its non-binding recommendations, including reduction of police brutality and alternate military service for conscientious objectors, eventually became the law.

The NHRC has been effective in addressing the small injustices of daily lives, such as disabled access to tourist attractions, discrimination against stepfathers who wished to participate in raising their stepchildren, and labeling the peach colored crayon as “flesh color” - in times when South Korea was largely a monoethnic country.

In his congratulatory remark, President Moon Jae-in 문재인 대통령 said the Commission should “create the new standard of human rights for the changing era,” calling for the enactment of the long-floundering Anti-Discrimination Act 차별금지법. (See previous coverage, “Can Anti-Discrimination Act Pass This Time?”)

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