Nine out of 10 conscientious objectors S. Koreans: report

SEOUL, July 15 (Yonhap) -- More than nine out of 10 people being imprisoned worldwide for refusing to serve in the military on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion are South Koreans, a report showed Monday.

According to the report released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) earlier last month, of the 723 conscientious objectors worldwide, 92.5 percent or 669 are South Korean nationals.

In South Korea, all able-bodied men are required to serve about two years in compulsory military, and conscientious objectors who refuse to serve without justification face up to three years in prison if convicted.

Noticeably, 17,208 South Korean male members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have been criminally punished since 1950 for refusing to perform in the military service for their religious beliefs, the report said.

The report said that many countries have either abolished or postponed mandatory military conscription, citing examples such as Germany and Croatia.

Furthermore, the UNHCHR recommended that an alternative civilian service should be granted for those who refuse to serve due to their conscience and that the objectors opt to perform a period of social work instead.

In 2007, the South Korean government announced a program to give conscientious objectors an opportunity to participate in alternative civilian service. The program stipulated civilian service not connected with the military in any way.

That program, however, was postponed indefinitely after the former Lee Myung-bak administration took office in 2008.

The issue has long been debated in the country, as some argue that the punishment violates the international human rights law that guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

However, others say that introducing an alternative service would jeopardize national security, and undermine social equality and cohesion.

Recently, the country has drawn criticism from international organizations that argue that South Korea is violating an international human rights article that guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, they said.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled in October that the South Korean government had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by imprisoning and punishing people for refusing to serve in the military.

The committee emphasized that "the right to conscientious objection to military service is inherent in the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

Following the ruling, a total of 333 local members of Jehovah's Witnesses filed a petition with South Korea's Constitutional Court, claiming that the government has not taken any legislative step in spite of an advice from the United Nations last year.

Despite such calls, the country's top court last week finalized a jail term for a 21-year-old man, identified only by his surname Choi, to 18 months behind bars, for failing to participate in mandatory military conscription.

Oh Doo-jin, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, pointed out that the South Korean judiciary is ignoring an advice from international organizations.

"We must establish the legislation to guarantee fundamental rights of the people," Oh said.

The Constitutional Court twice ruled in 2004 and 2011 that the law punishing the conscientious objectors is constitutional.

The court said in its ruling that the punishment did not severely violate the constitutional freedom of religion and conscience given that South Korea is technically in a state of war with North Korea following a cease-fire that halted the 1950-53 Korean War.

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