S. Korean Gov’t Urged to End Criminal Investigation of NGO for Questions on Cheonan Sent to UN

The South Korean government has denounced an NGO for writing to the Security Council. The South Korean prosecutor’s office has initiated a criminal investigation against one of the most respected civil society organizations in South Korea, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). But is it a criminal act for an NGO to send a letter or report to the Security Council on a problem before the Council?

PSPD is a watchdog NGO that was founded in 1994. Since then it has monitored the actions of the South Korean government, supporting the efforts of South Korean citizens to participate in political affairs.

In a letter asking for support, PSPD writes (1):

“PSPD believes that diplomacy and security policy should be under the citizenry’s watch and democratic control. National Security and diplomatic policy should not be monopolized by military and diplomatic authorities.”

On June 11, the Center for Peace and Disarmament of PSPD sent a letter to UN Security Council President Claude Heller, the Mexican Ambassador to the UN. Mexico holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of June. With its letter, PSPD included its report, “The PSPD’s Stance on the Naval Vessel Cheonan Sinking.”(2)

The letter and report were also sent to the other fourteen member states of the United Nations Security Council, to the United Nations Secretary General and to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

The PSPD report raised a number of questions and problems with the findings presented by the South Korean government of its investigation of the Cheonan sinking.

Background

The South Korean government, unable to win support domestically for its allegations that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, turned to the UN Security Council for action against North Korea.(3) On June 4 the South Korean Ambassador at the UN submitted a letter to the UN Security Council requesting it to take up the matter of the sinking of the Cheonan. (4)

On June 8, North Korea submitted a letter to the Security Council denying any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan.(5)

The Security Council scheduled an informal meeting for South Korea to present its case against North Korea on Monday, June 14. Initially there was no plan for the Security Council to meet with the North Korean delegation on the Cheonan issue. On Sunday evening, however, news reports from South Korea announced that on June 14, the Security Council would also hold an informal meeting with North Korea.

According to some of the South Korean news media who cover the UN, the big story in South Korea on Monday, June 14, was not that South Korea was making its presentation to the Security Council. Instead the media described denunciations by South Korean government officials against PSPD for sending its report to the UN. The reporters claimed the South Korean government believed that the PSPD report influenced the North Korean UN delegation to request a presentation at the UN Security Council on the subject of the Cheonan. There was no proof presented for such allegations. This did not, however, stop South Korean government officials from making accusations against PSPD, nor the South Korean conservative media from supporting the denunciations with articles accusing the NGO of anti patriotic behavior.(6)

South Korean Government Says “Against the National Interest”

In Seoul, on June 14, the spokesman for the Blue House, for the President of South Korea, Lee Myung bak, publicly denounced PSPD.

Also on June 14, during the Question and Answer time at the National Assembly, the South Korean Prime Minister, Un-Chan Chung, denouncing PSPD for sending its letter and report to the UN Security Council, said, “ Such actions are against national interest. It (PSPD’s action) dishonored and shamed our country.”

Back at UN headquarters in New York on Monday, June 14, two separate informal meetings of the Security Council were held in the North Lawn Building. A large number of reporters waited in the café outside the area where the Security Council was meeting because the meetings were closed to the press.

After the two informal Security Council meetings, the Mexican Ambassador spoke briefly to the press. He said, “the Security Council issued a call to the parties to refrain from any act that could escalate tensions in the region, and makes an appeal to preserve peace and stability in the region.” He also indicated that the Security Council would continue its consultations after the meetings it had with the delegations of both nations.

Heller said that it was very important to have received the very detailed presentation by South Korea and also to know and learn from the arguments of North Korea. He commented that it was “very important that North Korea has approached the Security Council.” In response to a question about his view on the issues presented, he responded, “I am not a judge. I think we will go on with the consultations to deal in a proper manner on the issue.” (7)

The North Korean UN delegation scheduled a press conference for the following day, Tuesday, June 15. During the press conference, the North Korean Ambassador presented North Korea’s refutation of the allegations made by South Korea. Also he explained North Korea’s request to be able to send an investigation team to go to the site where the sinking of the Cheonan occurred. South Korea had denied the request. During the press conference, a reporter with a South Korean newspaper asked the North Korean Ambassador if he had received a copy of the PSPD document from PSPD. The Ambassador responded that not to his knowledge.

In a press release, the Asian Human Rights Commission writes that following the denunciation of PSPD by South Korean government officials, “the country’s Prosecutor’s office reportedly leaked to newspapers that there was a possibility that the staff of the PSPD might be prosecuted under the National Security Act, if a case were to be filed….” (9)

“In response,” it explains, “conservative groups filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office.” On June 15, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Chun Yeong-U said that, “A legal examination is currently going on.”

Following the accusatory remarks by South Korean government officials against PSPD, “people belonging to conservative groups attempted to raid the offices of PSPD.” There are reports that members of PSPD were assaulted verbally and physically, and threatening phone calls were made to the PSPD offices.

In one incident, a van containing flammable material was driven up to the building where PSPD offices are located. The police did not arrest the perpetrators of these deeds. The Prosecutor, instead, opened an investigation of PSPD.

On June 17, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the case against PSPD was allocated to the Public Security Bureau 1,which announced its intention to summon PSPD officials.

The Asian Human Rights Commission also reported that the Prosecutor’s office “approached one of the experts who worked on the government-led report in order for this expert to submit a complaint concerning alleged criminal defamation by the NGO.”

South Korean government officials, supported by some of the South Korean media, allege that it is an unusual practice for an NGO to send a letter or report to the UN Security Council. Recently, a reporter asked a government official, “Are there any cases that a NGO sends a contrast position paper against a government on the security issue.” Chun, Yung-woo, the 2nd Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded, “I have never heard that there are such NGOs, and document sent by a NGO cannot be a UNSC document.

NGO Writing to Security Council Established Practice at the UN

Such an interchange demonstrates a serious lack of knowledge of UN and particularly Security Council procedures. There is a long established practice at the UN of NGO’s or private individuals sending letters and documents to the Security Council on questions before the Security Council. Most if not all of the matters before the Security Council have to do with security issues.

Records at the UN show that the practice of sending such correspondence to the Security Council dates back to 1946. This is the date when the symbol S/NC/ was introduced as the symbol for “Communications received from private individuals and non-governmental bodies relating to matters of which the Security Council is seized.” (10) The Security Council has the practice of periodically publishing a list of the documents it receives, the name and organization of the sender, and the date they are received. The Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council states that the list is to be circulated to all representatives on the Security Council. A copy of any communication on the list is to be given to any nation on the Security Council that requests it.

There are over 450 such lists indicated in the UN records. As each list can contain several or a large number of documents the Security Council has received, the number of such documents is likely to be in the thousands.

Under Rule 39 of the Council procedures, the Security Council may invite any person it deems competent for the purpose to supply it with information on a given subject. Thus the two procedures in the Security Council’s provisional rules give it the basis to find assistance on issues it is considering from others outside the Council and to consider the contribution as part of its deliberation.

Many Calling for End to Witch Hunt Against PSPD

Initiating a criminal investigation against a South Korean NGO or citizen for what is a long existing practice and tradition with respect to the UN Security Council, is a South Korean government action that is being compared to the kind of “witch-hunts” that occurred during the period of the 1950s in the US which has come to be known as McCarthyism.

In contrast to the attack on PSPD by the South Korean government and the conservative media, many NGOs and citizens in South Korea have expressed their support for PSPD.

A group of 200 professors and other intellectuals in South Korea have issued a statement calling for the end of the “witch hunt” against PSPD. The statement explains that “PSPD had performed its innate duty and right as a civic group.” The group calls for conservative groups to end their irrational backward attacks on PSPD.(11)

Also, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, an organization of 46 groups in Asia which includes PSPD, sent a petition to Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right of Opinion and Expression. (12) It asked the UN to “advise the South Korean government to end the prosecutorial investigation of PSPD.”

La Rue had visited South Korea on May 6-17, 2010. He issued a press statement on May 17 documenting other examples of the abuse by the South Korean government of the human rights of its citizens. He referred to the obligation of South Korea to adhere to the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protecting the right to freedom of expression.(13)

While La Rue’s comments were made prior to the current South Korean government attack on PSPD, Amnesty International has issued a statement regarding the current situation. (14) It writes:

“Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the Seoul Central Prosecutor’s Office’s decision on Wednesday to investigate the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) for sending a letter to the UN Security Council questioning the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean navy vessel the Cheonan. The civic group is accused of ‘benefiting’ North Korea, in violation of the National Security Law, interfering with state’s acts and defamation.”

The statement concludes, “Amnesty International is also concerned that the National Security Law continues to be used to arbitrarily target individuals or groups peacefully exercising their basic rights to freedom of expression and association. Simply put, this law is used as a tool to silence dissent.”

Secretary General Says he does not “have a comment at this time”

On Friday, June 18, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was asked for his view of the current action by the prosecutor in South Korea against an NGO for sending a letter to the Security Council. He responded, “I will have to check. I’m not aware of that… I don’t have a comment at this time, but I may have to check and will get back to you later.”(15)He did not get back to the journalist as of the publication date of this article.

Open Letter Sent to Ban Ki-moon about Reprisals for Participation in UN Work

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has appealed to Ban Ki-moon. On June 24, it sent an Open Letter to Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon about the situation. In the letter it asks him (16):

“. . ..to take all necessary steps to ensure that the reprisals, directly or indirectly attributable to the Republic of Korea, are immediately halted against civil society groups that have communicated with the UN. The AHRC appreciates the work of the Secretary-General concerning reprisals and urges his offices to include this case as part of efforts to protect civil society members from facing attacks based on their participation in the UN’s work.”

The AHRC has also asked the High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene to “ensure that these reprisals are halted” and that the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression be implemented in full and without delay. It also calls upon South Korea as a member of the Human Rights Council to act to “uphold the highest standards.”

Support for PSPD to Continue Its Activities as Political Watchdog

PSPD reports that the organization has increased its membership by 15% with 1600 new members joining since the attack by the South Korean government. Also, numerous individuals and organizations in Korea and outside have sent letters and made statements in support of PSPD.

“As a member of the international society”, PSPD explains, “PSPD will continuously make every effort to advance the universal goals of democracy and peace through its activities as a political watchdog.”(17)

Notes

1. Stop Oppression and Prosecutor’s Investigation on PSPD, 6/21/2010 http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20915
2. PSPD Report Sent to Security Council, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/Peace/31028, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/Peace/31029, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/Peace/31030
3. What’s Behind South Korea Bringing the Cheonan Issue to the UN Security Council, 6/7/2010, http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2010/06/07/whats_behind_south_korea_bringing_the_cheonan_issue_to_the_un_security_council/
4. Letter from the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the UN with regard to the armed attack by North Korea on 26 May 2010 against the Republic of Korea’s navy ship the Cheonan, S/2010/281, http://ods-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/389/32/PDF/N1038932.pdf?OpenElement
5. Letter from the Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the UN rejecting the “investigations results” of the sinking of the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan , S/2010/294, http://ods-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/396/42/PDF/N1039642.pdf?OpenElement
6. See description in: Gwak Byeong-chan, “Which Country Do You Belong To?”, Hankyoreh, June 16, 2010,http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_opinion/425906.html
7. Informal comments to the Media by the President of the Security Council and the Permanent Representative of Mexico, H.E. Mr. Claude Heller on the Cheonan incident (the sinking of the ship from the Republic of Korea) and on Kyrgyzstan. June 14, 2010, [Webcast: Archived Video – 5 minutes ], http://webcast.un.org/ramgen/ondemand/stakeout/2010/so100614pm3.rm
8. Press Conference: H.E. Mr. Sin Son Ho, Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations, on the current situation in the Korean Peninsula. June 15, 2010,[Webcast: Archived Video – 58 minutes ], http://webcast.un.org/ramgen/ondemand/pressconference/2010/pc100615am.rm
9. An Open Letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon by the Asian Human Rights Commission , 6/25/2010, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20921
10. See “United Nations Series Symbols: 1946-1996”, Dag Hammarskjold Library, United Nations, New York, 1998, p. 234.
11. “Scholars Call for End to PSPD Witch Hunt” , Hankyoreh, June 22, 2010. http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/426832.htm
12. Forum-Asia Submits the Urgent Appeal on Threats of Prosecution against PSPD to UN Rapporteur 6/21/2010, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20914
13. Frank La Rue, Rapporteur, UN, Full Text of ROK Press Statement, May 17, 2010, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/opinion/docs/ROK-Pressstatement17052010.pdf
14. Amnesty International expresses its concern about the investigation on the PSPD , 6/18/2010, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20913
15.18 June, New York: Secretary-General’s remarks to the media, http://www.un.org/apps/sg/offthecuff.asp?nid=1445
16. An Open Letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon by the Asian Human Rights Commission , 6/25/2010, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20921
17.Stop Oppression and Prosecutor’s Investigation of PSPD, http://blog.peoplepower21.org/English/20915