Establishing an anti-discrimination law in an Asian country

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As Malaysians struggle for equality as well, it is timely to look at the challenge facing another Asian country, Korea, which is in the process of establishing an anti-discrimination law. John Smith Thang has the story.

A public hearing on a multi-society and the establishment of an anti-discrimination law was held at the National Assembly Library, Seoul, South Korea.  The event was organised by National Human Rights Commissioner of Korea and National Assembly member Byeonghun Jeon on 30 September 30, 2009. The participants were made up of representatives from various civil society sectors, advocates and migrants. Such an event to highlight efforts to oppose race discrimination is rare in Korea.

According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Article I, paragraph (1), the definition of “racial discrimination” is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

An Indian scholar at the SungKongHoe University,  Bonojit Hussain, reported the deeply frustrating and painful effects of “racial discrimination” when he was  insulted by one Mr. Park on a public bus on 10 July 2009. He was targeted because of his distinct Indian facial features, i.e. round eyes, long nose, moustache, skin colour and his body scent. He said  in his statement that he had been badly abused verbally with words such as “stinky bastard” and even physically assaulted by Mr. Park.  

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Nonetheless, many cases of racial discrimination in Korea remain unknown or unreported. The racial abuse of foreigners in general and migrant workers in particular sometimes results in physical abuse. Such racial discrimination is extremely painful to the victim. In recent years,  racial discrimination has increased in this tiny Korean peninsula. Clearly, ongoing racism is possibly widespread and dangerous to the country.   

Similarly, among Korean people, those underprivileged—the poor, the lower-income group and women mainly fall victim to discrimination. The suppression of women in Korea is seen as something of a tradition in this society.

In the case of refugees, the Korean government has officially recognised refugees under F-2.2 immigration status, a resident status that allows them to stay in the country. However, refugee children are still unequally treated compared to Korean children. For example, refugee children are excluded from the Social Welfare Department’s student’s financial aid programme. Wages paid to refugees are not equal to those given to their Korean counterparts for the same work despite, the absence of any basic economic and social support available to officially recognised refugees in Korea compared to those in other countries such as Australia, Europe and the United States.  South Korea is one of the countries that have ratified the 1951 UN Refugees Convention.

When we look at Asian culture, we often think of a pleasant and courteous manner that symbolises goodness. Besides, in the Christian and Buddhist faiths, the practice of discrimination is strongly condemned. Global religions believe in upholding unity, kindness and peace. All these religions  do not support racial discrimination.

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Test for Korean democracy

Definitely, such racial discrimination will not give Korea a shining image. Since Korea is trying to attract tourists (for the 2010-2012 Visit Korea Years), as well as migrant labour and expertise, such racial discrimination won’t encourage English teachers, professionals, foreign workers and other migrant labour which Korea hopes will boost  the country economically.  Furthermore, Korea has pledged to abide by international law as a developed country.   

So it is a big challenge to Korea to establish an anti-discrimination law, as the first step towards anti-discrimination in the country, to strengthen its international credentials and to be seen as a good example of a democratic country.

Some people, especially conservative traditionalists, may object to the establishment of an anti-discrimination law. On the other hand, surely, the establishment of the such a  law won’t diminish the rights of Korean citizens or lessen Korean nationalism. Rather, it will facilitate equal and fair treatment of every Korean and other human beings so that they become part of genuine globalisation that builds on human rights.

Furthermore, such a law would encourage teachers, religious leaders ( monks, church pastors, and priests) and civil society groups to raise awareness of the need to end racial discrimination in the country.

The enactment of an anti-discrimination law is a test for Korea’s democracy and the country’s respect for international human rights obligations. It is time for Koreans to realise the importance of non-discrimination before it is too late to respond to this human rights challenge. The world is watching Korea.

John Smith Thang is a Burmese human rights activist and freelance writer based in Korea.

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