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International Seminar on Enforced Disappearance: Lessons for Korea
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2015-08-26 21:28:38
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International Seminar on Enforced Disappearance: Lessons for Korea

A conversation about transitional justice and addressing enforced disappearance



Michele Park Sonen

Program Officer, Advocacy and Campaign Team


On July 22, NKHR hosted a seminar on transitional justice efforts to respond to enforced disappearances at the British Embassy in Seoul. The seminar—International Seminar on Enforced Disappearance: Lessons for Korea—featured speakers from Guatemala, Timor Leste, Indonesia, and Laos sharing experiences of enforced disappearance in their countries. Drawing from these experiences, the seminar also sought practical lessons for Korea as it starts to consider transitional justice initiatives. The newly-established UN field office in Seoul—established to continue the work begun by the Commission of Inquiry and monitor North Korea’s human rights violations—made its first public presentation and discussed the ways in which the office and UN procedures can help NGO activists and families of victims of enforced disappearance.


From Laos, Ms. Shui Meng Ng spoke about her husband Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in Laos just two and a half years ago. The lack of response she has received from the government of Laos only deepened her wounds. But she has not been discouraged. She turned to the international community for support and has become a strong voice for the forcibly disappeared worldwide. 


Sisto dos Santos, the Advocacy Coordinator for Past Crimes Program of HAK (the Law, Basic Rights, and Justice Foundation) in Timor Leste, discussed the 25-year conflict between Timor Leste and Indonesia that led to the enforced disappearance of thousands of Timorese children, taken by the Indonesian military. Following the conflict, the United Nations and the international community helped establish a transitional government and a truth commission. But for Mr. dos Santos and the Timor Leste public, these efforts fell short when political will waned and resources grew thin. NGOs like HAK were left to pick up where the international community left off. This included performing the work of exhumations and identifying remains despite limited budgets and lack of government support.


From Indonesia, Ms. Yati Andriyani of the well-known NGO KontraS spoke about Indonesia’s own history of forcibly disappearing citizens and steps it took domestically to remedy those past crimes. Among other efforts, Indonesia enacted legal frameworks aimed at ensuing accountability. Although the initiatives were salutary, they lacked teeth and the public felt justice was not served. Ms. Andriyani also spoke about the recent reunifications of stolen Timorese children and their families. Just a few months ago, in May, NGOs including HAK and KontraS located a number of disappeared children (now adults) and reunited 14 of them with their families in Timor Leste.  The reunifications were historic—they marked the first reunions of the stolen Timorese children. HAK, KontraS, and others will continue the work of reuniting these families.


NKHR was fortunate to also have the expertise of Marco Antonio Garavito, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. Professor Garavito participated in reunifications of over 400 children that were abducted in Guatemala during the 36-year internal conflict. Importantly, Professor Garavito offered his perspective on an often overlooked issue: mental health. Prioritizing victims’ needs, Professor Garavito explained that sometimes reunification is not the best course for the victim, especially when the victim is a child and their psychosocial health is at risk. Putting victims’ needs first resonated with many of the participants, some of whom where victims themselves or family members of abductees.


Following the presentations from our international guests, NKHR spoke about the lessons Korea can learn from our speakers’ experiences. As Korea prepares for unification, now is the time to consider what transitional justice will look like. How can Korea ensure that victims feel justice is served?  How can activists ensure that political will remains strong, and that enough resources allocated to ensure that justice initiatives are fully carried through? How can civil society and government work together to ensure truth, justice, and reconciliation?


These questions were followed by presentation by Tarek Cheniti, Deputy Representative of the new UN office in Seoul, about the role of the UN in responding to enforced disappearances. He spoke about the requirements for submission of individual cases to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID). He explained that the office was available to assist NGOs and family members with submitting cases; utilizing information about disappearances as an advocacy tool; and strengthening the capacity of NGOs, family members, and the public to monitor, document, and report on human rights violations.


Many of the audience members were victims themselves or family members of abductees. As the substantive sessions of the seminar came to a close, a few shared their concerns with the panel, as well as their own experiences. In-cheol Hwang, son of Won Hwang who was abducted to North Korea when his Korean Airline flight was abducted by North Korea, raised questions about the practical steps activists and families can take despite the South Korean government’s indifference. Aiko Kawasaki, an ethnically Korean Japanese citizen who was persuaded to move to North Korea after being deceived by the pro-Pyongyang Federation of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), spoke about her difficult life in North Korea and her escape. Many were deceived into going to North Korea and have not been permitted to leave. Ms. Kawasaki emphasized the responsibility of the Chongyon; the United Nations; the International Red Cross; and the governments of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan to provide assistance. Young-bok Han, a representative of the Family Union of Korean POWs Detained in North Korea and son of a South Korean POW detained in North Korea, spoke about the discrimination that his father endured in the North. He criticized the South Korean government’s indifference to the POWs in the North and how that deeply hurt their children in the South. These stories aroused deep empathy from the international guests, who promised solidarity with the South Korean victims of disappearance.


The international seminar posed difficult questions about transitional justice in Korea. Indeed, there are no easy answers, but we hope this seminar marks the beginning of a conversation on how society will ensure truth and justice while moving forward after reunification.