South Korea: New anti-discrimination bill offers hope and safety to many

Responding to the introduction of a bill to outlaw discrimination in South Korea, including against LGBTI people, Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher of Amnesty International said:

“A law to effectively protect everybody from discrimination, including LGBTI people, could make South Korea a pioneer in Asia for passing such legislation. This is a welcome initiative which, if followed through, would give hope and safety to many.

“International law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. National legislation in South Korea to comprehensively outlaw discrimination would be a crucial step towards ensuring equal rights for all, as enshrined in international law and standards.

“President Moon Jae-in should further efforts to improve human rights in South Korea and support a genuine discussion of this bill, and other proposals to eliminate discrimination for all people.

Background

The anti-discrimination bill was proposed on 29 June 2020 by the Justice Party, joined by a few other lawmakers. This is the seventh time that a bill on anti-discrimination has been submitted to the National Assembly, but the first such attempt since 2006. In past attempts, the inclusion of provisions outlawing LGBTI-discrimination was especially contentious.

On 8 July, the ruling Democratic Party indicated to the media that it may submit a similar bill on anti-discrimination. In South Korea, different political parties may prepare bills on the same issue when the discussion is not initiated by the administration. They then compromise on a final version which could be passed by a majority in the National Assembly.

Discrimination against LGBTI people in South Korea continues to exist in various forms, some of which are institutionalized. Consensual same-sex activity between adults continues to be criminalized in the military, even though it is not outlawed for the general public. Almost all men undergo military service, spending at least 21 months in an environment where stigmatization or even violence against LGBTI people is institutionalized.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also shed further light on prevailing prejudices against LGBTI people in South Korea. Instances of LGBTI people known to have tested positive for the virus resulted in the media and members of the public making discriminatory and unfounded links between the spread of COVID-19 and sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some governments have used the pandemic as a justification to crack down on LGBTI people and pass measures that severely infringe on their rights or stigmatize them.

Under international human rights law and standards, governments have a responsibility to respect and protect LGBTI people. This includes the adoption of policies and laws preventing discrimination against them.

The submission of an anti-discrimination bill in South Korea builds on momentum for such legislation in other countries in Asia. A bill focusing on the discrimination against LGBTI people is being discussed in Japan, while Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019.