8 August 2022 International Conscientious Objector Day | South Korea ’ s Alternative Civilian Service Violates International Standards

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As the world prepared for Internationnational Conscientious Objector Day on May 15, over 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea have chosen to perform alternative civilian service (ACS), instead of compulsory military duties. Under the current format, these young men are prisoners because they are forced to live and work in prison facilities. The republic’s 36-month ACS is the longest in the world, twice the length of active military service, and thus considered punitive. Experts inside and outside South Korea recognize the program violates an international covenant the republic is a party to and has been calling on the government for reform.

For example, the commissioner of South Korea’sNational Human Rights Commission, Mr.Doo-hwan Song, has stated publicly: “I deeply agree on the need to improve the[ACS] system to meet international human rights standards.”

South Korea’s ACS first made international headlines when it was introduced in 2019. Prior to that, for some 65 years, South Korean courts criminally convicted and imprisoned more than19,000 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, for decades, SouthKorea was often internationally censured. However, the criticism has since shifted to the punitive nature of the ACS program, which is twice the length of prison time imposed by the public prior to the 2019 provision.

According to Amnesty International: “South Korean conscientious objectors were promised a genuine alternative service. Instead, they are confronted with little more than an alternative punishment.”

The program is not congruent with the republic’s constitution, encroaching on a citizen’s freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as guaranteed in Article 19. Experts eagerly anticipate how the newly elected president and his administration will address the issue.

For more information about Jehovah’s Witnesses or conscientious objections in general, as well as the punitive nature of ACS in South Korea, please email the Asia-Pacific Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses (APAJW): apajw.jp@jw.org.

The APAJW is a General Incorporated Association representing over 770,000 members of our faith community in the Asia and Oceania region. Our primary purpose is to support the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and protect their fundamental rights.

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