By Mhairi McAulay
The oppression of free speech has always been a pertinent issue in the international community. Usually, States like to believe that they are collectively moving towards a more free, equal society. However, the recent actions of South Korea and Angola are highlighting a willingness of State officials to punish activists who seek to protect the most vulnerable in society in order to allow themselves to continue their abhorrent behaviour.
What is happening in South Korea?
The government is actively targeting activist groups who focus their efforts on North Korea’s human rights abuses. This targeted attack is manifesting in the form of sudden review deadlines and unreasonable documentary requirements. Additionally, there have been threats of office inspections. The friction between the parties was aggravated after the threat of retaliation by North Korea’s government over the dispersal of heavily critical leaflets in North Korea by the South Korean activists. These requirements could easily be brushed off as part of the necessary bureaucratic process, but similar groups are not facing such onerous and hasty requests. (Human Rights Watch).
The South Korean government’s efforts are a thinly veiled attempt to protect themselves from the North Korean government at the cost of the safety of the North Korean people, and the free speech of their own citizens.
What is happening in Angola?
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) Mission of Beneficence Agriculture of Kubando, Inclusive Technologies and Environment (MBAKITA) was set up in 2002 and has been fighting for the rights of San people and traditional communities in Angola. (Amnesty International). The San people are southern Africa’s oldest inhabitants, and many still live as hunter-gatherers in basic shelters, or in homesteads. Some have also moved into urban areas. The people suffered immensely after the civil war, losing access to food, and enduring threats to their way of life. They have faced continued oppression and discrimination by nearby Bantu groups, who have more social and political power. (ReliefWeb).
In the past few years, MBAKITA’s members and officials have been the victims of intimidation, forced disappearances, torture, and deaths in suspicious circumstances. There has been no adequate investigation of these crimes, and no one has been held accountable. (Amnesty International). By failing to prosecute those who seek to silence MBAKITA, the Angolan authorities have made it clear they are comfortable to silence their critics.
Another concerning element of these latest developments is the convenience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the guise of a virus prevention campaign, nine MBAKITA members were arbitrarily detained. (Amnesty International). It is worrying to think that governments may be able to use this unprecedented crisis to extend their powers and justify their oppression of basic human rights.
Is there law to prevent this?
Yes, there is. At the national level, both South Korea and Angola’s constitutions enshrine freedom of expression (articles 21 and 40 respectively), and within these articles, both states explicitly prohibit censorship. At the international level, both states are members of the UN and are signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines freedom of expression in its article 19.
What does this mean for the international legal community?
It is clear that South Korean and Angolan authorities have breached their own law, and their international commitments as well. Articles 30 and 31 of the UN’s Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts suggest South Korea and Angola have a responsibility to cease these egregious human rights abuses, guarantee they will not be repeated, and to pay reparations for injuries caused by their actions.
Unfortunately, the nature of international law is that it is hard to enforce. There are minimal repercussions for states who ignore their own law, and co-ordinating a response at the international level can be difficult. In theory, other states may impose countermeasures and sanctions in order to pressure South Korea and Angola into stopping this behaviour. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Another option could be prosecution in the International Criminal Court (ICC), of which Angola is not a member but South Korea is. However, with any method of punishment, other states put themselves at risk, and many are not keen to ‘rock the boat’ until absolutely necessary.
These developments highlight the fatal flaw of international law and its fragile institutions – that they lack legitimacy without co-operation. If the oppression of civil liberties goes unpunished, that could be enough to delegitimise international law as an institution entirely. Even if the acts of South Korea and Angola do not topple the system, it is still possible that they could create a new custom, a powerful tool in international law. This could lead to the acceptance of a reduction of basic human rights globally.
It is imperative that other states act to punish South Korea and Angola, not only to protect human rights and the people attempting to exercise them, but to protect international law’s legitimacy and efficacy.