International relations, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

15 November 2019

In the wake of a recent Amnesty International report, democratic allies of South Korea served it serious criticism on LGBTI issues. In the process, they showed the potential for digitalised diplomacy to help protect human rights, Felicia Istad writes.

In an increasingly digitalised society, news spreads like wildfire.

In the past, governments have focused primarily on communicating with their domestic audience, but with the rise of social media vastly increasing the amount of news people can consume, states must manage their public relations at the international level too.

More on this: South Korea’s digital diplomacy deficit

Adding to this is also an emerging consensus on the necessity of deep communication about national values and culture through two-way communication. In conjunction, these trends provide societies around the world with complex questions of how others perceive them, and how they want to be perceived.

The complexity of these questions is coming from the trend of domestic affairs no longer being confined to borders. It seems anything and everything happening in a state is now closely scrutinised by neighbours and allies.

In terms of human rights, debates on the death penalty, freedom of speech, and minority rights have gone from local to global.

A pertinent example is that of South Korea.

This year, Amnesty International released a report condemning the discriminatory treatment of LGBTI people in South Korea’s military. Its findings included incidents of violence, isolation, and bullying against LGBTI people. The report, Serving in Silence, was shared with millions of people on a worldwide scale and cited widely by media outlets.

More on this: Why South Korea needs to get the public onside with foreign policy

Public awareness appears to have been a goal of this and plays a significant role in the work of Amnesty International, which often relies on the mobilisation of public opinion to pressure governments to comply with the rights and freedoms outlined by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

In this case, the organisation called for South Korea to repeal Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act, which bans sexual activity between active-duty members of the Korean military, on the grounds of protecting LGBTI rights.

This is not the first time in recent history that South Korea has come under fire for human rights issues. Amnesty International has directed criticism towards South Korea in the past regarding a variety of issues, including the imprisonment of conscientious objectors and poor treatment of migrants and refugees. According to an OECD ranking of homophobia, South Korea ranks in the bottom three among member countries.

The latest report on LGBTI rights is particularly noteworthy because it calls into question South Korea’s commitment to tolerant values in a time of rising support for diversity in developed nations.

Importantly, the discriminatory treatment of LGBTI people in South Korea has not gone unnoticed by fellow democracies. During the annual parades for LGBTI rights in Seoul, many democratic embassies gathered to show their support.

More than 10 countries were present, with booths advocating diversity and inclusion, and many more countries took to Twitter to provide an online endorsement of the sentiment.

This year, seven embassies came together in an op-ed for Korea Times to endorse the aforementioned Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to declare their support for diversity and tolerance.

While only local citizens have the right to truly participate politically, in the new age of media governments and citizens of any nation are becoming more able to engage in free and open debate on the issues facing other countries.

The digitalisation of media is affecting diplomacy, and this South Korean example is a reminder that the impact of national choices can be far-reaching, affecting foreign affairs and international reputation alongside domestic impacts.

In a positive light, this digitalised diplomacy offers an opportunity for enhanced dialogue. The participation of foreign ambassadors in the Korean public debate on LGBTI issues shows that diplomacy can evolve. It can become a platform through which we can examine ethical and political considerations within a broader global context.

In all, South Korea’s experience shows that while it will take some getting used to, countries can benefit from an international dialogue on these issues. While, at first, these issues might appear domestic, in reality, human rights know no borders.

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