A yearlong quest for truth, justice
A year after the tragic Halloween crowd crush in South Korea last year, the victims’ families gathered in downtown Seoul to remember their loved ones — and appealed for truth and justice anew.
In a mass rally held last Oct. 29, the families as well as thousands of supporters gathered in front of a memorial at Seoul City Hall to mourn and push for the passage of a special law that would establish a special investigation committee “to uncover the truth” behind the crush that killed 159 people.
“One of the foremost reasons we’ve been persistently battling the government for nearly a year is our deep-seated suspicions and the pursuit of truth,” Lee Jeong-min, the father of 28-year-old Lee Joo-young, told The Guardian. “Only then can we free ourselves…and return to our daily lives.”
Even now, they’re still struggling to piece together the incident, which saw crowds falling atop one another in a dense crush in Itaewon’s sloping alleyways. A myriad of factors — inadequate security, poor crowd control and slow-responding police — led to what the National Police Agency’s investigation described as a man-made disaster that should have been preventable.
Even with 23 local officials referred for prosecution on fatal negligence, many of the parents say they have yet to achieve justice. For one, they believe South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision to allow the National Police Agency to investigate itself was flawed, especially after the agency cleared its own top bosses and many central government officials of wrongdoing and pursued prosecution only against low-ranking officers.
For his part, Yoon vowed to improve public safety in the country so that the “sacrifices” of those who died would not be in vain. However, he and other high-ranking officials declined to attend the families’ gathering in Seoul, saying they did not want to politicize the event.
The crowd surge was an early test for the then newly elected Yoon, as many drew parallels between Itaewon and the fatal 2014 sinking of MV Sewol that killed 304 people. At the time, then President Park Geun-hye had been accused of failing to display decisive leadership, which later gave way to bigger accusations of corruption and abuse — and subsequently to her impeachment in 2016.
Limiting China’s dragnet
Seeking temporary sanctuary in Laos for dissidents fleeing their countries – where they face risk of torture, enforced disappearance, or summary execution – has never looked riskier. The experience of Chinese human rights defender and lawyer Lu Siwei demonstrates this reality.
On Oct. 27, Mary Lawlor, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she was “appalled” to learn that Laos still went forward with deporting Lu last September “despite numerous calls” against such a move by the international community.
Lu, whose license to practice law was revoked by China after he expressed support for 12 Hong Kong activists arrested in 2020, was apprehended by Lao police on July 28 as he was boarding a train for Thailand. He has since been forcibly repatriated back to China, which could amount to a violation of Laos’ obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
The convention bars State parties from returning people to a country where they would face a real risk of serious harm, persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.
In deporting Lu, Lawlor said, Laos “disregarded their duty of care to Mr. Lu Siwei and so blatantly ignored their obligations under international human rights law.”
His deportation, Amnesty International said, was emblematic of a “worrying trend” of Beijing pressuring other governments, notably in Southeast Asia, into forcibly returning vulnerable individuals back to China. Among others, they cited the case of Gui Minhai, a bookseller, who disappeared in Thailand in 2015 only to resurface in China without his passport.
In August 2022, Chinese democracy activist Dong Guangping disappeared from Vietnam and surfaced into Chinese custody. And in August 2023, Laos-based activist Yang Zewei was reported to be held in a detention center in China after being arrested in Vientiane, the Lao capital.
Amid Laos’ warming ties with China, experts say human rights defenders have lost a critical path out of the mainland. This comes amid China’s growing influence in Laos, which has also become heavily indebted to Beijing and awash in Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments.
Seeking out old partners
Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has asked the U.N. to help them wrap up their transitional justice process, already yearslong overdue for the 17,000 victims of the Maoist insurgency against the former Kingdom between 1996 to 2006.
During U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ visit to Kathmandu, Dahal invited the world body to play a role in concluding Nepal’s peace process, saying that “we feel that the U.N. and the Secretary-General’s role in seeing it through will be important.”
For his part, Guterres vowed support but urged the Nepalese government to ensure that the process was in accordance with international standards and verdicts of its Supreme Court, thus fulfilling the basic needs of the insurgency’s victims.
However, many are still skeptical that the U.N.’s commitment could breathe new life into Nepal’s 17-year-old transitional justice process, which has struggled to hold perpetrators accountable and provide closure and reparations to the conflict’s victims.
After all, this is not the first time the U.N. attempted to help the country close the process seeking to provide reparations and justice for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country’s 10-year civil war (1996 to 2006).
According to a 2012 conflict report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, both sides of the bloody conflict committed rape and sexual violence as a form of torture, punishment, and intimidation among civilians and combatants. This, while pointing out that state forces were the bigger perpetrator of such crimes.
Back in 2006, the then Kingdom of Nepal and the Maoist insurgents signed a peace accord that allowed a U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) to oversee the disarmament of rebels.
However, leaked footage of Dahal — who was then supremo of the Maoist rebels — showed him explaining how he deceived UNMIN into verifying 20,000 people as Maoist fighters when the actual number was less than 8,000. This eventually led to the mission’s closure in 2011.
Efforts to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes through the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have since proved futile, with only 30 out of 286 people held accountable since the end of the conflict in 2006.
Fixing flawed food systems
Ahead of the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in November, a global coalition of 70 organizations and advocates have urged the world’s governments to acknowledge the role of an oft-overlooked factor that could make or break the world’s efforts to curb climate change.
In a joint open letter dated Oct. 26, the coalition led by the World Wildlife Fund called on COP28 negotiators to integrate the management of food systems1 — including food production, consumption and waste, land use change, and nutrition — in the climate agenda.
“Global and national leaders must take action on food systems as a whole if we are going to keep 1.5°C alive,” the letter said. “The final outcomes of COP28 must include a clear way forward to spur ambitious food systems transformation nationally.”
The annual climate negotiations will be held in Dubai after a record-shattering year of heat waves and droughts.
The call was also spurred by a growing global scientific consensus that food systems are a major contributor to global warming and affect climate change. A 2021 study estimates that over a third of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food, much of which comes from agriculture and land use.
Being the largest producer of rice, a major emitter of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, Asia’s agriculture sector also contributes massively to food-linked emissions, according to a 2022 Asian Development Bank study.
Conversely, the climate crisis is already impacting global food security, as record-breaking heatwaves, droughts, and floods affect major cropping areas across the world known as “breadbaskets.”
It is thus becoming clearer that “if we don’t reduce food-based greenhouse gas emissions, there is no way to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees,” said João Campari, WWF Global Food Practice Leader.
He called for “strong action” at the national level and to integrate food systems in each country’s National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), National Determined Contribution (NDCs), and Long-term Strategies before COP30 in 2025.
1The food system can be defined as “encompassing all the activities and actors in the production, transport, manufacturing, retailing, consumption, and waste of food, and their impacts on nutrition, health and well-being, and the environment”, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).