The South Korean cabinet has been urged by Human Rights Watch to re-introduce protection for gays and lesbians back into a proposed anti-discrimination law.

The draft legislation by the Ministry of Justice originally included sexual orientation along with a range of other categories as prohibited grounds for discrimination.

But according to Democratic Labor Party officials and news reports, the current version of the law has been changed to exclude protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, military status, nationality, language, appearance, family type, ideology, criminal or detention record, and educational status.

“The current version of the bill is a disappointment,” said Jessica Stern, researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program of Human Rights Watch. “A supposed landmark non-discrimination law has been hollowed out to exclude Koreans, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, who are in need of protection.”

The proposed new law was intended to strengthen the existing National Human Rights Commission Act, which already bars discrimination on the basis of most categories, including sexual orientation, by requiring the president and other levels of government to develop plans to eliminate discrimination. But as revised by the justice ministry, the new law would actually remove protections for many groups.

The inclusion of sexual orientation in particular had come under attack in South Korea. The Congressional Missionary Coalition, a coalition of Christian right members of the National Assembly, plans to hold forums in November to oppose the law.

A petition, spearheaded by an organisation called the Assembly of Scientists Against Embryonic Cloning, was sent to all branches of government claiming that if the bill becomes law, “homosexuals will try to seduce everyone, including adolescents; victims will be forced to become homosexuals; and sexual harassment by homosexuals will increase.”

While the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last year that individuals who have undergone sex reassignment surgery are entitled to change their legal identity, it seems unlikely that the proposed new law would cover discrimination against them. Human Rights Watch called on South Korea to ensure that the law would extend to discrimination based on gender identity.

“South Korea has previously shown leadership by condemning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but this commitment must be consistent,” said Stern. “The government should maintain its track record and reintroduce comprehensive categories for protection.”

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