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The Time Has Come for Action on North Korea's Human Rights Violations

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves to the people during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, July 27, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)

The United Nations Human Rights Council last week issued a strong resolution calling for action against North Korea "in order that those responsible for human rights violations, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity, are held to account." In March, a separate UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea finished its investigation on "the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights" in North Korea. Today, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) hosted an address by Michael Kirby, chair of that UN commission, to discuss the commission's work and methods.

Kirby, who twice served as acting chief justice of Australia, walked through the mandate and process of the Commission, noting the four questions it had in a nine-point mandate. One particularly vexing problem the Commission faced was that, as Kirby explained, because North Korea "regarded the inquiry as having been established by forces hostile to it" and therefore refused to cooperate by allowing Commission members to enter the country:

Can a country which is a member of the United Nations and which has signed on to a number of the treaties of the United Nations on Human Rights ... simply by its own decision opt out of the investigatory process which is established by the United Nations under the authority of the Human Rights Council? Can it in effect conduct a veto on the investigation by the world community although it is not a permanent member of the Security Council? Is there some form of unmentioned veto which is not there in the charter of the United Nations, which any country can say, 'Well we don't like the investigation, we're not going to cooperate, we're not going to permit you to enter and your report will be fatally flawed because you can't come into the country, and therefore it can be ignored.

We didn't accept that that was the privilege of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and therefore we decided at our very first meeting when we spent a lot of time looking at the methodology of the Commission of Inquiry, to embrace a methodology which has not been the one that has been usually followed by commissions of inquiry.

Listen to the audio below to hear Kirby explain the unique methodology followed by the Commission.

He also enumerated 10 lessons he learned during the process of inquiry, including: the value of transparency; the value of letting the victims speak; the value of scholars; the value of media; and the importance of following up on the report. He elaborates on these and the other lessons in the event audio.

Kirby concluded his remarks with the question, "How do we render those responsible [for the human rights violations] accountable?"

We were asked to deliver on a mandate which asked a question, How do we render those responsible accountable? And going to the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, D.C. today brought home to me how important that question is. It's as if you had a report on the dire situation affecting many minorities in Germany at a time when people said they didn't know. Well now everyone knows, everyone who has access to the Internet must know or must be able to get and secure information on exactly what is happening. And what they've been told in the report of the Commission of Inquiry is reliable, it's confirmed by other testimony, and if you have doubts, just switch and have a look at the witnesses. They're just ordinary people who are telling the most extraordinary stories of the most terrible and atrocious sufferings over an unforgivably long period of time and the time has come for action.

Kirby's final remarks recalled something one of his law school professors, Julius Stone, said. In Kirby's words:

The Talmud scholars have long written that it isn't given to any generation of human beings to correct every wrong and every injustice. But neither are we excused from our obligation to try. And that is the challenge as an international community we face this week. It isn't given to any generation, or members of the Security Council or the great officers of the world, to right every wrong. But surely we are not excused from our obligation to make a genuine effort now that we have the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in North Korea.

Listen to event audio:


Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, moderated a discussion with Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Roberta Cohen, a Brookings nonresident senior fellow and co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.


Tomorrow, April 15 at 2:00 p.m., CEAP hosts an event to release the HRNK's report, "Illicit: North Korea's Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency." The report, authored by Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Sheena Chestnut Greitens, analyzes the history and current status of North Korea's foreign currency earning operations, focusing on illicit activities.


Get archived Brookings research and commentary on North Korea here.

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