Moving Forward on North Korean Human Rights

Editor’s Note: This blog post on human rights abuses in North Korea originally appeared in Asia Unbound.

“Now is the time to act,” the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK announced after issuing a 400-page report documenting a wide array of “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea constituting “crimes against humanity.” For decades, the international community has largely sidestepped its responsibility to hold North Korea to account.

To be sure, the challenges are formidable. Take the report’s most publicized recommendation—that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although a logical step, it will be difficult to implement because North Korea has not ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute; consequently the court has no jurisdiction over the case. It will require a UN Security Council referral, but China’s veto could thwart its adoption. China’s veto could also prevent targeted sanctions from being applied to those most responsible for crimes against humanity, another COI recommendation.

A lesser step—placing North Korea’s human rights situation on the agenda of the Security Council—would also require considerable political effort. At least one state would have to propose it and nine others would have to agree; none has come forward to date to make that proposal. Nonetheless, the COI report has been discussed at an informal gathering of Security Council members, under the Arria formula, initiated by Australia, France and the United States. The report has thereby become a Security Council document, and governments have begun to raise COI findings in Council consultations on North Korea’s nuclear situation. Whether such informal approaches can successfully integrate human rights concerns into UNSC deliberations remains to be seen.

Further, the report recommends tapping the entire UN system, most notably humanitarian and development organizations, so that they also address human rights concerns in their work. But here too it will be difficult to bring everyone on board. Those working on the ground may be resistant because it could interfere with their access and cooperation with the government. Yet agencies dealing with food, health, children, and refugees can hardly afford to overlook the findings in this report—state policies leading to mass starvation, discrimination in food distribution and health care, and children mistreated in camps—and then claim they’re doing their jobs of reaching the most vulnerable.

One tangible result thus far is the approval by the UN of an office in Asia to continue monitoring and documenting the human rights situation in North Korea and reinforcing the UN’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for crimes against humanity.  If properly funded, staffed, and given a broad mandate, the office should be able to maintain the momentum created by the COI report.

One of the biggest fears is that the COI findings could fall into “a black hole of inattention,” as one COI member warned. To be sure, there is now far greater international awareness of the human rights situation in the North and more willingness on the part of many national governments to take human rights into account in their dealings with Pyongyang. But the extent to which they will sustain their interest remains to be seen. Therefore, it would be valuable for a governmental “human rights contact group” to be formed, as recommended by the COI, to come up with and provide support for human rights initiatives.

A strong UN voice will be needed as well. Regrettably, COI Chair Michael Kirby’s powerful voice has begun to recede now that the COI’s work is completed, while Navi Pillay, another leading voice, will no longer be High Commissioner for Human Rights after July. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, because he is Korean, is too often excused from being proactive on the issue. But this needs to change: when crimes against humanity are found in a country and affect both human rights and humanitarian conditions, the secretary general should be expected to use every tool at his disposal.

Developing an effective strategy to deal with China will be critical both because of its backing for North Korea and because it is implicated in the report for colluding with North Korea on forced repatriations. States first will have to counter the pressure China may exert in the General Assembly this fall to prevent a strong resolution on North Korea. Over the longer term, they will have to encourage China to modify its policies toward North Korea and promote reform as better serving stability in Northeast Asia.

Overall, a sustained and broad-based effort will be needed by governments, international organizations, NGOs, foundations, experts, and business enterprises to make sure that human rights concerns in North Korea remain firmly rooted on the international agenda.