Since 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) has established 13 commissions of inquiry covering crises from Syria and Libya to North Korea and the Gaza conflict. The proliferation of U.N. commissions of inquiry (COI) as a new mechanism for focused investigations of urgent human rights situations raises a host of questions for policymakers and the international human rights community. This Brookings roundtable convened approximately 25 scholars, practitioners, and other experts for a discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of commissions of inquiry as a mechanism for monitoring, reporting on, promoting, and protecting human rights globally. Justice Michael Kirby, chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (DPRK), and Sonja Biserko, a fellow member of the COI on North Korea, led the conversation, conducted under Chatham House Rules.
The experience of the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea is a useful case study of how best to conduct COIs and other fact-finding missions. Some of the lessons learned include:
- The importance of transparency and follow-up;
- Gathering a strong, professional and competent panel and staff;
- Involving civil society, scholars and media;
- Understanding the relationship between security and human rights law; and
- Managing challenges posed by the human rights framework, bureaucracy, and the context of the country being examined.
The COI on DPRK presented its ground-breaking and exemplary report to the U.N. in March 2014, which led to a U.N. General Assembly vote in December recommending referral of DPRK to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity uncovered by the COI as well as consideration by the U.N. Security Council. A number of other possible next steps were discussed, including holding leaders accountable through creative mechanisms like the U.N. General Assembly requesting an International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion or appointing a prosecutor without an immediate tribunal. An OHCHR field office will be opened in Seoul which will continue to collect victims’ stories and hopefully help South Korea and North Korea move forward with reconciliation. The COI members continue to keep the issue at the forefront of conversation at the U.N. and in the media, and the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in DPRK (also a member of the COI) continues the arduous task of monitoring, promoting, and protecting human rights in that country through his mandate.