Human rights has been a primary issue of 2014. The North Korean case is one of many. Other cases around the globe remind us that developing an understanding of human rights and the institutional application of related international conventions and norms is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process.
How to facilitate the evolutionary process for North Koreans is a task for 2015.
In January, Nigeria established a law that criminalizes homosexuality with a prison term of up to 14 years and bans a basic civil right to freedom of association. Even membership in a gay rights group is forbidden. Such government action was in direct opposition to the growing body of human rights norms that recognize and protect the rights of homosexuals since the late 2000s.
International norms and legal mechanisms regarding human rights, as well as their interpretation and application to actual cases, are ever-evolving. The rights of sexual minorities are one current example, and most countries are either unfamiliar with or explicitly opposed to such rights. New or “young” norms require active advocacy and time for adaptation and adoption.
In April, heavily armed Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria stormed a government-run boarding school in town of Chibok and kidnapped close to 300 schoolgirls from their dormitories. About 60 eventually escaped, but the young abductees have been held in slavery-like conditions. Many have been raped and forced into child marriages with Boko Haram men. Horrible violence against children and young women has also been perpetrated by both state and non-state actors in various parts of conflict zones in Burma, Liberia, Sierre Leone, Sudan and Uganda. Children are often forcibly recruited or kidnapped into the official military or rebel militias.
Such abuses directly contravene several international laws, some of which were established in the 1960s and others that were established more recently. The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child came into effect in late 1990 and has been adopted by all member states except Somalia, South Sudan — and the U.S. In 1993, at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, governments formally recognized that “the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.”
These were revolutionary declarations that took decades to evolve.
In March 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry officially documented the Pyongyang regime’s multitude of human rights violations against its own people. Since then, North Korea has been in the human rights hot seat. Pyongyang cannot bear the notion that its leader, Kim Jong-un, might be subject to ICC mandates and scrutiny.
The North Korea case has a very slim chance of getting to the ICC. China and Russia will no doubt veto any such proposal at the Security Council, less in defense of the regime and more for their self-interest. Both countries have their own large share of human rights violations.
There is no doubt that most governments have to be pushed and monitored by citizens and independent organizations to adopt new human rights mechanisms and abide by those already in place. As of Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the U.S. too is in the hot seat for officially sanctioned acts of torture against detainees in the “war on terror” of the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report condemned the various forms of torture systematically applied to prisoners. Additionally, a senior Human Rights Watch official reminds us, “The U.S. has held many of the Guantanamo detainees for nearly 13 years without charge or trial, flouting international law and basic principles of justice.”
Americans began pressuring their own government to hold the perpetrators of injustice accountable as soon as information about the government’s misdeeds were shared with the public. The case reveals the unceasing vigilance required to maintain existing human rights standards and laws and the need for continued public debate to clarify and advance the application and enforcement of those laws.
Upholding human rights is a complex and never-ending process and commitment. International norms and legal standards have to be learned and internalized by all governments. What kind of space and opportunity can we create for capacity-building on human rights for North Koreans? Unpacking human rights — not treating them as a monolith — and specifying the variety of human rights related for instance to children, women, disabled people, as well as political prisoners, may be practical ways to help develop a technical understanding of numerous international laws and the moral requirements of human well-being and dignity.
The North Korean state is accustomed to mobilizing revolutionary fervor for state-directed ends. Protecting human rights really does require fervor, but the necessary process is not revolution but evolution, in perpetuity, for and by all people.