By: Roberta Cohen On March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].
The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes. Most prison camps are in remote mountain areas, access to the country is barred to human rights groups, and rigid internal controls make it impossible for anyone who does manage to visit to talk with North Koreans about human rights. Indeed, the lack of access and the UN’s inability to form an “independent diagnosis” of the situation has long contributed to the reluctance of its senior officials to speak out strongly about North Korea. Even the US State Department’s human rights report for 2011, published in 2012, contained the caveat that no one can “assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea.
The change in attitude also reflects an international willingness to move beyond mere censure in addressing North Korea’s human rights violations. For more than eight years, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have adopted annual resolutions expressing “very serious concern” at North Korea’s systematic, widespread and grave violations. Now, the international community is viewing North Korea’s violations as possible crimes against humanity for which North Korean leaders could be held accountable. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared for the first time in 2013 that North Korea’s “rampant” violations “may amount to crimes against humanity.” And in his report to the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, identified nine specific areas where North Korea might be committing crimes against humanity. These include: food policies leading to starvation; prison camps; arbitrary detention; the use of torture and inhuman treatment; enforced disappearances and abductions; policies of discrimination; and violations of freedom of expression and movement, and of the right to life through executions and extensive use of the death penalty.
According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are among the most severe human rights violations, constituting one of the four core international crimes (in addition to war crimes, genocide and the crime of aggression). Murder, enslavement, unlawful imprisonment, torture, sexual violence and disappearance are considered crimes against humanity when they are perpetrated as part of “a widespread or systematic attack” against the civilian population.
Since 2006, non-governmental organizations have argued that North Korea’s human rights violations constitute crimes against humanity. Now for the first time, senior UN officials and many governments are beginning to view North Korea’s violations as possible international crimes as well.
Testimony of Former Prisoners
One reason for the change in attitude is the testimony of prison camp survivors. Among the 25,000 North Koreans who have made their way to South Korea over the past decade, hundreds have been former prisoners and have come forward to give their accounts. Published and well disseminated in the West, they have created a stir
Patience Wears Thin
Another reason for the commission of inquiry is that the international community reached a limit in its patience for tolerating North Korea’s failure to cooperate with the UN in the human rights area. For ten years the High Commissioner for Human Rights has tried to establish a dialogue with the North Korean government and develop technical cooperation agreements—an arrangement the Office has with more than 50 governments. But year after year, Pyongyang failed to cooperate. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon even instructed his Special Envoy to Pyongyang in 2010 to urge North Korea to cooperate with the High Commissioner. But by 2013, High Commissioner Pillay announced, “I don’t think the world should stand by and see this kind of situation, which is not improving at all. “For years now,” she said, “the Government of DPRK has persistently refused to cooperate with successive Special Rapporteurs…or with my Office. She waited, she said until after Kim Jong Un took over from his father in 2011, but when no reforms were forthcoming, she decided to take a “firmer step. UN General Assembly resolutions similarly expressed concern with North Korea’s failure to cooperate with the High Commissioner, the Special Rapporteur and the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of North Korea. The UN, it can be said, reached a tipping point, perhaps abetted by North Korea’s rocket and nuclear tests and continued provocative threats.
The New Human Rights Landscape
Admittedly, heightened international scrutiny of North Korea’s human rights record may have little impact on the ground in the short term. It is likely North Korea will continue to defy efforts by the UN to establish dialogue and technical assistance programs. It may even crack down harder against its population and those seeking to flee across the border. But over the longer term, the growing number of states, including those from developing countries, as well as UN officials, experts and NGOs arrayed against North Koreabecause of its human rights record may give some North Koreans pause, especially since efforts will be made by UN officials to identify individuals and institutions to hold accountable in future. Moreover, the states which North Korea might turn to for talks and aid will be influenced as well. The United States, for example, long has separated its human rights concerns from its political and nuclear relationships with North Korea, but it also has felt pressured by the strong publicity coming out about the human rights situation. Glyn Davies, the Special Representative for North Korea Policy told the Senate on March 7, 2013, that “U.S.-DPRK relations cannot fundamentally improve without sustained improvement in inter-Korean relations and human rights” [emphasis added]. This perhaps suggests the beginnings of a more integrated policy on the part of theUS for dealing with North Korea. It is to be hoped that the idea will spread to other countries as well.
Even North Korea’s principal ally China is reported to be growing uncomfortable with the regime’s provocations and excesses. Although China has remained for the most part steadfast in its support of North Korea, North Korean officials can themselves read in the press that questions are arising in China about its policies in support of North Korea. One article even pointed to public concerns in China about its own labor camps and whether they should be closed.
It is not easy to predict when change will come. It was not foreseen that the Berlin Wall would fall when it did, that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that reforms would take place in Arab countries. But bringing down the information wall around North Korea and exposing its crimes against humanity may in time lead to change.