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February 19 2014

UN Commission on human rights in North Korea: A Silent Nation no more?

largestOn February 17th, the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) published its Report and it is unequivocal in its account of human suffering. The awful litany of human rights abuse is of such a scale and level that its content and the accounts of the victims harrowing experiences is almost unreadable. Led by Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko and Marzuki Darusman, the Report left no room for debate as to the extreme character of the North Korean regime and their characteristic exceptionalism that appears to underpin their rationale for treating their citizens in such a horrific fashion. Each of the interviewees gives a harrowing account of their individual stories. The victims of the regime, not frightened in silence, that made it out of North Korea detail the everyday humiliation, deprivation and torture that each, often alongside their family and friends, suffered to a degree which is difficult to entirely comprehend. The numerous abductions of individuals outside of North Korea further illustrates the regime’s disregard for human dignity and the complacency of China, amongst others, regarding both abductions and their record of returning refugees to North Korea. Whilst there always have been reports coming out of North Korea this is first time that a systematic approach has been taken to record and publish a comprehensive account of life within North Korea.

The Human Rights Council mandated Report followed it’s 2013 Special Rapporteur’s report on grave human rights violations in North Korea. The Commission’s  holds North Korea to account based upon the regime’s legally binding obligations as party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Commission also looked at  the prohibition of refoulement under international refugee law and human rights law. Crimes against humanity were based upon customary international criminal law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court The Commission based its findings on a ‘reasonable grounds’ standard of proof.

Without the co-operation of North Korea, the Report focused on specific rights, paying particular attention to gender-based violations of;

  • Violations of the right to food
  •  The full range of violations associated with prison camps
  •  Torture and inhuman treatment
  • Arbitrary arrest and detention
  • Discrimination, in particular in the systemic denial and violation of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Violations of the freedom of expression
  • Violations of the right to life
  • Violations of the freedom of movement
  • Enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other States

The Report had three objectives; investigating and documenting human rights violations; collecting and documenting victim and perpetrator accounts and ensuring accountability. Whilst the degree to which they can ensure accountability is reliant upon a legal and political order beyond its control, enabling a portion of the victims to tell the stories of their own abuses and beginning the process of collecting and documenting the scale and character of the abuse is probably its strongest and most important achievement. According to the Report;

More than 80 witnesses and experts testified publicly (240 confidential interviews undertaken and 80 written submissions received) and provided information of great specificity, detail and relevance, in ways that often required a significant degree of courage.Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world… a State that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.

The scale and character of the everyday human rights abuses makes the recommendations of the Report unequivocal. While the calls for internal action including acknowledging the scale of the human rights abuse is unlikely to result in any immediate change the other recommendations may bare some fruit. The Commission, for example calls upon China, and other states, to comply with the principle of non-refoulement and international refugee law with regard to North Korean escapees. For many years China has been North Korea’s main supporter but the withholding of an invitation to Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing may lead to a tougher position albeit it will probably block any action by the UN Security Council as recommended by the Report.

The Report recommends that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court by the Security Council. (A process which enables the ICC to have jurisdiction even if the state is not part to the Rome Statute e.g. Libya). The fact that the Report specifies the exact bodies, including the Supreme Leader, responsible for violations which include crimes against humanity, would ultimately aid in any prosecutions. Albeit the possibility of this in the immediate future is very low. It also recommends targeted sanctions though due to the dire situation of individual North Koreans’ none which would have any impact on the whole population.

It is easy to be depressed by the Report and the limited character of the immediate outcome. Jonathan Freedland statement that it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un emerges from experience of collective outcry and then inertia. Certainly the fact that both Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather  died without ever having showing any cognisance, even before we get to being held account for the horrors they inflicted on their people, does not give much hope.  Indeed, Freedland in pointing to Syria or indeed if we look beyond to South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka or the lives of individuals in Gaza, a terrible picture of accountability emerges. This is particularly disappointing when action is blocked by one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council. Nonetheless, while Freedland  has an important point, it is not as good a time to be a dictator as it was during the Cold War. The protection of dictators now only goes so far, individuals have been held to account in states and circumstances that would have seemed unimaginable only 20 years ago. Philippe Sands argues that this could be a slow burner, that eventually it is possible that the regime will be held to account but in the mean time I want to suggest that actually the most important aspect of the Report are the stories that the individuals told.

The process of producing this detailed Report gave a space to the hundreds of victims to not only tell their own stories but also those of the individuals who will never be able to testify to their experiences. The people of North Korea have largely been silent for the past fifty years. The character of the regime has meant that almost uniquely in the World there are 24 million voices that are never heard. It is impossible for an event such as the Arab Uprisings to occur. Mass communication, other than the regime’s own does not exist, North Koreans do not travel, their authors do not publish books beyond the state, their intellectuals do not become involved in global debates, young North Koreans have absolutely no access to social media and their limited education means indoctrination to an extent that even understanding how to use such methods does no exist. The picture above of North Korea at night shows a state where 24 million people sit in the dark each night. While some media has been smuggled in from China, children of the elite have been educated elsewhere and escapes have been made, the vast majority of North Koreans remain silent.

Very often, we rush to international criminal law to hold the perpetrators to account without giving space to the victims that get lost in the criminal process. This Report put the victims at the centre of the Report, it has produced a repository of these accounts that is freely accessible, it has allowed people to tell their own stories which may, for some, be more important than seeing Kim Jong-un in the dock at the Hague. This is an immediate success and one which the law is not typically good at achieving. These stories now are not part of some vague statistics of death and inhumanity, instead they are individual records of horrendous atrocity that demand to be heard over the pomposity of the perpetrators and their protectors.

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