“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi
A little over a year ago, history was made at the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) when three UN commissioners released a report finding, based on a “reasonable grounds” standard, that “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.” The three commissioners had just spent the better part of a year carrying out their UN mandate to investigate potential human rights violations, per HRC resolution 22/13, as members of the new Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI). The commissioners collected evidence and heard witness testimony of crimes committed by North Korean officials that “shocked the conscience of humanity.” They stated that based on the body of testimony and other information “crimes against humanity have been committed in [North Korea], pursuant to policies established at the highest levels of the State.” The commissioners called on North Korea to undertake profound reforms to provide its citizens with basic human rights, including recommending that North Korea first “acknowledge the existence of human rights violations, including the political prison camps.” Undoubtedly, their work shined the spotlight brighter on one of the darkest places in the world and was instrumental in catalyzing international attention on the suffering of North Koreans under the Kim Family Regime.
One Year After the COI Report: On February 17, 2015, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), Yonsei University Center for Human Liberty, and The George W. Bush Institute co-sponsored an unparalleled conference in Washington, DC on “the road ahead” for North Korean human rights, which North Korea protested. The conference aimed to carry the momentum of the COI report, findings, and recommendations forward and commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Commissioners’ report.
Since this historic report, history continues to be made and a new path forged by all parties involved. For the first time, the issue of the human rights situation in North Korea, “without prejudice to the item on non-proliferation,” was put on the UN Security Council’s agenda for ongoing attention in a decision adopted 11:2:2 (with votes against from China and the Russian Federation). In addition to the perseverance demonstrated by civil society organizations in propelling human rights up front, a key COI recommendation calling on the UN to ensure “that the most responsible for crimes against humanity committed in [North Korea] are held accountable” played a vital role in creating this momentum. Although there has yet to be a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, the UN has moved many steps closer on the path toward accountability of the Kim Family Regime’s ongoing crimes against humanity.
Over the last year, the commissioners’ COI report has shown the international community that North Korea is increasingly more responsive and motivated to counter findings that its leader, in particular, could be held individually responsible for international crimes, specifically crimes against humanity. In addition, there have been good arguments, as noted by law firm Hogan Lovells in a report commissioned by Human Liberty, that North Korea’s State-controlled officials could be found to be committing genocide by targeting groups labeled as “hostile class,” Christians, and children of Chinese heritage.
Undoubtedly, the commissioners and their report laid the groundwork necessary for these historical milestones to occur, and they have also put other States with North Korea relations on notice that they could be aiding individuals responsible for crimes against humanity by supporting the State. It will be interesting to see how the current ten non-permanent Member States view the issue of North Korea’s human rights violations as related to international peace and security going forward.
Continuing on the Journey: the Human Rights Council and Beyond: Importantly, the UN HRC held its 28th session in Geneva last week, and on its priority list was the issue of North Korea’s grave human rights situation. On March 2, 2015, high-level dignitaries from Albania, Norway, Japan, and the United Kingdom expressed concern for the situation of grave and ongoing human rights abuses in North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong replied to the delegations by rejecting the statements as politically motivated and having nothing to do with human rights. This is the first time a top North Korean diplomat has addressed the HRC, but it likely will not be the last if North Korea’s human rights abuses are consistently reported on and vocalized as unacceptable by the international community.
The commissioners’ recommendations to this egregious situation are found in the COI report on page 20. While some progress has been made in implementing the recommendations, there is surely much work to be done to bring basic rights and dignity to 24 million people living in “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” Progress on the COI recommendations includes: 1) this month, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will open an office in Seoul to monitor and document North Korea’s human rights abuses; 2) a targeted sanctions bill, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act (H.R. 757), is currently in the U.S. Congress and was just approved by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to now be sent to the full House; and 3) the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee released its Panel of Expert report to the Council on Jan. 19, 2015, discussing the effectiveness and need for sanctions against the Kim Regime.
Still, as Justice Kirby publicly noted, many of the recommendations have been “ignored or overlooked in political and media coverage and in international consideration of the COI report.” Going forward, it will be essential for other States and civil society organizations to “ensure action and follow-up” on the unprecedented work of the commissioners. This will help ensure that the international community continues to travel on the path toward accountability while addressing the current needs of so many suffering in North Korea.
*Any views expressed in this blog post are entirely that of the author and are not to be construed as representing those of HRNK.