“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.