[Viewpoint] Deportation violates human rightsCan you imagine the anxiety, panic and fear the Jews experienced when they were on board a train bound for Auschwitz? The 35 North Korean defectors at a detention center for those who have crossed the Chinese border illegally share the unimaginable stress. Two of them are South Korean passport holders.
If the defectors are repatriated to North Korea against their will, China would be violating various international conventions it has signed. First of all, the repatriation would be contrary to Clause 1, Article 33 of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Beijing signed in 1982. The convention states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
China cannot deny the responsibility it has as defined in the UN convention because of the border treaty between China and North Korea. Moreover, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China should set an example in observing international conventions.
China insists that the defectors are not refugees, but economic immigrants who left the North in search of food. However, most of the defectors have been classified as “hostile” by North Korean authorities and are excluded from the food distribution system. In other words, they are discriminated against because of their political status or opinions and should be treated as refugees. We do not even need to mention the refugee status of defectors who escape the North Korean regime seeking freedom.
The repatriation of the defectors is also a violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that China joined in 1981. China had protected ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam after the country’s unification in 1975, and if they treat North Korean defectors differently, this would be a form of racial discrimination.
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which China signed in 1986, also prevents the deportation of the defectors. Clause 1, Article 3 states, “No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Even if China is obliged to extradite the North Koreans according to a bilateral treaty, it must not do so if there is a possibility of torture. The international convention overrides the bilateral treaty.
Moreover, China has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The compliance and supervisory committees of the five major human rights conventions voiced worries about the potential for China to commit human rights violations and urged the country to fulfill its duties.
In August 2009, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concerns about the fact that North Korean defectors are systematically stripped of refugee status and extradited.
Unlike domestic law, there are few consequences to violating international law. But as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has great responsibilities.
The UN was established for three purposes: assurance of security, economic cooperation and human rights. Article 56 of the UN Charter requires all members to pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the organization for the universal respect and observance of human rights.
China is understandably in an awkward situation as a neighbor of a country that commits serious human rights abuses. However, depriving defectors of basic human rights and returning them to a country where they will surely be persecuted would be a stain on China’s morality.
The South Korean government also needs to make every effort to guarantee the safety and human rights of the 35 defectors shivering in fear of repatriation. When a powerful country does not live up to its most basic responsibilities, Korea cannot dream of a peaceful future as its neighbor. Seoul needs to work harder to save the defectors.
*The writer, a former deputy minister of unification, is an adviser to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
By Kim Suk-woo