No security without accountabilityAt the opening of the UN Human Rights Council in February 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, pointed out that the Charter of the UN Preamble contained three great principles for the formation and work of the United Nations. The first of them is observance of universal human rights.
He explained that it was important to realize that respect for universal human rights was interconnected with peace and security. That is undoubtedly so, and applies without exception to human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Without protection and accountability for human rights in North Korea, the dream of peace and security for the Korean Peninsula will remain illusory.
In 2014, as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, I co-authored a report identifying gross human rights violations that are ongoing in the DPRK.
The report was completed in just over six months. It was delivered within budget and on time. It was unanimous. It was readable and that was its strength. It recounted the COI’s findings on the human rights situation in the DPRK. It identified the human rights violations which amounted to crimes against humanity. These included: the violations of freedom of thought, opinion and religion; the violation of the right to food and widespread starvation despite the development of new weapons; the imposition of a classification of social class that impedes and restricts human equality; the restrictions on freedom of movement; the arbitrary detention, torture and executions of alleged enemies of the people and their families, the enforced disappearance and abduction of Koreans and foreign nationals.
The report attracted very strong support among the international community. Generally, the Human Rights Council is deeply divided about human rights issues and there is often a geopolitical alignment of countries concerning how they should respond. But the votes on the report of the COI were extremely strong. They supported the report. The report was then sent to the United Nations General Assembly, followed by the UN Security Council. This is a very rare thing to do in the case of human rights concerns because they are inevitably political and divisive. However, the General Assembly voted very strongly to support the recommendations of the COI.
The report was also noticed by the DPRK, which became very concerned about its recommendations. The report recommended that the case of North Korea should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While this has not yet been accepted by the UN Security Council for political reasons, the threat of accountability has put the DPRK on the defensive regarding its human rights situation.
Moon Jae-in was elected as the Republic of Korea’s new President on 9 May, and he has promised a fresh and different approach and greater engagement with the DPRK. The COI report itself recommended the Korean people foster inter-Korean dialogue and that humanitarian assistance be provided in accordance with humanitarian principles. Some outreach and reopening of peaceful links, person to person, between the two Koreas is desirable.
But this should not come at the cost of South Korea’s advocacy of ending human rights violations in the DPRK. Some have taken the view that the role of South Korea was not to harass North Korea over its human rights record: that for the sake of improving inter-Korean relations and easing tensions, criticism of North Korea must be toned down.
But should those who take such a view read the report of the COI, they will surely come to the conclusion that leaving things alone is not a viable policy. From the point of view of security, it is potentially a dangerous policy.
The present situation in North Korea is dangerous to the human rights of the people of that country. But it is also dangerous for the peace and security of the region and the world.
That is why the world, in its understandable desire to secure a peaceful resolution of the dangers of North Korea, must not forget the dire human rights situation in the DPRK.
The report of the COI collected material. It respected the people who had suffered. It brought their words, recounted their suffering. How we respond to those concerns is going to be a test for our fidelity to the decision that crimes against humanity should always be dealt with and that it is the obligation of the United Nations to do so where the country concerned refuses, or fails, to do so.
*The author is chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2013-14) and a member of the Board of the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration.
The Hon. Michael Kirby