Exactly two years ago, on 22 February 2014, the United Nations (UN) finally shone a light on the darkest corner of the world, North Korea. Its year-long Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, published a damning report concluding that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the horrific human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and that the catalogue of abuses amounting to crimes against humanity should lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
International community calls for justice and concrete action
In January 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, said it is “now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility” of the North Korean leadership. “Not much has changed in the country almost two years after the report of the Commission of Inquiry,” he added.
The European Parliament also passed a resolution calling for an end to impunity and for those responsible for crimes against humanity to be brought before the ICC and be subject to targeted sanctions.
North Korea’s crimes against humanity, said the European Parliament, “have been taking place for far too long under the observing eyes of the international community”.
North Korea’s human rights crisis came under renewed attention in the House of Lords in January 2016. Introducing a debate, Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, stated that the brutal regime in North Korea “is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Baroness Cox highlighted violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), noting that the UN inquiry found “almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in North Korea.
A referral to International Criminal Court
So, two years on from the UN report, where have we got to? The UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have both passed resolutions endorsing the inquiry’s recommendations, and the Security Council has had formal discussions about North Korea’s human rights abuses. A UN field office has opened in Seoul, as recommended by the inquiry, to continue the vital work of documenting abuses so that one day the evidence can be used in a prosecution of the regime’s leaders.
However, the key recommendation to refer a case to the ICC has been delayed and the reason can be summed up in two words: China and Russia. For as long as they threaten to veto such a proposal at the Security Council there is little prospect of action. Britain, France and the United States, and other Security Council members would be handing Pyongyang a propaganda coup if they brought forward a resolution only to find it shot down by Beijing and Moscow. A defeated resolution would be counter-productive. There are, however, two things we can do:
- Continue to keep the threat of an ICC referral on the table, and in the meantime to continue to build up international support so that when an overwhelming consensus among member states is realised, China and Russia may feel it would not be worth their while going into bat to defend their pariah client. That point has not yet been reached, but it is not inconceivable that China and Russia could be persuaded not to use their veto, if there was enough critical mass internationally.
- Pursue the establishment of an informal public tribunal comprising a panel of retired senior judges from perhaps the five permanent member countries of the Security Council. It would not be difficult to source the judges or persuade North Korean defectors and international human rights experts who have documented violations to appear as witnesses. Funding would be required for expenses and a secretariat, while careful thought would need to be given as to where it could be held – perhaps The Hague, for symbolic reasons. It would be a way of further shining a spotlight on the darkest corner of the world and further ratcheting up the pressure.
Alongside the ICC referral, there are other steps to be taken.
It is vital to break the regime’s information blockade, challenging the diet of propaganda on which the North Korean people are raised through radio broadcasts and cultural and academic exchanges of various kinds. The BBC World Service’s plan for a Korean language broadcast – something CSW has advocated for several years – is very welcome and long overdue. We can do more to invest in developing the knowledge and skills of North Korean refugees to prepare them to be able to contribute to their country’s future. Every creative tool to prise open the world’s most closed country should be used.
In 2007, CSW was one of the first organisations to call for the establishment of a UN inquiry, in our report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act. In 2011, we initiated and helped found the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), a coalition of over 40 organisations from around the world, specifically to campaign for a UN Commission of Inquiry. Many people said we would never achieve this, but they were proven wrong. Now that we have had the inquiry, however, it is vital that their report does not gather dust on a shelf, but is put into action.
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader