From the Darkness into the Light: the Hope for Justice in North Korea

Today, marching, singing and dancing will flood the capital of one the most notoriously secretive and closed nations in the world. 15 April is the “Day of the Sun” in North Korea, one of the most important national holidays in the country because it venerates the late founder and perpetual leader, Kim Il-Sung.

Despite the awesome displays of colourful dance events and firework displays to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s perceived achievements in creating the ‘revered’ nation, the reality is far from being a day in the sun, but more a descent into darkness.

The ‘Great’ Leader Who Founded a Despotic Regime

Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Father’ of North Korea, was highly instrumental in establishing one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Between the late 1940s and early 1990s he oversaw the creation of a country ruled by fear. The Workers’ Party he founded crushed dissent, abducted foreign nationals, created an extremely discriminatory and hierarchical ‘songbun’ caste system, and forcibly detained hundreds of thousands into a hidden prison system, which still subjects North Koreans to forced labour, torture and even execution. Both his son, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong-Un have continued the brutal legacy.

Human Rights Violations Committed with Impunity

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea concluded that the leadership of North Korea has and continues to commit “systematic and appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale that is unparalleled in the modern world.” These abuses are tantamount to crimes against humanity and include public executions, torture, forced labour, sexual violence, food deprivation, incarceration in political prisoner camps (kwan-li-so), and the denial of the freedom of expression, thought and religious belief.

The songbun and prison camp systems are key features that maintain these human rights violations. Songbun classifies North Korean citizens into three classes, the “core”, “wavering” and “hostile”; it determines all aspects of one’s existence in North Korea, such as education, housing and employment.  Once citizens are deemed “wavering” and certainly “hostile” they are forcibly removed from society and plunged into the hidden and torturous conditions of the prison camps.

Citizens who believe in or are found to be practicing a religion or belief are classified as part of the hostile class. Christians are especially singled out and commonly incarcerated in the infamous and remote kwan-li-so prison camps. The families of Christians are subject to “guilt by association”: whole families, up to three generations, can disappear into these camps. Hundreds of testimonies have painfully recalled the appalling conditions and human rights violations they are subject to, including forced labour, torture, starvation, and rape.

Shining a Light on Injustice

The COI’s landmark report is a tool for the international community to usher in the dawn of justice in North Korea. The UN Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly and the European Parliament have passed resolutions endorsing the Inquiry’s recommendations, and the Security Council has had formal discussions about North Korea’s human rights abuses. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has opened a field office in Seoul, as recommended by the COI. It aims to “strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and to “maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives”.

Despite these efforts, there is more to be done by the international community to change the situation in North Korea, as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, highlighted in January 2016. A referral to International Criminal Court is necessary to establish accountability and work towards justice. The international community must work together with determination and cooperation towards action. Nevertheless the dawn of justice has arrived and a concerted effort will enable North Korea and its citizens to truly enjoy a day in the sun.

By CSW’s North Korea Desk Officer

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Dare I speak? Defending freedoms in Bangladesh

The voices of extremism and violence infiltrating Bangladesh’s society have delivered a clear and frightening message: independent expressions on religious issues will not be tolerated.

A pattern of appalling attacks that began in 2013 and took the lives of four secular bloggers in 2015 shocked the nation and caught the attention of international media. The stream of violence reflects a forceful assault on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, theoretically enshrined in Bangladesh’s secular constitution and ratified international conventions.

The need for a clear counter-narrative to fundamentalism

If the values of a secular democracy are to be protected, fundamentalism must be met with a positive counter narrative from governing authorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, neither political leaders nor members of the police force have succeeded in articulating a message of tolerance safeguarding the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.

On 8 August 2015, Niloy Chatterjee was the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered that year following the killings of Avijit Roy on 27 February 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30 March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May 2015.

Commenting on Chatterjee’s case, Bangladesh’s police Inspector General, AKM Shahidul Hoque failed minority groups by refusing to condemn the actions of extremists:

“Those who are free thinkers and writers, I request them, please make sure that they don’t cross the line. Anything that might hurt anyone’s religious sentiments and beliefs should not be written.”

Challenged by many, defended by few

The wave of threats and sporadic attacks has led to the exile of many bloggers and social activists who are forced to seek asylum in fear of their lives. Pluralism and secularism are under threat in Bangladesh as the space for diversity and multitude of opinions is challenged by many and defended by few. On 15 February publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested after he produced a book deemed offensive to Islam, another case that reveals the government’s accommodation of hard line Islamist groups (in this case Khelafat Andolon, who demanded the detention of the publisher).

In the face of extremism that threatens social order and the personal security of so many – who are often singled out in public threats – the government must respond with clarity and consistency. However, the ruling Awami League Party has remained worryingly ambiguous, a response neither protects nor reassures minorities living under fear of attack throughout the country.

Promise of protection remains unfulfilled

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was elected into office in 2014 on a manifesto pledging that ‘religious rights of every people would be ensured and the state would treat equally with every citizen irrespective of their religion, culture, gender and social status [sic].’ With these words, she assured minority communities that her term would secure them full protection and rights.

However, in recent months, the initially promising pledge has been coupled with contradictory warnings from the government that action would be taken against all who ‘hurt religious sentiment,’ as per the provisions provided in Section 295A of the Criminal Code and the oft misused Article 57 of the Information, Technology and Communication Act (2013).

Reservations in supporting free speech rights of minority groups

The Prime Minister’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, revealed to some extent the contradictory stance held by the Awami League when he admitted “we are walking a fine line here…we don’t want to be seen as atheists, it doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism.” Fearful of perceptions from the broader audience in Bangladesh and the wider Islamic world, the government is allowing pressure from certain groups to take precedence over the security of individual lives and freedoms.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must continue to encourage and protect the precious freedoms promised to her citizens in the Constitution of Bangladesh with constructive efforts to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance and healthy debate inclusive of a plurality of voices, views and visions.

By CSW’s Bangladesh Desk Officer