Save North Korean Refugees Day, which falls on 24 September, aims to highlight the terrible trials faced by North Korean refugees in China.
It also marks the day, 36 years ago, that China became a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an agreement the country continues to violate through its treatment of North Korean escapees.
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is illegal as it violates the fundamental international humanitarian principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits receiving countries from returning refugees to a country where they would likely face persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And yet, that is exactly what they are being sent back to: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, referred to by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” in terms of human rights violations. CSW’s 2016 report previously revealed that deported escapees regularly face execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions, and other sexual violence at the hands of the North Korean authorities.
A thick layer of dust coats everything inside the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital, which was unlocked this week for the first time since 1998. Photos of this ‘time capsule’ were published by the BBC, which, along with the world’s media, is charting the remarkable thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two nations went to war in 1998 but maintained a war footing due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow demarcation of their common border, in accordance with a 2003 ruling.
On the surface, in words attributed to Winston Churchill, “jaw jaw” has to be better than “war war”. It is good that the two men have moved from talk of “fire and fury” and whose nuclear button is bigger to discussion of denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Perhaps a new era may be dawning.
However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.
Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.
His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018. He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.
Until recently, when you accessed the United Nations (UN) website, these words would appear. They’re still used on some webpages, and the sentiment behind them still stands.
The UN is often the subject of criticism, and its flaws are well-documented, yet it remains one of the most important arenas for raising human rights concerns, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Three times a year, in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Council comes together and UN staff, member state delegations and non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) all rub shoulders in meetings, formal sessions and – frequently – impromptu chats over coffee and in canteen queues.
On the agenda are some of the most serious human rights situations in the world.
This is also an opportunity for NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to organise side events running parallel to discussions at the Council, where victims of human rights violations, as well as experts and activists, can present their cases in an open forum. In March 2018, CSW hosted one of its first side events at the UN Human Rights Council since obtaining ECOSOC Consultative Status: an opportunity to discuss some of the most severe and complex challenges to religious communities in China.