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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea: Interim Report

by | September 24th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council heard an interim report and conducted an “interactive dialogue” with the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea; our analysis of the mandate of the CoI can be found here. That mandate was broad, and included:

  • Violation of the right to food, including restrictions on the operation of humanitarian agencies in the country;
  • Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;
  • Arbitrary detention and general inattention to the rights of the accused;
  • Violations of human rights associated with prison camps;
  • Discrimination and the disproportionate or specific effect of human rights violations on vulnerable groups, in particular women, children, people living with disabilities and returnees as well as those deemed politically suspect;
  • Extensive violation of freedom of expression and other related freedoms;
  • Violation of the right to life, in particular the abusive application of the death penalty and the use of public executions;
  • Restrictions on freedom of movement and abusive treatment of citizens forcibly returned;
  • Enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of foreign nationals (a bow to both Japanese and South Korean concerns).

Michael Kirby, Chair of the CoI, said that it had found “widespread and serious” violations in every area it was asked to investigate. He did not pull punches, and drew the most sensitive of all analogies. According to Reuters, he told reporters that “you will have reaction similar to those of (U.S.) General Eisenhower and the others who came upon the [Nazi death] camps in post-war Europe.” The situation in North Korea was not “exactly analogous” with Nazi Germany, he said. But “an image flashed across my mind of the arrival of Allied soldiers at the end of the Second World War and the discovery of prison camps … in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazi forces.”

A particular feature of the investigation is that it was asked to consider the issue of potential culpability for crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. Kirby did not pull punches in this regard either. “We will seek to determine,” he said, “which state institutions and officials carry responsibility for gross human rights violations proved to have been committed.”

Speaking at the interactive dialogue were the European Union, Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, Germany, Venezuela, Ireland, United States, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, France, Belarus, Poland, Iran, Slovakia, Canada, Syria, Myanmar, China, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Thailand, Viet Nam, United Kingdom, Cuba, Sudan and New Zealand. The DPRK also replied. We don’t have to detail how that went.

The next steps, when the final report is released in March, will be painful to watch. China has already signaled how it will go; New York Times coverage here. Beijing allowed the CoI to go forward in the face of growing support for it on the Council; our analysis of the trends in voting can be found here. But in Geneva, Chinese diplomat Chen Chuandong signaled that nothing was likely to come of it beyond bad press, since any referral for action under the Rome Statute would have to pass through the Security Council. “Politicized accusations and pressures are not helpful to improving human rights in any country. On the contrary they will only provoke confrontation and undermine the foundation and atmosphere for international human rights cooperation.” If that is the endgame, why allow the charade to go through in the first place?

Although we have been skeptical of the endgame from the start, and the findings are not news, the commission serves the important purpose of historical memory, keeps the issue alive, and may provide openings on the most egregious issues, such as the prison camps (recent posts on this issue can be found here and here; in the latter, my colleague Marc Noland reviews some recent publications from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea on the issue). The website of the CoI is here, including information on how to submit information to the Commission.