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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Genser and Ugarte on The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights

by | July 14th, 2014 | 06:00 am

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book edited by Jared Genser and Irwin Cotler on The Responsibility to Protect. Genser’s back, this time with Bruno Stagno Ugarte, and has broadened his scope with a 500 page edited volume, The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights. The book is relevant to how we think about North Korean human rights-related diplomacy, despite the fact that there is not much material directly on North Korea. The book is organized around three fundamental drivers that Genser and Ugarte identify as affecting the recent treatment of human rights in the UNSC: specific themes (civilians, women, and children and armed conflict); securing, maintaining, and building peace; and law and justice. This thematically organized material is then complemented with eight case studies: Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Timor-Leste, Sudan (Darfur), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

The basic story they tell is one of tension between evolving international legal structures and inter-state realpolitik. Despite its formal mandate to consider human rights issues created through various international treaties and conventions, historically human rights issues had low salience for the Security Council. The situation began to change with the end of the Cold War with the innovative use of Committees of Experts and Committees of Inquiry (such as the one that just concluded with respect to North Korea). The Security Council also began to make use of international criminal tribunals and the newly established International Criminal Court, as well as new tools such as targeted sanctions.

But international politics were never far from the surface, and the book addresses the history of vetoes, and “hidden vetoes” wielded by the five permanent members. This tension—between evolving legal theories and structures on the one hand, and great power interests on the other—would seem to be at the heart of the book’s implicit relevance to the current North Korea case. Reading this volume one cannot help but wonder if the rivalry between the US and China, or the US and Russia, which seems to have intensified since the writing of these essays, may dampen the effectiveness of the UNSC with regard to North Korean human rights issues in a way not entirely foreseen in this volume. Nevertheless, The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights is an extraordinarily comprehensive and informative book and certainly worth reading for anyone interested in the treatment of human rights issues by the Security Council.