By Robert R. King
On March 22, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva discussed and then adopted a resolution criticizing the “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” A recorded vote was not requested by any Council member, and the resolution was adopted by consensus.
The UN Human Rights Council has given serious attention to North Korea’s rights violations since 2004 when the Council first appointed a Special Rapporteur to report to the Council and make recommendations on human rights abuses by the North. For the past 15 years the Council has annually renewed the mandate for a Special Rapporteur. The current holder of that position is Tomás Ojea Quintana, a professor of international law and a citizen of Argentina. He previously served on the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and he directed a program of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for protection and promotion of human rights in Bolivia. Before assuming the position for North Korean human rights, he was Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in Myanmar (2008-2014).
The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights plays the key role in UN human rights activities. He conducts investigations on the North’s rights abuses, and he consults with government officials, human specialists and scholars. Every March the Special Rapporteur presents a detailed written report on human rights conditions to the UN Human Rights Council. At an open session of the Council in Geneva, he makes an oral presentation and responds to remarks of representatives of member countries. The Council subsequently adopts a resolution on the issue.
Since 2005, the Special Rapporteur also has delivered a written report and made an oral presentation to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York. In every one of the last 15 years, the General Assembly also has adopted a harshly critical resolution on DPRK human rights taking into account the abuses catalogued by the Special Rapporteur.
Special Rapporteur Decries Rights Abuses
The report recently presented to the UN Human Rights Council and the resolution just adopted by the Council reaffirmed the continuing human rights abuses being carried on by North Korea. As part of his work, Special Rapporteur Quintana was in Seoul in January where he met with South Korean government officials and recently-arrived defectors from the North. At great risk to themselves and their families, the defectors fled the North. Quintana has approached the North requesting to visit the country “to hear the voice of the people and the authorities,” but the North has repeatedly refused to cooperate with him.
In Seoul Mr. Quintana briefed the media on the results of his conversations. His visit came a month before the failure of the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Despite some encouraging signs he saw in the security realm, Quintana noted that “the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious.” He indicated that political prison camps in the North continue to house “thousands of inmates,” and he cited one source as saying “the whole country is a prison.” He said that other witnesses who recently fled the North “reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life” as well as “a continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities.
In the Special Rapporteur’s detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council he concluded “Surveillance and close monitoring of all citizens as well as other severe restrictions on their basic freedoms, including freedom of movement, continues to be pervasive, with fear among the population to be sent to prisons, particularly political prison camps, being very real and deeply embedded in the consciousness of all North Koreans.”
At the same time that the Special Rapporteur’s report was published, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, former two-term president of Chile, also gave her annual report to the UN Human Rights Commission “Promoting accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” That report, in very stark terms, concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that numerous crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and may be ongoing,” and “the prosecution of crimes committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea through the creation of an ad hoc tribunal or referral to the International Criminal Court should remain a priority.”
The resolution approved by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council “Condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and expresses its grave concern at the detailed findings made by the commission of inquiry in its report.” The resolution also commended the UN human rights office in Seoul and praised its ongoing monitoring and documentation efforts on North Korea’s human rights. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was also extended because of the clear and continuing problem of human rights violations.
When the resolution was considered by the Human Rights Council, Romania presented the text on behalf of the European Union and the sponsors of the resolution. The resolution was sponsored by 39 UN member countries. During the consideration of the resolution, only Cuba and China expressed opposition, but when the vote was called, no country requested that a recorded vote be taken, and it was adopted by consensus. This was a resounding affirmation of the importance of the resolution and the continuing broad support for tough criticism of North Korea’s appalling human rights record.
And . . . where was the United States?
One of the most disappointing aspects of the consideration and adoption of the resolution on North Korea’s abysmal human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council was that the United States was totally absent from the fray. The 39 UN member countries who sponsored the resolution critical of North Korea did not include the United States. The member countries of the European Union and many others went on the record in support of human rights for the North Korean people. The United States, which has been a leader in international human rights since Eleanor Roosevelt led the effort to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, could not be bothered to express support for human rights in North Korea.
The Trump Administration’s failure to support the UN Human Rights Council resolution is part of a pattern of failing to stand up for human rights in North Korea. Shortly after John Bolton was named National Security Advisor at the White House, the United States withdrew from participating in the UN Human Rights Council, and this has hampered efforts to press North Korea on its human rights violations. Though, it would not have prevented the United States from sponsoring the resolution on North Korean human rights.
Also, President Trump appears to consider human rights only as a weapon to be used to wring concessions from the North on nuclear and security questions. When he was seeking to pressure Pyongyang, he used human rights as a tool to press the North. Nowhere was this more evident than in comparing the President’s treatment of North Korea in the 2018 State of the Union Address and what he said about the North in his 2019 Address. The imposition of a few new sanctions for human rights violations against North Korean officials in December 2018—required by Congressional legislation—was down-played by the Administration.
One of the more glaring United States failures to press North Korea on human rights cruelties was in the failure to raise this issue in United Nations Security Council. After the release of the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on widespread and pervasive North Korean human rights abuses, the General Assembly adopted a resolution in the fall of 2014 urging the Security Council to discuss the issue and consider referring it to a special tribunal or to the International Criminal Court. The United States Permanent Representative to the UN led the effort to secure the votes to place the issue on the Security Council’s agenda. The issue was discussed four years in a row from 2014 to 2017.
In the fall of 2018 the United States failed to get the issue placed on the Security Council agenda. North Korea’s UN ambassador was vocal in urging that the issue not be considered, and many foreign policy commentators suggested that Washington’s urgent desire for another summit with Kim Jong-un, led U.S. representatives in New York to avoid pressing the issue.
Securing nine of the fifteen Security Council member countries to support a controversial agenda item can be complicated, particularly since China and Russia are permanent members who have consistently opposed raising human rights questions of any kind. Getting the support of nine member countries can be difficult since ten council seats are staggered two year term seats, and the makeup of the council varies according to the countries whose representatives sit on the council.
There has been no indication that the United States has renewed its effort to place North Korean human rights issues on the agenda in 2019. The first quarter of the year is now gone with nary a whisper that the United States was again raising that issue. President Trump’s recent unexpected unilateral action revoking the imposition of sanctions on Pyongyang by his Treasury Department in fact suggests that he is bending over backwards to persuade Kim Jong-un to negotiate on denuclearization, though the failure of discussions in Hanoi does not give great hope for progress. Meanwhile, the United States ignores North Korea’s abysmal human rights violations.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.