The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council have begun the process of selecting a new Special Rapporteur to focus on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana has held the mandate for DPRK human rights for the past six years, and UN procedures specify that no individual may serve longer than six years in such a position.
The appointment of Special Rapporteurs by the UN Human Rights Council in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is one of the “special procedures” used to focus on human rights issues of concern. In addition to appointing a Special Rapporteur, there are occasionally small working groups of experts on a particular issue. Independent human rights experts are given a mandate by the Human Rights Council to gather information and make recommendations for action.
Currently, the United Nations has 43 “thematic” mandates, as well as 13 country-specific Special Rapporteurs or working groups. The special procedures for thematic issues deal with topics such as the “working group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” the “Special Rapporteur for the rights of persons with disabilities,” or the “Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.”
The United Nations has sought to focus on broad thematic issues that include many countries, but in 13 cases the country-specific human rights issues are of such magnitude that individual countries are singled out for special attention. North Korea has the unenviable distinction of falling into this category as one of the most egregious human rights violators. It is not good company to keep. In addition to the DPRK, there are country-specific Rapporteurs for Afghanistan, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Eritria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mali, Myanmar, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, and the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Role of the Special Rapporteur
Special Rapporteurs are independent human rights experts who have a mandate to report and advise on human rights and humanitarian concerns. Although they are citizens of UN members states, they are not appointed to represent the interests of their own country. The Rapporteurs are not current government officials of their own country, although former government officials have played a very positive role, particularly former judges or prosecutors.
These individuals are principally attorneys and human rights advocates who have experience dealing with human rights issues. There is more interest in finding a human rights expert or an expert on a thematic issue than in finding a specialist on the country or countries involved. Many of the Rapporteurs are professors and scholars who have human rights backgrounds.
In the interest of keeping the Special Rapporteurs “fresh” and bringing in new ideas and approaches, Special Rapporteurs are appointed to serve for a period of up to six years, and that requirement is carefully observed. Individuals may serve as a Special Rapporteur on another issue or country, although not concurrently. In fact, the three individuals who have held the mandate for North Korea all had previous experience within the United Nations, and this contributed to their effectiveness with North Korea.
Previous Special Rapporteurs on DPRK Human Rights
The end of the term of Tomas Ojea-Quintana in July of this year will mark 18 years of UN Special Rapporteurs focusing on human rights in North Korea. The tragedy and suffering that plagued North Korea during the famine of the mid-1990s brought world-wide attention to the country’s human rights abuses. In 2004, the United States Congress adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act, which put the Congress on record saying that the United Nations “has a significant role to play in promoting and improving human rights in North Korea.” At that same time human rights organizations were pressing the United Nations to play a more active role in dealing with North Korea’s human rights abuses. The decision to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the issue was a step that was broadly welcomed.
In 2004 the chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission (the predecessor of the UN Human Rights Council) appointed Thai law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn as the first Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK. He is a professor of law at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, with degrees from Oxford and the Free University of Brussels. He had served as a Special Rapporteur within the UN human rights system on child abuse, and he has continued to contribute to UN human rights efforts. Muntarbhorn focused on North Korea from July 2004 through 2010.
Former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman succeeded Professor Muntarbhorn as Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights from 2010 to 2016. Darusman oversaw the prosecution of several prominent officials of the authoritarian regime of General Suharto in his native Indonesia, and he was successful in removing them from government and putting many behind bars. With the North Korea human rights portfolio, Darusman convinced the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a three-member Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights (2013-2014), which produced a landmark report on the abysmal state of human rights in North Korea and recommended important steps forward. Darusman served as a member of the commission, in addition to his work as Special Rapporteur. In response to the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights established a special UN office in Seoul to focus on gathering information on DPRK human rights abuses.
Argentine attorney and professor of law Tomás Ojea Quintana was named Special Rapporteur in July 2016 following Darusman’s six year tenure. Ojea Quintana has a strong record of advocacy for human rights in his native Argentina, particularly with the victims of the military regime, including work with the Abuelas de Plazo de Mayo. But he also had served as a United Nations human rights expert on a number of important issues. In March of this year, he gave his final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He emphasized in a meeting with journalists following the Council’s discussion and approval of his report the importance of continuing to press North Korea on its human rights obligations, but he also called for humanitarian aid for the North.
Candidates for the North Korea Human Rights Rapporteur
UN procedures for filling a position for an independent expert such as the Special Rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK provides that individuals interested in the position formally apply to serve. United Nations officials in Geneva will consult with diplomats from UN member governments who serve on the Human Rights Council about the North Korean Special Rapporteur position—and all of the many other positions that are being filled. The final decision will not just be determined on the needs of the Rapporteur for DPRK human rights, but it will be part of a much larger process of selecting a large number of important UN Human Rights Council expert positions. The appointments will be worked out through consensus, with private conversations in the corridors. The chosen individual for the North Korea human rights position will be formally named by the President of the Human Rights Council in July as part of a large slate appointees.
Eight individuals have expressed their interest to serve in the position. The UN Human Rights Council secretariat has released the list of the names of those who have formally applied. I want to emphasize again that the applicants are putting their name forward as experts who have a personal interest in the position, and they are not put forward by their own governments. The eight candidates (in surname alphabetical order) are:
The candidates are principally attorneys with experience in United Nations human rights activities. Three are from European countries (Albania, Austria and Poland), three from Asian nations (Bangladesh, Philippines, and Thailand), and two from the Americas (Peru and the United States). All are experienced with the United Nations and all are well qualified to serve. I do not want to comment on all of the applicants, but I should mention that the candidate who is a U.S. citizen faces some issues because he is an American citizen.
Michael C. Davis, the U.S. citizen who is applying, is a Professor of Law and International Affairs, Jindal Global University, Delhi, India, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He is a scholar and an advocate on human rights issues, with a regional focus on Asia. An American as Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights (or any other similar position at the United Nations) should not be thought of as a political representative of his or her own government. UN experts are not representatives of their own government, and a U.S. citizen in such a position would likely consider it highly inappropriate to be asked to take a position on an issue at the request of his own government.
While Americans in and out of government are likely to look at the matter that way, other governments do ask their citizens to act in ways that are consistent with what the government considers its interest. The DPRK government would think nothing of directing (not asking) a North Korean working at the UN to take actions considered in its national interest. That makes it natural for Pyongyang to think U.S. citizens are subjected to such pressures. Because of the political sensitivity of DPRK human rights issues, U.S. citizens are probably at a disadvantage.
Frustration of Dealing with North Korea
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK is in a difficult position in dealing with North Korea. Pyongyang sees any effort to improve human rights as a threat to its ability to control the country. Special Rapporteurs on other human rights issues encounter skepticism and hostility in many countries, but North Korea seems to be particularly difficult.
The UN tries to engage with sovereign nations on human rights and encourages them to make progress on these issues. In other countries this involves consultation and cooperation in seeking to make improvement. North Korea has taken the view that any effort even to discuss human rights issues is totally unacceptable. The three previous Special Rapporteurs for DPRK human rights have repeatedly requested an invitation to visit North Korea in order to meet and consult with officials there. There has been no response. Pyongyang does not have the courtesy to respond to such formal requests.
The outgoing Special Rapporteur carefully balanced his last report to the UN Human Rights Council by calling for human rights progress from North Korea but also calling for the the international community to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance. His carefully weighed and thoughtful report was not acknowledged by Pyongyang.
In an effort to show a bit more cooperation, the North Korean government did invite the UN Special Rapporteur on rights of persons with disabilities to visit Pyongyang (but nowhere else in the North). The visit was carefully “contained,” but it did represent a breakthrough in allowing a UN Rapporteur to visit the country. The prospect for a new UN Special Rapporteur to be received in Pyongyang, however, is very unlikely.
The Special Rapporteur, however, does have an impact. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, which focuses on North Korean human rights issues, works closely with the Special Rapporteur in gathering and analyzing North Korean human rights data. With a new administration in South Korea, Seoul will likely be more cooperative in working the UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights. A good deal of information comes from defectors who have left the North and have resettled in the South, but that number has been reduced to a trickle because of severely tightened borders as Pyongyang tries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 without vaccines. Defectors are still very important source of information in analyzing North Korean human right conditions, even if the current data is more limited.
The Special Rapporteur has been able to make progress and keep the human rights issue at the fore, even without setting foot in North Korea. The new Special Rapporteur, whoever she or he is, will plays a very useful role in pressing for human rights progress in the future.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.