By Robert King
The United Nations Security Council will take up the issue of North Korean human rights abuses at a Council session on December 15 of this year. This will be the fourth year in a row that the UN’s highest body has devoted a session to human rights atrocities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). (See the Reuters press report and the December 2017 Monthly Forecast of SecurityCouncilReport.org.) This Security Council session will provide another important and helpful opportunity to focus attention on human rights abuses in North Korea.
The very first time the Security Council took up the DPRK human rights issue was four years ago in December 2014. South Korea was a member of the Security Council in 2014 when the issue of human rights in the North Korea was first brought before the Security Council. In the final statement to the Security Council by the South Korean government (South Korea’s term on the Council ended just a few days later), Ambassador Oh Joon gave a passionate statement urging action to improve the lives of the people of North Korea.
The discussion in 2014 was just a few months after the release of a damning report on North Korea human rights produced by a special Commission of Inquiry (COI) created by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The COI was composed of three senior human rights specialists who conducted an intensive year-long investigation of the human rights situation in the North. The 2014 report of the COI concluded that the Pyongyang regime systematically and grievously violated the rights of its own people. (See the New York Times summary of the report and the work of the COI.) The Commission of Inquiry concluded that in some cases these human rights abuses rose to the level of crimes against humanity, the most serious of human rights abuses.
Following the attention given to the COI report, the Security Council has held a yearly debate on human rights in the North, much to the unhappiness of Pyongyang, which has railed against these sessions. These sessions were also contrary to the wishes of the governments of China and Russia. They have, however, have been important in focusing attention on the DPRK’s serious human rights abuses.
Placing this issue on the agenda requires the support of 9 of the 15 members of the Council. The veto power does not apply in the case of an agenda item, so the five Permanent Members of the Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) cannot prevent a Security Council discussion, though it requires the support of most of the non-permanent Council members.
China and Russia have opposed discussing human rights in the Council, although neither country—nor any other Security Council member for that matter—have been willing to defend North Korea’s human rights record. Their objection to the discussion is based on “principle,” that human rights is not a “security” issue and therefore not appropriate to be taken up by the Security Council. It is telling that no country has spoken up to defend the DPRK’s human rights record in any of the previous Security Council meetings, and the upcoming session will likely be no different. Opponents of raising human rights issues have their own concerns, including the possibility that they, too, could be the subject of UN consideration of their own human and civil rights records.
In addition to the Security Council taking up the DPRK human rights issue this month, within the next few days the UN General Assembly will also consider and adopt a resolution, introduced by the European Union and Japan, which is highly critical of human rights conditions in the North. The resolution follows the presentation in October 2017 of a report to the General Assembly by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana and a highly critical report of the UN’s top official, Secretary General António Guterres.
Quintana’s report expressed concern that the security issues with North Korea are overshadowing the human rights of the country’s ordinary citizens, and he argued that the current security crisis diverts international attention from the very serious human rights abuses. He also cited specifics about “grave violations” of human rights, severe abuse of prisoners and abductees, lack of access to food, government corruption, and denial of freedom of information.
The UN Secretary General report this past October also noted continuing reports of “serious and widespread violations” of the right to life, liberty, personal security, and a fair trial in the North. He also said there are continuing “strict restrictions” on freedom of movement, freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of association. Guterres cited DPRK refusal to return individuals abducted against their will from Japan and other countries, and he criticized the refusal of the North to allow meetings between separated families, principally those with family members in South Korea and others living in the North. Most of these family separations date to the Korean War.
The tough draft General Assembly resolution on North Korea human rights, which is expected to be approved about the time the Security Council meets on this topic later this month, is part of a long-term effort to the press the DPRK on its human rights record in the United Nations. The 2017 draft resolution on North Korea, which was introduced with the sponsorship of 44 countries, “condemns the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” After reiterating the abuses and examples of rights abuses, the resolution authorizes for another year the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and requests that the Rapporteur again testify before the General Assembly and also requests that the UN Secretary General likewise report on human rights in the North.
Some critics of the UN and some of those who question the attention given to DPRK human rights abuses also question the value of these efforts. There are a number of reasons, however, why efforts made in the United Nations are important and should be continued.
First, thanks to these efforts there has been some progress on human rights in the North—baby steps admittedly, but progress none the less. Since the effort to press the DPRK on human rights began, Pyongyang has signed and ratified in 2016 the Convention on Disabilities and has engaged in foreign organizations which work on the issue of disabilities. In fact, the North invited a UN disability expert to visit Pyongyang in 2017, the first time an independent UN expert was invited to visit the country. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child met with North Korean officials to discuss child exploitation in Geneva in the fall of 2017, and the UN Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women held discussions on treatment of women with North Korean government officials. This is not time to declare victory, but it is a positive sign that continuing to press the North pushes the regime in the right direction.
Second, the efforts to identify, publicize, and criticize DPRK’s record on human rights makes it more difficult for the North to gain international support and acceptance. Other members of the United Nations have not supported or defended North Korea’s human rights record. When they have opposed resolutions and actions critical of the North it has been because oppose “country-specific” actions by the UN. In many cases these countries recognize that their own human rights policies have similar problems, and they prefer keeping efforts and pronouncements on human rights general and generic, rather than “country-specific.” The isolation and the lack of international support for North Korea helps drive home its status as a country on the fringes of the international community.
Third, with the growth of democratic values internationally, the legitimacy of a regime depends in large measure on its ability to reflect the interests of its people and the government’s ability to promote the wellbeing of its citizens. The international credibility of the criticism of North Korea’s human rights record serves to undermine the legitimacy of the Kim regime, and this creates still greater pressure on the regime to meet its people’s human needs and to conform its behavior to accepted international norms.
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 Norway UN (New York)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.