Two Years on From UN Report on North Korea’s Crimes Against Humanity

Two years ago today, the United Nations published the most authoritative and comprehensive analysis of one of the world’s most closed, and most cruel, regime: North Korea. The report, the result of a year-long Commission of Inquiry chaired by the widely respected former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

The inquiry concluded that the abuses amount to crimes against humanity, and should lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Writing for Huffington Post, Chairman José Ramos-Horta and British human rights activist and writer Benedict Rogers point out that more recently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, said that “not much has changed” since the report, and called on the international community to act. It is, Darusman said, “now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility” of the North Korean leadership, in addition to increasing political pressure on the regime.

The day before Mr Darusman’s statement, the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that it “is convinced that the time has come for the international community to take concrete action to end the perpetrators’ impunity” and “demands that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed … be held accountable, be brought before the International Criminal Court and be subject to targeted sanctions”.

North Korea’s crimes against humanity, it said, “have been taking place for far too long under the observing eyes of the international community”.

The same day, in the House of Lords in Britain, Lord Alton, a tireless campaigner on human rights and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, who has visited the country four times, introduced a debate on the subject, describing the murder of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, other senior officials, and his vice-premier Choe Yong-gon. “Kim Jong-un knew these men well, but that did not save their lives.

In this reign of terror, killing those who are not part of your circle is even less of an issue,” said Lord Alton. He described “the purges, the reign of terror, the falsifying of history, the show trials, the network of gulags – where an estimated 200,000 people are incarcerated – the 400,000 said to have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, and the attempts to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent”.

The regime, the says, “ruthlessly crushes dissent, and through its policy of guilt by association, collective punishment and the execution of men like Jang is trying to ensure that there is no Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition”. North Korea, Alton concluded, “is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

Two years on from the UN’s report, what has happened? A UN office has opened in Seoul, as recommended by the inquiry, to continue the vital work of documenting abuses so that one day the evidence can be used in a prosecution of the regime’s leaders.

But as to the key recommendation to refer the case to the ICC, Ramos-Horta and Rogers say that there is no prospect of the UN Security Council taking action. China and Russia have made public their objection to it.

They offer two suggestions for a route forward. First is for the UN to continue to keep the threat of an ICC referral on the table while building international support for the action, in the hopes that as the North Korean regime continues its level of gross human rights abuses China and Russia will realize they have exhausted the quiet approach with the North Korean regime and remove opposition to an ICC referral.

China, they argue, is extremely concerned about any potential outbreak of uncontrolled instability on its borders. It is also completely opposed to the nuclearization of North Korea, and does work behind the scenes to restrain the North Korean regime.

The other step is an informal public tribunal – of the kind that has been held for Vietnam, Iran and the so-called Japanese ‘comfort women’ — persuading retired senior judges from the five countries that make up the permanent members of the Security Council to volunteer their time to preside. To persuade people – North Koreans who have escaped and international human rights experts who have documented violations – to appear as witnesses would not be difficult. The tribunal would not require government support, and would be a means of further shining a spotlight on the darkest corner of the world and further ratcheting up the pressure.

Other steps suggested include breaking the regime’s information blockade through radio broadcasts, smuggling of USB sticks full of information and entertainment, and cultural and academic exchanges of various kinds.