The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As I was working on some gender discrimination in NK research, I was encouraged in a small way by reading some choice words from Vitit MuntarbhornSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In his Report (A/HRC/13/47, 17 February 2010), the Special Rapporteur highlighted a couple of encouraging developments that happened in North Korea. While the rest of the document discusses the many egregious human rights issues in the country, there was a brief moment of positivity, something that I think can’t be taken for granted in the NK human rights arena.

Excerpt from Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,
 Vitit Muntarbhorn, pp. 5-6:

It is clear from six years of observing the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that the abuses against the general population for which the authorities should be responsible are both egregious and endemic. 

This is not to deny that there have been some constructive developments throughout the years in regard to the country’s development and engagement with the international community. First, as has been recognized consistently by the Special Rapporteur, the country is a party to four key human rights treaties (on civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights and child rights) and has engaged with the monitoring bodies under those treaties. Second, a number of United Nations agencies are present in the country to render assistance, and cooperation with the authorities on some fronts has been positive, for example with regard to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) work on child immunization. Third, at the end of 2009, the country sent representatives to Geneva to participate in the universal periodic review of its human rights record and expressed its willingness to cooperate with this new United Nations procedure. It remains to be seen to what extent the authorities will accept the numerous recommendations emerging from the review and how they will substantiate follow-up measures as a consequence of the review. Fourth, interestingly, in the 2009 reform of the national Constitution, the words “human rights” were inserted into the text. Yet, it seems that this country’s notion of human rights is much related to the protection of the State- cum-elite and the rejection of external threats, rather than the human-centric notion of universal human rights. As a response to international influence, there have been some law reforms, such as periodic adjustments of the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, and new policies such as those concerning the development of children. 

However, the more constructive side of developments is undermined by the omnipotent State seeking to prop up a regime which is out of sync with the general population and which tries to perpetuate its survival at the cost of the people. The general scenario is bleak for a variety of reasons. First, the non-democratic — indeed totalitarian — nature of the power base has created a pervasive “State of fear” or “State as one big prison” for the mass base which is not part of the elite, with inordinate constraints imposed on the rights and freedoms of the people. The power base does not tolerate dissent; indeed, it suppresses it with all the might of the State. 

Second, society suffers an extensive surveillance and informant system, leading to political dystopia. Practices to instil fear among the population are rampant, including public executions, torture, collective punishments, and mistreatment of women and children. They have given rise to poignant nomenclature such as “pigeon torture” and “airplane torture”. 

Third, the national resources are distorted in favour of militarization and the ruling elite. This is most evident in regard to the expenditure on the nuclearization process, a development castigated by the international community through various United Nations resolutions. This mis-expenditure has not only depleted the national budget, which should have been spent on the welfare of the population, but it has also compromised international peace and security. As a testament to the latter, various sanctions have been imposed by the Security Council. On the home front, the mention of human rights in the Constitution is illusory, as the Constitution also now entrenches a “military first” policy. The preferred orientation, namely “people first”, is absent from both the text and reality. 

For further information on North Korean human rights, check out the publications of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). HRNK also has a list of resources on its North Korean Human Rights Resource Center page.

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Commission of Inquiry now taking submissions!

In case you haven’t heard, the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK is currently accepting submissions about human rights violations in North Korea. If you would like to submit evidence to assist the Commission, please read this: COI information sheet.

Additionally, the COI is currently hearing testimony from defectors on the human rights situation in North Korea. Here’s a NYTimes article featuring Shin Dong-hyuk. The Commission will reportedly be in Seoul until August 27th.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Shin Dong-hyuk attended a public hearing at Yonsei University in Seoul on Tuesday.

The Commission’s contact info:

For any query relating to the COI or to provide information relevant to its mandate, please write to: coidprksubmissions@ohchr.org

or

Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea OHCHR
United Nations Office at Geneva
CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland

NK Commission of Inquiry (COI)

Progress! Two days ago – March 21, 2013 – the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) voted unanimously (47 members) to establish a North Korea Commission of Inquiry (COI).[1] Although the UN has looked at NK in the past, it has mainly focused on NK’s nuclear weapons proliferations. This time, however, shows that the ‘international community’ (more specifically, the European Union and Japan, since they brought the resolution before the OHCHR) is concerned with human rights abuses in NK. The resolution, A/HRC/22/L.19, also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in NK for one year.[2]

OHCHR logo

OHCHR logo

What is a commission of inquiry?

I had to take a look. So far, here’s the basic idea based on some quick research: According to a Geneva Academy conference on commissions of inquiry, there are two different kinds, national and international.[3] (In this case, the NK COI will be an international tool used to investigate human rights situations.) A COI investigates potential violations of international human rights law and/or humanitarian law. It does not appear that there’s a standard construction to COIs, but recently a COI was established for the potential atrocities being committed in Syria. A commission is supposed to investigate alleged violations of law, gather evidence, and issue a report(s), all in a fair and unbiased manner. The NK COI is comprised of three members (but may include up to ten people later on), including UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman.[4] The COI is established for one year, but there is always the possibility of it being extended. The NK COI has to provide an “oral update to the Council at its twenty-fourth session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-eight session, and a written report to the Council at its twenty-fifth session.”[5]

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, shed some more light on COIs. He stated in a report to the UN Human Rights Council, “‘Commissions of inquiry are strong and flexible mechanisms that can yield ample benefits for governments, victim communities and the wider public, but they do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence.'”[6]

Certainly, a COI is not meant to replace NK’s duty to not violate the rights of its own people. But this assumes NK actually believes its people are being denied rights, which it clearly does not. In fact, “North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong rejected the resolution as ‘an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK,’ and said, “‘[a]s we stated time and again, those human rights abuses mentioned in the resolution do not exist in our country.’”[7]

What will the COI look at specifically?

Luckily for me, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) already explained this quite nicely:

“As defined by the resolution on North Korea, the Commission of Inquiry will have a mandate to “investigate all systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ The resolution made particular note of ‘the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and ‘the unresolved questions of international concern relating to abductions of nationals of other states.’ The resolution empowers the commission to undertake a one-year investigation into the ‘violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.’”[8]

I need to dive into the specifics of the resolution still, but I believe some of this language is from the Rome Statute, which is the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Under Article 7(1) of the Rome Statute, “‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a)     Murder;

(b)     Extermination;

(c)     Enslavement;

(d)     Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e)     Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f)     Torture;

(g)     Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; 
(h)     Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i)     Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j)     The crime of apartheid;

(k)     Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.[9]

And just for good measure, and because the argument has been made that the Kim regime has committed genocide, here’s Article 6 of the Rome Statute:

For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a)     Killing members of the group;

(b)     Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c)     Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d)     Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e)     Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

How can the COI investigate since it is unlikely NK will cooperate?

I think this is the crucial question right now. The COI is established to investigate, but if NK stands in the way (which it will) and does not let the commission into NK, then it stands to reason that the COI will not gather as much evidence about potential abuses by the Kim regime. As the Geneva Academy points out, “[a]n important task of any commission of inquiry is to analyse facts on the ground with regard to applicable law. Thus, it is crucial that a commission can independently and freely conduct investigations on the ground to establish the facts for itself.”

I hope that this will not inhibit the work of the COI too drastically though. After all, as Dr. John Park pointed out recently, the roughly 24,000 NK defectors in South Korea are a relatively untouched information resource. My hope is that the COI will have the cooperation of the South Korean government and the NK defectors in order to search for the truth about what the Kim regime is doing to the people unlucky enough to live north of the 38th Parallel.