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). 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.
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. (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. 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.”
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.'”
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.’”
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.’”
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:
(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(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.
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.