Momentum is building fast among U.N. members to form an independent panel to probe the human rights record in North Korea as the despotic regime has defied international pressure to end oppression, torture and public executions of its people.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to discuss a draft resolution for the establishment of a substantive inquiry mechanism this month to be jointly proposed by the European Union and Japan, officials and activists said.
The Geneva-based council opened its 22nd session Monday for a month-long run with North Korea, Syria and Mali high on the agenda.
Participants prepare for the U.N. Human Rights Council's 22nd session in Geneva on Monday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Proponents are coordinating the details for the commission of inquiry, which would mark the most credible, systemic and far-reaching probe to date into its rampant abuses and also lay the groundwork for bringing the leadership to account in the future, experts say.
“By creating a COI, the U.N. would be publicly acknowledging that after nine years of monitoring human rights in North Korea, it has found no improvements in the widespread and systematic rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean government,” said Roberta Cohen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization.
The UNHRC has approved resolutions against the North every year since 2005.
“And that it is time for the U.N. to determine whether these are crimes against humanity, the gravest human rights abuses committed, and ones that demand accountability,” she said via email from Washington.
Its establishment would significantly strengthen the world body’s scrutiny into North Korea’s dire human rights conditions, which has been handled by a special rapporteur.
The regime’s continuing defiance has sparked calls for a more extensive scheme with additional human and financial resources such as a COI or fact-finding mission.
The drive for a COI has in recent months drawn support from top U.N. officials including High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman.
Pillay last month called for a full-fledged international inquiry into the “deplorable” human rights situation that has “no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
The resolution is backed by a number of countries including South Korea, the U.S. and Canada.
“There is international support (for a fact-finding group). As Pillay and Darusman raised the need for one, we have a fundamental idea that we tune in to the general international position,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
For the passage, the resolution must get approval from more than half of the commission’s 47 members.
The absence of China, Russia and Cuba, which are rotating out this year, left Venezuela as the only likely challenger, providing a “real possibility” for a sufficient majority if not a consensus, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Beijing in particular has been taking flak for repatriating defectors under a decades-old pact with Pyongyang, despite the torture, detention, forced labor or public executions ahead at home.
“We’re seeing a tremendous surge of interest and support in the international community in a commission of inquiry, so we’re confident that the HRC will create a substantial inquiry mechanism,” he said via email from Bangkok.
“What remains to be determined is the terms of reference for this inquiry, the timeline, personnel and resources, and other key determinants on how the COI would actually function.”
Despite China’s shielding of its rogue ally, the COI’s findings would make it difficult for Beijing’s ruling elite trumpeting a peaceful rise and global leadership, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based HRNK.
“China is a rising power that worries about its international image,” he told The Korea Herald in an email interview.
“Enhanced attention would also help the international community remember China’s responsibility: China could make a significant difference in the human rights situation in North Korea, for example, by halting the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees, in violation of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention to which it is a party.”
Experts and activists have for years stressed the need for a substantial inquiry scheme to address a wide array of abuses against captured defectors and other political prisoners in North Korea.
Last year, the U.N. General Assembly in New York and its Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted strong resolutions by consensus for the first time, condemning Pyongyang for its systematic rights breaches.
Up to 200,000 people are imprisoned in at least six sprawling gulags across the country, according to Amnesty International. More than 24,600 defectors now live in the South ― many of them have reported atrocities including rape, torture, summary executions, slave labor and abductions.
In a 2012 survey on human rights in 199 countries, the U.S. State Department rated North Korea as “extremely poor” and put it at the bottom of the list, along with China, Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.
In a rare, strong statement, Pillay regretted that there was “almost no sign of improvement” one year after young leader Kim Jong-un took over from his father.
“The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world, seems to have completely bypassed (North Korea), where self-imposed isolation has allowed the government to mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century,” she said, adding that an in-depth inquiry was “not only fully justified, but long overdue.”
Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, added a catalyst early this month through a report to the HRC stressing the need for such an investigation to address Pyongyang’s “grave, widespread and systemic” human rights violations.
“The inquiry should examine the issues of institutional and personal accountability for such violations, in particular where they amount to crimes against humanity, and make appropriate recommendations to the authorities of (the North) and international community for further action,” the report said.
Meanwhile, skeptics say that any inquiry mechanism would have little concrete outcome given North Korea’s deep reclusiveness and highly limited access to information inside.
The regime continues to be defiant toward outside criticism and considers it an attempt to topple its communist dynasty.
“It is a fact that North Korea continues to be the world’s most opaque regime,” Scarlatoiu of the HRNK said.
“The great challenge is that U.N. agencies do not have access to those inside North Korea whose human rights are being violated with impunity.”
But he bets on tens of thousands of refugees in the South and elsewhere who could form “a significant pool of interviewees to engage in significant fact finding and draft new recommendations.”
In South Korea, North Korea’s human rights have also been a perennial partisan and ideological fault line.
A related bill led by the conservative Saenuri Party has been languished for more than seven years due to opposition from some liberal lawmakers who worry that it will vex the regime.
Still more people appear to urge the rival parties to set down differences in their grand approaches to their northern neighbor and step up efforts to unshackle its people from oppression, underscoring human rights as a universal value.
Early this month, 110 former officials, scholars and activists across the political spectrum issued a statement urging the Seoul government to step up its efforts for the establishment of a COI.
They include former Prime Minister Roh Jae-bong, former Korea University president Hong Il-sik, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy co-representative Park Sang-jeung and Social Democracy Network co-head Joo Dae-hwan.
“A COI won’t directly affect the lives of the North Korean people immediately,” said Jared Genser, managing director of law firm Perseus Strategies and a pro bono counsel to the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, a group of more than 40 non-governmental organizations.
“But it presents the best hope to spur international action and, at the same time, send a clear message to senior levels of the North Korean regime that their actions could result in international prosecution if they persist on their present path.”
Cohen at Brookings said spotlighting human rights may help other countries broaden their nuclear-focused agendas with North Korea and spur steps to bring perpetrators to accountability later on.
“It’s never easy to predict change in a society. Just remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the changes in Arab countries ― they were hardly foreseen,” she said.
“Continuing to chip away at the Kim regime and working to penetrate the information wall around North Korea could in time lead to change.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org