Left to right: Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, Commission Chairman Michael Kirby and Sonja Biserko at a briefing in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.
A grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), according to a United Nations-mandated report released Monday which also calls for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country, including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission says in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.
Established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013, for 11 months, the Commission of Inquiry (COI) has been investigating the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea, aiming to ensure full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.
In a 400-page set of linked reports and supporting documents, culled from first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has documented in great detail the “unspeakable atrocities” committed in the country.
With a one-year mandate, the Commission was tasked with investigating several alleged violations, including those concerning the right to food and those associated with prison camps; torture and inhuman treatment; arbitrary detention; discrimination; freedom of expression, movement and religion; the right to life; and enforced disappearances, including abductions of nationals to other countries.
Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity
Describing crimes such as “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the report adds: “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the [DPRK] because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”
The second, more detailed, section of the report cites evidence provided by individual victims and witnesses, including the harrowing treatment meted out to political prisoners, some of whom said they would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies. Others told of watching family members being murdered in prison camps, and of defenseless inmates being used for martial arts practice.
“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community,” the report stated. “The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so.”
The Commission found that the DPRK “displays many attributes of a totalitarian State” and spotlights that there is “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” and that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals.
“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” the report says, adding that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals.
Along with its chairman, Michael Kirby, a retired judge from Australia, the panel comprises Sonja Biserko, founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia and the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK. At a briefing by the Commission in Geneva on Monday, Michael Kirby said: “The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”
Political Prison Camps
It is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four large political prison camps, where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment. Gross violations are also being committed in the ordinary prison system, according to the Commission’s findings.
To coincide with the release of the commission’s report, Human Rights Watch released a video, “North Korea: Tales from Camp Survivors,” with interviews of North Koreans who survived years of abuse while incarcerated in political prison camps (kwanliso), including systematic use of beatings, food deprivation and starvation, and public executions, to control those held there. The film includes interviews with former camp guards detailing camp administration and atrocities:
“This shocking report should open the eyes of the UN Security Council to the atrocities that plague the people of North Korea and threaten stability in the region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation. The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian states established during the 20th century.”
“The devastating findings of this inquiry should not be ignored,” Roth added. “Since the crimes were perpetrated by state actors, only an international tribunal can properly carry out criminal investigations aimed at holding perpetrators accountable.”
The report finds that, since 1950, the “State’s violence has been externalized through State-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations. These international enforced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.”
Roberta Cohen, Co-chair of the Washington based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) observed “For the first time, a United Nations body has recognized that the government of North Korea is committing crimes against humanity and that its leaders should be brought to account. It is now up to the world community to take action to protect those persecuted and bring the perpetrators to justice. The report is clear recognition that the Kim regime’s systematic murder, abduction, torture, starvation, religious persecution and political imprisonment of its people must be brought to a halt.”
State surveillance permeates private lives and virtually no expression critical of the political system goes undetected – or unpunished, says the Commission, detailing that the key to the country’s political system is the “vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.”
Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritized, even during periods of mass starvation, the report says. The State also maintains a system of inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation that inevitably produces more avoidable starvation among its citizens.
Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and forced sex work outside the DPRK. Many take the risk of fleeing, mainly to China, despite the high chance that they will be apprehended and forcibly repatriated, then subjected to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases sexual violence.
“Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed,” the report states.
While the Government did not respond to requests for access to the DPRK and for information, the Commission obtained first-hand testimony through public hearings with about 80 witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington D.C., and more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses, including in Bangkok. Eighty formal submissions were also received from different entities.
The report includes a letter sent by the Commissioners to the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, containing a summary of the systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that “entail crimes against humanity.”
The letter states that the three-member panel would recommend referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity referred to in this letter and in the Commission’s report.”
Recommendations and Next Steps
Among wide-ranging recommendations to the DPRK, to China and other States, and to the international community, the Commission calls on the UN Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity, stressing that sanctions should not be targeted against the population or the economy as a whole.
The report concludes that information it collected constitutes “reasonable grounds. . .to merit a criminal investigation by a competent national or international organ of justice,” which could include the ICC, or an ad hoc tribunal created by the UN Security Council or by the consent of UN member states.
Besides referring North Korea to the ICC, the report notes that the UN Security Council has the power to set up a special tribunal for North Korea. This would be an appropriate step since many of the crimes documented by the commission occurred before 2002, when the ICC statute came into force, Human Rights Watch said. Tribunals created with UN Security Council resolutions have been set up for crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Independent of the Security Council, the report notes that the UN General Assembly could pass a resolution aimed at establishing an ad hoc tribunal operated by a set of willing countries. Such a tribunal, set up by UN member states without Security Council authorization, would lack compulsory power under the UN Charter but could carry out many of the same functions as a Security Council-authorized tribunal.
Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director, said “Following the release of the COI’s findings, the price of unconditionally supporting a regime that has committed crimes against humanity is going to be higher. In particular, permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) attempting to block action to establish accountability in North Korea will find that price to be increasingly higher over the long run. “
Human Rights Watch urged Security Council members to immediately invite the Commission of Inquiry to brief them on their findings, and called on other countries to support efforts to achieve accountability for crimes committed in North Korea.
“The UN was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War precisely to address this kind of massive abuse,” Roth said. “The atrocities described in this report are a profound challenge to the founding ideals of the UN and should shock the organization into bold action. The suffering and loss endured by victims demand swift and definitive action aimed at bringing those responsible to justice.”
Human Rights Watch urged the Human Rights Council to endorse the commission’s recommendations by adopting a strong resolution on North Korea during its March session, and task the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with transmitting the report directly to the UN Security Council and General Assembly for action.
HRNK called upon governments, parliamentarians, regional and international organizations as well as civil society groups to take steps to carry out the recommendations made by the COI report.
The Commission is scheduled to formally present its findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17th 2014.