At an interactive dialogue on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), United Nations independent human rights experts called on the DPRK government to take immediate steps to ensure human rights protection. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana highlighted that there were no “quick fixes or instant solutions” to tackle human rights abuses of the scope and nature that have been reported in the country for a long time.
“The focus on developments in the political and military arenas should not shield ongoing violations from the scrutiny of this Council,” Quintana said. “Nor should it prevent it from taking a leading role on inspiring and coordinating international action on this situation of great concern.”
The DPRK continues to deny the existence of political prison camps, despite evidence confirming this from the UN Commission of Inquiry, civil society and NGOs. This is a significant challenge to all efforts to address the grave human rights violations taking place within these facilities and other places of detention, including forced labor, deliberate starvation and torture and other ill-treatment.
The rights expert also expressed particular concern over continuing escalation in hostilities on the Korean peninsula, including nuclear tests and missile launches, and underlined that such tensions only further isolated the country.
Drawing attention to last month’s killing of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un’s brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, he urged all parties to cooperate in carrying out a transparent, independent and impartial investigation, as well as to observe guidelines regarding witness protection.
“Should the investigation confirm the involvement of State actors, Mr. Kim Jong Nam would be a victim of an extrajudicial killing and measures would need to be taken to assign responsibilities and protect other persons from targeted killings,” Quintana said.
The rights expert also spoke of the humanitarian situation in the country including in response to the typhoon last year, the situation of migrant workers and labor issues, and on DPRK’s engagement with UN human rights mechanisms.
The Special Rapporteur’s briefing was followed by an update from the Group of Independent Experts on Accountability designated pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 31/18 on the country.
Amnesty International welcomed the reports of the Special Rapporteur and the group of experts. The Special Rapporteur noted concerns which Amnesty International has also raised, including political prison camps, abductions and separated families, the right to food and the exploitation of overseas workers.
In line with the recommendation of the group of experts, Amnesty International called on the Human Rights Council to urge the UN and the international community to respond in a coordinated and unified manner to ensure the enjoyment of all human rights in the DPRK.
Amnesty International also calls on the Human Rights Council to urge the government of the DPRK to:
- Close down all political prison camps, and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.
- Ensure full access for humanitarian workers to those in need, including persons in detention facilities and prisons.
- Introduce an official moratorium on executions, as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty.
- Grant prompt and unrestricted access to all UN Special Procedures and independent human rights monitors.
- Ensure that everybody in the DPRK is able to communicate with family members and others without interference, unless this is compliant with international human rights law.
In his report for the council released on February 22, Quintana highlights the need to address allegations of crimes against humanity and other violations that require perpetrators to be held accountable. He calls for a “two-track strategy” of engagement with North Korea on human rights wherever possible, while also pursuing accountability as necessary for bringing tangible and sustainable human rights improvements. Quintana also endorses the recommendations of the group of independent experts on accountability.
In February, the group of independent experts, created in September 2016 by the Human Rights Council to recommend practical accountability mechanisms for North Korean abuses, released its report as an addendum to Quintana’s report. The experts, Sonja Biserko and Sara Hossain, found that the “crimes described in the COI [commission of inquiry] report are of a gravity rarely seen, involving systems of abuse that have been operating for decades. These crimes are of international concern and cannot go unpunished.” They concluded that addressing these crimes “requires the international community to enhance efforts [in] laying the ground for future criminal trials.”
The group of experts also backs having the UN Security Council refer the grave human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, but recognizes the possibility of a veto from North Korea’s allies China and Russia. They recommend that the high commissioner’s Seoul field office be strengthened with international criminal justice experts to assess available information and evidence, map government command structures to identify gaps and develop possible investigation and prosecution strategies as well as blueprints of suitable international or internationally assisted court models.
The 2014 commission of inquiry found that the gravity, scale, and nature of the human rights violations taking place in North Korea reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world, and amount to crimes against humanity. The Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a threat to regional peace and security as a formal agenda item three years in a row.
“A crucial task for the Human Rights Council is to make justice for rights abuses by the North Korean government against its people a genuine future possibility,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch also said that the United Nations Human Rights Council should strengthen the UN rights office documenting grave abuses in North Korea, specifically they said that the Seoul office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should be upgraded to include international criminal justice experts who can develop strategies to prosecute North Korean leaders responsible for human rights crimes.
“The Human Rights Council needs to do all it can to ensure that North Korean leaders implicated in grave crimes are brought to justice,” said Fisher. “The council can bolster the UN’s existing efforts by approving legal experts who can set out a prosecution strategy for alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea.”