Last week, the Associated Press reported that China defended its human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council. To China’s credit, a special envoy for its Foreign Ministry acknowledged that China “still faces many difficulties and challenges in promoting and protecting human rights.” While China’s treatment of its own citizens – especially human rights defenders – merits scrutiny by the international community, it is important to note that China holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and, with it, a vote. It can exercise that vote on matters of human rights concern and, in doing so, directly affect other states.
Presently before the United Nations Human Rights Council is the horrific human rights situation in North Korea. The North Korean human rights record has long been the subject of grave concern at the international level, although unfortunately overshadowed by nuclear armament issues. The deaths of hundreds of thousands by famine in the 1990s and abuses arising from its totalitarian government are just two of the many reasons why so many people around the world are and should be very concerned for those living in North Korea.
Another reason to be concerned is the vast concentration camp system which North Korea has maintained for decades. These camps are an outgrowth of the Stalinist influences on North Korea’s early development. Detainees in these camps are intentionally malnourished, subjected to constant back-breaking labor and brutal torture and forced to witness public executions. Through the recent publication of two books and relentless work of organizations such as the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the treatment of detainees in these camps is now documented in the public domain.
Under a once abandoned feudal system of punishment reinstituted by North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-Sung, three generations of one accused of a political crime are imprisoned in these camps. As a result, children can be, and are, imprisoned in the camps and subjected to all that occurs within them. Children are not only born into the camps but can spend their entire lives there. There can be no question that these camps exist as an abomination on our planet.
In April 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea. The Commission was established after years of denial by the North Korean government that such abuses occurred and that it maintained the camp system. However, as North Koreans fled that country in the face of widespread famine, the abuses within that State became well documented, and the world now knows what occurs there. The Commission is presently taking testimony into the human rights atrocities in North Korea.
If China is improving, or desires to improve, its human rights record as it presently claims it wants to do, then it must change its policy of forcibly returning those individuals who have fled into China from North Korea. Over many years, thousands of individuals have fled North Korea into China. In order to reach South Korea, many individuals make a journey through China that can last years. Frequently, Chinese officials take North Koreans found in that country into custody and then forcibly return them to North Korea. Many of these people are “refugees” in the truest meaning of the term. Pregnant women are not spared from the policy of forced return. If women are returned to North Korea while pregnant, they can be subjected to forced abortion and their infants murdered by North Korean governmental officials. This practice has been documented through many interviews conducted by human rights groups of women who have fled North Korea. How can China possibly justify its actions in forcibly returning women into North Korea knowing that, once repatriated, they may suffer such treatment?
The result that the Commission may reach is greatly anticipated. Those advocating for human rights in North Korea are hopeful that its report may finally spur change in the widespread, systemic and long-standing human rights abuses. To the extent that the Commission report requires action by the United Nations Security Council, China should not protect North Korea but rather proceed in a way that shows a commitment to improving its human rights record. It should support the Commission’s work, end its policy of forced repatriation of those individuals fleeing North Korea, and become part of the solution to the systemic human rights abuses in North Korea.
Gregory W. MacKenzie, Esq.
Gregory W. MacKenzie is a Partner at Hurley, Toevs, Styles, Hamblin & Panter, P.A., located in Albuquerque, NM. He is a Member ABA Section of International Law, International Human Rights Committee. The letter above was originally submitted to the Albuquerque Journal Editor on October 29, 2013.