Wednesday, March 12, 2014

IHRC: World Can No Longer Ignore North Korea's Appalling Human Rights Record

Members of the International Human Rights Committee have long been concerned with the human rights situation in North Korea (DPRK). In 2012, the Committee submitted a proposal for a program at the London Fall 2013 meeting to explore whether human rights violations in the DPRK amounted to crimes against humanity. With the help of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that program occurred. David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International and seasoned human rights investigator, summarized his findings on the DPRK concentration camp system including years of research showing the torture, execution and other gross human rights violations which occur within the camps. His presentation was supported by satellite imagery which showed the location of and changes within the camps – even though the DPRK persistently denies their existence. 

Based on the work of Hawk and others, the situation in the DPRK earned the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council. On February 7, 2014, it released its Report on the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/25/CRP.1) The Report was issued after the Council established a Commission of Inquiry in March of 2013 to investigate the human rights abuses that have occurred in the DPRK. In addition to meeting with the representatives of various governments, the Council conducted public hearings and more than 240 confidential interviews. 


The Report documents, among other violations, mass suppression of freedom of expression, widespread discrimination, torture, forced abortion and infanticide, monopolization of food access, public executions and enforced disappearance and the maintenance of political prison camps. In its report of nearly 400 pages, the Council concluded what many working on the DPRK problem already knew, namely that human rights abuses have been occurring in that country on a mass scale for decades. The Report concludes that “Systemic, widespread and gross human rights violates have been, and are being, committed by the [DPRK], its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity.” The Council also concluded:

The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. 

The Council propounded lengthy recommendations to the DPRK and other states, including China. In particular, the Council recommended that China cease the policy of forcibly repatriating individuals to the DPRK and that it and other states extend asylum to those from the DPRK that are within its borders. The Council recommended that the Security Council refer the DPRK situation to the International Criminal Court and adopt targeted sanctions against the perpetrators. 

For those suffering in the DPRK, the Report is a long awaited recognition by an international body of the long-standing human rights violations in that State. The International Community should not continue to ignore the human rights situation in the DPRK and should not allow the DPRK’s nuclear bluster to force attention away from these problems. The International Community should follow the recommendations of the Report and support a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). As a world power, China should recognize its ability to exercise leadership in this situation. It should take the first step by extending asylum to DPRK citizens who escape into China and the next by supporting a referral of the matter to the ICC. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should break the cycle of abuse created by his grandfather and perpetuated by his father and immediately initiate reforms. 

The suffering of the DPRK population tests the strength of international law and the limits of sovereignty. It is difficult to imagine how a State could violate fundamental human rights worse than what the DPRK has done with impunity for decades. If international law cannot affect a change for the people of the DPRK, one can’t help but wonder whether it has any teeth at all. 

-Gregory W. MacKenzie, Esq.

Gregory W. MacKenzie is a Partner at Hurley, Toevs, Styles, Hamblin & Panter, P.A. (Albuquerque, NM) and an active member of the ABA Section of International Law, International Human Rights Committee.

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