Chronic food shortages have become the most pressing human rights issue in the DPRK, according to an independent United Nations human rights expert. ”I would underscore the importance of meeting the food shortfall by ensuring that an adequate quantity of food of good quality is available through additional imports by the Government, supported by international agencies and bilateral donors,” said Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.
On Monday, 12 March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council held an “interactive dialogue” with Darusman, whose new report covers the period from September 2011 to January 2012. In that time, according to the report, the situation “continued to deteriorate”. More than six million people urgently required international food assistance.
Other issues concerned the number of constitutional and legislative provisions that had seriously endangered the impartiality and independence of the judiciary in the country. There were provisions in the Criminal Code which fell below the standard required to ensure that due process of law was maintained and the rights of people were respected. In 2007, the Government had adopted an addendum to the Criminal Code for ordinary crimes which comprised 23 articles of which 16 stipulated the death penalty for a number of crimes. As many as 20 executions were reported to have been carried out in 2011. No progress had been made in resolving the question of the abduction of foreign nationals by DPRK agents. The number of families in the Republic of Korea who had benefited from the family reunion programme stood at 1,800 out of a total of 128,668 registered applicants.
There were around 23,700 asylum-seekers in the Republic of Korea, an increase of 17 per cent from 2011. In a statement that hinted at China without naming the country, Mr. Darusman reiterated his deep concern with regard to the safety and protection of asylum seekers and called on all States to adhere to their obligation of providing international protection to asylum-seekers and to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement.
The Special Rapporteur’s report can be read here: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Darusman said that since his appointment in August 2010, he had made numerous requests to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and to meet with officials of the Permanent Mission of the Government in New York and in Geneva. None of these requests had received a favourable response.
DPRK Ambassador to the UN Mission Geneva, So Se Pyong, delivered the country’s official response, in which he clarified the DPRK’s consistent principled position that it did not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. He called the entire procedure the product of a political plot and confrontation by the United States, Japan, the European Union and other western countries in advocacy of their hostile policy towards the DPRK. The report, he charged, was a document of political ploy full of unfounded and irrational allegations fabricated and spread by hostile forces. The DPRK delegation rejected the “useless” Special Rapporteur and his report. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would further consolidate and develop the socialist system chosen by the people in face of all challenges and the pressure of the hostile forces.
After Ambassador So presented his response, several representatives of other countries took the floor, beginning with the European Union, followed by Japan. While the Japanese representative was about to finish his speech, and before the Republic of Korea could speak, the North Korean delegation stood up to leave. Outside the meeting room, a small delegation of South Korean elected officials, defectors and activists attempted to talk to So. This was followed by a bit of a commotion and shouting. Then a scuffle broke out, with UN security guards holding back reporters and demonstrators to protect Ambassador So. One man was briefly detained. You may view the scuffle in a Reuters clip on You Tube here: Korean lawmakers scuffle at UN meeting.
Other countries responding to the Report were the Republic of Korea, United States, China, Zimbabwe, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Venezuela, Slovakia, Cuba, Syria, Ecuador, Spain, Canada, Viet Nam, Australia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, and France. Also taking the floor were Human Rights Watch and United Nations Watch.
Speakers noted the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation, as well as the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Countries called on the neighbouring States (read: China) to deal with them in a humane manner and with respect for the principle of non-refoulement. The DPRK needed to resolve the question of separated families and abductees, repeal the death penalty and urgently address the flaws in the food production system that had led to the current food shortage. The new leadership might represent an opportunity to engage with the international community with a view to addressing all questions and concerns related to human rights and fundamental freedoms. The North Korean human rights situation had been on the agenda of the Human Rights Council for far too long, some speakers said, adding that the Universal Periodic Review allowed examining human rights situation in States on an equal footing and in a cooperative manner.
Canada was concerned by the forcible return of refugees and asylum seekers back to North Korea, which Universal Periodic Review recommendations could be implemented in the country, and how the international community might convince the regime to make reforms to improve food security for the most vulnerable groups.
The US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, Robert R. King, made a surprisingly engagement-oriented statement. While the human rights situation in this country remained deplorable, he said, the United States recognized the willingness of the DPRK to allow a visit to the country by the Special Envoy as a part of a food assessment mission.
“We also appreciate the human rights discussions that have taken place during other meetings I have held,” said King. “We remain committed to building upon this foundation, which we hope serves as a first step towards dialogue on human rights… The United States would be happy to work with the Special Rapporteur and the DPRK to develop programs on rule of law issues.”
King also underlined the importance of resuming inter-Korean dialogue and family reunions, and expressed “deep concerns” about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from the DPRK. The full US statement can be read here: U.S. Urges HRC To Renew Mandate of Special Rapporteur on North Korea.
Although true to UN protocol, China was not mentioned by name, the repeated reference to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers outside of the DPRK was not lost on the Chinese delegation. In their response to the report, China emphasized that North Korean nationals fleeing the country are not refugees. They enter China for economic reasons, thus violating Chinese laws. The handling of this issue is therefore entirely within China’s sovereignty. China is opposed to the attempt to turn this issue into a global and political subject. The international community should rather pay more attention to issues and challenges faced by the DPRK and to provide humanitarian assistance to its people.
Compared to the debates at the UN in years past, the current comments by various countries have remained decidedly polite in tone, with frequent references to potential change as the new leadership in Pyongyang finds its footing. The recent accommodation between the USA and the DPRK seems to have provided a glimmer of hope that diplomacy may yet prevail, even in a realm as prickly as human rights.
Much of the information in this article has been taken from the website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A full report can be found here: Human Rights Council discusses the Human Rights situation in the Democratic Peoples’s Republic of Korea, Myanmar and Iran.