North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, by Roberta Cohen


[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen published an extensive analysis of the latest decision by the UN Human Rights Council regarding the DPRK in our partner-website 38North. For the benefit of CanKor readers we reprint the first part of this article here. For the rest of the paper, including footnotes, please access the 38North website here. –CanKor]

Roberta CohenOn March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].

The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes. Most prison camps are in remote mountain areas, access to the country is barred to human rights groups, and rigid internal controls make it impossible for anyone who does manage to visit to talk with North Koreans about human rights. Indeed, the lack of access and the UN’s inability to form an “independent diagnosis” of the situation has long contributed to the reluctance of its senior officials to speak out strongly about North Korea. Even the US State Department’s human rights report for 2011, published in 2012, contained the caveat that no one can “assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea.

The change in attitude also reflects an international willingness to move beyond mere censure in addressing North Korea’s human rights violations. For more than eight years, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have adopted annual resolutions expressing “very serious concern” at North Korea’s systematic, widespread and grave violations. Now, the international community is viewing North Korea’s violations as possible crimes against humanity for which North Korean leaders could be held accountable. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared for the first time in 2013 that North Korea’s “rampant” violations “may amount to crimes against humanity.” And in his report to the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, identified nine specific areas where North Korea might be committing crimes against humanity. These include: food policies leading to starvation; prison camps; arbitrary detention; the use of torture and inhuman treatment; enforced disappearances and abductions; policies of discrimination; and violations of freedom of expression and movement, and of the right to life through executions and extensive use of the death penalty.

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are among the most severe human rights violations, constituting one of the four core international crimes (in addition to war crimes, genocide and the crime of aggression). Murder, enslavement, unlawful imprisonment, torture, sexual violence and disappearance are considered crimes against humanity when they are perpetrated as part of “a widespread or systematic attack” against the civilian population.

Since 2006, non-governmental organizations have argued that North Korea’s human rights violations constitute crimes against humanity. Now for the first time, senior UN officials and many governments are beginning to view North Korea’s violations as possible international crimes as well.

[Other sections of this paper are entitled: 

  • Testimony of Former Prisoners
  • Patience Wears Thin
  • An Overall Strategy
  • The New Human Rights Landscape

Read more at 38North: North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny]

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