By Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide
North Korea is once again in the spotlight, for all the usual reasons: security and leadership.
As Kim Jong Eun seeks to consolidate his power, North Korea is making preparations for a rocket launch, with potentially dangerous consequences for the region. As the country prepares to mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, his grandson appears desperate to show that, despite his youth and inexperience, he can play the ‘tough guy’. Yet despite the renewed international focus on North Korea, one issue remains seriously neglected: North Korea’s grave violations of human rights.
For that reason, just over six months ago more than 40 human rights organisations from around the world, including the three largest human rights organisations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), formed a new group, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK). Drawing together activists and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) from across Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe, with countries as diverse as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Paraguay, Brazil, Canada, Belgium and the United Kingdom, as well as of course the United States, Japan and South Korea, the ICNK campaigns for one specific goal: the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) into crimes against humanity in North Korea. The aim is to internationalise the issue of North Korea’s human rights violations by seeking an independent investigation by the UN, and in so doing, bring human rights issues onto the agenda alongside security concerns.
The idea of a COI for North Korea is not new. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) first recommended it in a report, 'North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act', published five years ago. Human Rights Watch and other major human rights organisations have also advocated it, as did the European Parliament in a resolution two years ago. Even the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, describing the human rights situation as “egregious and endemic”, “systematic and pervasive”, “harrowing and horrific”, and “in its own category”, called on the international community to “address the impunity factor” and recommended that we should “mobilise the totality of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights in the country; support processes which concretise responsibility and accountability for human rights violations; and an end to impunity." Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, former Chief Prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, said in September last year in a message of support for ICNK: “There can be few places in the world where the human rights situation is more egregious, and yet more overlooked, than North Korea. There is an overwhelming case for the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry, to investigate these crimes and make recommendations for what action should follow from the international community."
Last week, the campaign for a COI took a step forward when ICNK released a new report prepared by a team of international human rights lawyers led by American attorney Jared Genser. The report is a submission to the UN Special Procedures, the collective term for all UN rapporteurs, recommending that they conduct a joint investigation into the human rights violations in North Korea’s gulag. It has been submitted not only to the country-specific rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, but also to the thematic rapporteurs covering extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution, torture, freedom of __EXPRESSION__, freedom of religion or belief, violence against women, human rights defenders, independence of judges, and the right to health, as well as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Launched at a press conference in Seoul, the 34-page report, available at www.stopnkcrimes.org, calls on the Special Procedures to conduct an investigation. This is not the same as a COI, but it is one step towards it. The hope is that the Special Procedures will conclude that the situation is so serious that it merits a COI, and that that will propel the UN to act.
Sceptics will say that North Korea will never co-operate, and so access to the country will be denied. That is very likely, but it does not impede an investigation. With tens of thousands of North Koreans having fled the country, including survivors of the gulag, there is a body of evidence and eye-witness testimony outside the country which investigators can easily assemble. There are already numerous reports by human rights experts, notably David Hawk’s 'The Hidden Gulag', a second edition of which will be released this month. And North Korea’s refusal to co-operate will be evidence itself that it has something to hide.
In addition to this report to the Special Procedures, two other initiatives were launched last week which raise the pressure on North Korea to account for human rights violations. Jared Genser’s law firm, Perseus Strategies, has submitted a parallel petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, on behalf of two prominent defectors, Shin Dong Hyuk and Kang Cheol Hwan, in regard to their relatives who are believed to be still in the prison camps, or ‘kwanliso’. Two days later, in Tokyo, Takashi Fujita, brother of Susumu Fujita, a Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korea in 1976, filed a petition to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, calling for an investigation into his brother’s case and the situation of other abductees in North Korea.
No one should be under any illusion that any of these steps will bring about a radical transformation in North Korea’s human rights record overnight. However, for perhaps the first time human rights organisations are seeking ways to utilise all the available UN mechanisms, co-ordinate their activities in order to increase international awareness and action, and turning the screws on Pyongyang. The clear message of the ICNK’s activities last week is that Kim Jong Eun’s regime has a choice: he can continue the horrific abuse of his people that his father and grandfather were responsible for, and assume responsibility himself, facing the prospect of one day being held accountable, or he can stop the torture and executions, release prisoners, close the gulag and allow international human rights and humanitarian organisations into the country to help the people.
The international community has a responsibility to investigate what amount to some of the worst violations of international human rights law today. As Kang Cheol Hwan said in A Case to Answer, A Call to Act: “If international justice is alive and if a global conscience exists, then we can no longer turn a blind eye to the devastation in North Korea. Not only in the prison camps, but all throughout North Korea people are suffering through torture, public execution and deaths caused by mass starvation. My parents, siblings and friends, together with the majority of the people living in North Korea today, are all hoping for the international community to release them from the tyranny and starvation being suffered under the North Korean regime.”
With new leadership and renewed attention, these initiatives are both timely and significant.