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Date : December 9, 2013
International Conference Held to Discuss Expectations for the COI
On Monday, an international conference was held at The Press Center in Seoul, to both mark the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (now known as Human Rights Day), and to discuss an action plan in advance of the highly-anticipated release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights violations in North Korea.  The conference was co-sponsored by the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), Yonsei University, and the Sejong Institute.  The event was hosted by the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKNet) and Open Radio for North Korea (ONK).

The conference featured more than a dozen expert speakers, including keynote guest Sir Geoffrey Nice QC--a British human-rights lawyer most famous for his position as deputy prosecutor at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.  

Speakers discussed their expectations for what the COI report will conclude, and what steps the international community should take in order to solve the alleged Crimes Against Humanity taking place in North Korea.  Sir Nice expressed confidence that the individual chosen to run the COI, Judge Michael Kirby, is "a brave and fair judge," who will ensure that this report is a "milestone" that will raise awareness of the North's crimes.

Other speakers echoed that sentiment, including Ben Rogers, the East Asia Team Leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.  He stated that it was "almost inconceivable that the Commission of Inquiry, with the evidence they have heard and with the caliber and integrity of the three members of the inquiry, could fail to conclude that the violations of human rights in North Korea do indeed amount to crimes against humanity."  If true, he says it will be the duty of human-rights advocates to ensure that "in every statement by the United Nations, in every statement by member states, and on every occasion where North Korea is discussed, the conclusions of the COI and the charge of crimes against humanity is deployed."

Simply raising awareness is just the beginning though, according to Philippe Dam, a speaker and representative from Human Rights Watch.  He called on the Commission to make "an unequivocal recommendation that all countries should refrain from deporting North Koreans back [when they defect], as well as a recommendation that they be granted protection and unfettered access to the asylum process."  On the topic of political prison camps, Dam said that "The COI should obviously call for the release of all prisoners arbitrarily detained."

Many speakers drew guidance heavily from previous Commissions of Inquiry, including those used in Darfur, Syria, Libya, and East Timor.  Unlike those reports though, there is no current armed conflict in North Korea  Rather, the alleged crimes are in the form of systematic, widespread, and grave human rights violations, including denial of the right to food, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture.  The North's crimes go beyond the traditional language of "gross violations," according to David Hawk, speaker and author of "The Hidden Gulag," into the new realm of "atrocity crimes"--a term reserved for cases so gross that they "shock the conscience of humanity."

The North Korean regime has consisently denied the claims made by human-rights advocates, and has refused to participate in any investigations of the allegations.  The North has also made a point of accusing defectors of slander, calling them "human garbage."

According to Hawk though, despite the efforts of the regime to block outside information from reaching its citizens, the ripple effects of reports like the COI "will almost immediately become known to and by North Koreans inside North Korea."  Due to an increase in outside technology, such as illegal cell phones and radios that have been smuggled into North Korea, citizens are increasingly connected to the rest of the world, and in Hawk's projection, will likely be working in direct conjunction with activists outside of their borders "within a decade."

Regardless of what the COI report recommends, all conference speakers were in agreement that it will undoubtedly raise awareness of the systematic human-rights abuses committed in North Korea, including among people in South Korea, where creating an open dialogue on the topic has historically been a challenge.  They were also encouraged by the large number of young people and students in attendance at the event, telling them during a question-and-answer session to get involved in the push for human rights by volunteering for Seoul-based NGOs and using social media to pressure their government officials.

The results of the year-long research by the COI are due to be delivered at the United Nations in March 2014, but in Ben Roger's eyes, "our work does not stop with the conclusion of the Commission of Inquiry.  In fact, one could say that our work has only just begun."

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