Tackling North Korea's Crimes Against Humanity and Ending Impunity:
Investigation, Information, Inter-action
Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader, Christian Solidarity Worldwide
The human rights situation in North Korea has been described by the former UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn, in his final report, as “in its own category”, with human rights violations that are “harrowing and horrific”, “egregious and endemic” and “systematic and pervasive”. North Korea’s human rights record is, he concludes, “abysmal”.
On 27 September 2010, The Times newspaper in the UK carried an editorial entitled Slave State, which concluded that “the condition of the people of North Korea ranks among the great tragedies of the past century. The despotism that consigns them to that state is one of its greatest crimes.”
For this reason, the international community has a responsibility to investigate and address these gross violations of human rights. That is why tomorrow we will launch the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, to campaign specifically for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate these crimes in North Korea. I want to reiterate my appreciation for the efforts of my colleagues in Human Rights Watch, Open North Korea, the 30 or more organisations represented here today, my fellow panellists – I believe that if we are to have a chance of achieving a Commission of Inquiry, we must unite and speak with one voice, on a global scale, co-ordinate our efforts, and send Kim Jong-il a very clear message: he will not be allowed to continue to perpetrate these crimes unnoticed and unchallenged.
Some brief words of background, first, before I go on to describe in more detail the human rights situation in North Korea and the international community’s responsibility to act. I work for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an international human rights organisation, and I lead our East Asia Team. CSW has worked to highlight North Korea’s human rights violations, and especially the conditions in the prison camps, for more than a decade.
In 2007 we published a major report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, in association with legal experts at REDRESS. That report concluded that what is happening in North Korea’s prison camps amounts to crimes against humanity – namely murder, extermination, enslavement/forced labour, forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, persecution, enforced disappearances of persons, other inhumane acts and rape and sexual violence. The strict hierarchical nature of the regime, and information available about decision-making in the government, suggests that the senior political leadership, and Kim Jong-il in particular, have responsibility for these crimes.
CSW has hosted several survivors of the prison camps or kwan-li-so, in London and Brussels, and arranged for them to testify before the British Parliament and the European Parliament. Just as with the speakers we have heard today, their accounts of the conditions and torture in the network of prison camps, which hold an estimated 200,000 people, are horrifying. Shin Dong-hyuk, for example, who testified in the European Parliament last year, was born in Camp No.14 in 1982, saw his mother and brother executed, and was tortured many times including once by being roasted over a fire, and on another occasion one of his fingers was chopped off as a punishment for accidentally breaking a sewing machine.
I won’t go into further detail on the camps, because we have heard today from survivors of the camps and real experts such as David Hawk. Nor will I go into further detail on the legal case for a Commission of Inquiry – we are privileged to have the expertise of Melissa Pack, Patrick Burgess and by video link, Geoffrey Robertson QC.
Instead, let me offer a few brief thoughts on what the international community should do.
First, it needs to put human rights firmly on the agenda. For too long, when North Korea has been discussed by the international community the focus has been on the nuclear programme, the security of the peninsula, famine, or the succession to Kim Jong-il. Human rights do not receive the attention they deserve, either in the media or in international fora. It is time that that changed, and that human rights were given equal attention, alongside the nuclear question, every time North Korea is discussed.
I believe the situation is so bad that there is a need to use every possible tool, and that is why I have been pursuing and advocating a twin-track approach: international pressure, and constructive, critical engagement.
In terms of international pressure, targeted sanctions are important. Investigating reports of Kim Jong-il’s assets allegedly banked in Luxembourg and other parts of Europe is important. But the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry is the most important, because it will establish the truth and call the regime to account. The European Parliament recommended a Commission of Inquiry in its resolution in July 2010. The former UN Special Rapporteur concluded that “it is incumbent upon the national authorities and the international community to address the impunity factor”, urged the UN to consider “whether the issue of violations will be taken up at some stage at the pinnacle of the system, within the totality of the UN framework,” and has called on the international community to “mobilise the totality of the UN 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.” It is time for the UN to respond to the Rapporteur’s call.
In terms of constructive, critical engagement, I have been working very closely with two of the leading voices on international human rights issues in the British Parliament, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox. They have travelled three times to North Korea, and have raised human rights concerns directly with senior members of the regime. I travelled with them last October. North Korea is the world’s most isolated, and most closed, state, and it is my firm view that we do not want to perpetuate its isolation, we want to find ways to try to prise it open. On our visit, we raised human rights issues in every single meeting, and presented those we met with piles of human rights documents from the EU, the UN, Human Rights Watch and our own paper summarising our concerns and recommendations. We looked them in the eye and presented them with the evidence.
We don’t claim there are tangible results from our efforts, but when a regime is as closed as this one, it is important to try approaches which may begin to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of our individual interlocutors – and who knows where that may lead? We believe that what Lord Alton has termed “Helsinki with a Korean face” – following the example of our engagement with the Soviet Union through the Helsinki Process, at the height of the Cold War – is one important tool in the toolbox. As with the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union, engagement must be critical, human rights concerns must be placed on the table frankly and directly, and efforts must be backed up with pressure, but if we could find ways to raise the cases of dissidents in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, why should we not try this approach with North Korea?
For that reason, one of the first acts the Coalition will take after its launch tomorrow will be to send a letter addressed to Kim Jong-il, calling for access to North Korea for the UN Special Rapporteur, access to all penal institutions, including the kwan-li-so, for international monitors, and the abolition of the kwan-li-so.
Let me conclude with Lord Alton’s words in the House of Lords in 2003, which are still very relevant today. He argued that “the threat to international security posed by North Korea may best be considered by way of pernicious actions against its own citizens ... North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship has treated its own people with unbelievable brutality and viciousness. ... By championing the cause of those who are suffering in North Korea, the international community will create the conditions for the establishment of democracy ... Learning the lessons of the Helsinki Process, we must do nothing to licence the regime in Pyongyang to commit further atrocities. We should enter negotiations which guarantee human rights, such as free exchange of people and religious liberties. ... By linking the present crisis with the human rights violations, a crisis can be turned into an opportunity. To do nothing about North Korea would be the most dangerous option of all.”
The international community should establish a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity, thereby addressing impunity and holding Kim Jong-il’s regime to account; support the flow of information into North Korea through radio broadcasts; press for access for the UN Special Rapporteur and the ICRC; and place human rights alongside security as the central focus of all our discussions regarding the peninsula.
For further information:
North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 2007 – available at www.csw.org.uk