(Washington, DC) – The United States, Japan, and South Korea should formally endorse efforts to have the UN Security Council refer North Korea’s human rights situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today, on the eve of a trip by President Barack Obama to Japan and South Korea. President Obama will meet Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 23-24, 2014, and Korea’s President Park Geun-hye on April 25-26.
Last week at the United Nations, UN Security Council members held a historic “Arria Formula” briefing by members of the UN Commission of Inquiry set up in 2013 to investigate human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in North Korea. At the April 17, 2014, meeting, a majority of Security Council members indicated support for a formal debate in the council on whether North Korea should be referred to the ICC in The Hague.
“Neglecting the human rights catastrophe in North Korea is no longer viable,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “President Obama, Prime Minister Abe, and President Park need to agree on a common strategy to deal with North Korea’s crimes at the UN Security Council this year.”
Human Rights Watch today released a letter sent to President Obama on March 28, urging him to address rights issues during his bilateral meetings in Tokyo and Seoul. The letter says that the scope and scale of the crimes revealed in the UN Commission of Inquiry report was “shocking,” with documented abuses by the North Korean regime against its own people including summary executions, enslavement, rape, forced abortions, abductions, enforced disappearances, and intentional starvation. The UN report describes a “systematic, widespread attack against all populations ... who pose a threat to the political system” via a system of prison camps, collective punishments, and executions. The crimes committed within this system against the civilian population, the report states, collectively amount to “extermination,” a crime against humanity.
The UN report found that the widespread starvation that occurred countrywide in the 1990s, and which has occurred in some areas more recently, was the result of intentional acts and omissions by government officials, which also amount to crimes against humanity. In presenting the report, the Commission of Inquiry noted that the “gravity, scale and nature of violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The commission’s chairman, former Australian Supreme Court Justice Michael Kirby, repeatedly compared the severity of abuse to those committed by Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, invoking the well-known international obligation in the wake of those abuses: “never again.”
“The International Criminal Court was specifically designed to deal with situations involving massive crimes against humanity,” said Sifton. “The United States, Japan, South Korea, and other allies should be working as hard to stop atrocities in North Korea as they do to address regional security and nuclear proliferation issues.”
At the UN Security Council meeting on April 17, 2014, Kirby stated that the situation of human rights abuses in North Korea “exceeds all others in duration, intensity, and horror.”
During the meeting, at least seven members of the Security Council, including the United Kingdom, United States, Luxembourg, Chile, Australia, Lithuania, and France, appeared to agree that the council should debate an ICC referral. It is widely assumed that South Korea, another council member, would support such a debate. Rwanda stated that it supports a debate on what form of accountability is appropriate for North Korea, without mentioning an ICC referral.
Numerous other delegations attending the meeting endorsed the idea of ICC referral, including the entire European Union group, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, and aspiring EU members Turkey, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Nine votes are needed to pass a Security Council resolution, but any of the council’s five permanent members (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, or China) can exercise a veto. Michael Kirby, the inquiry chair, dismissed suggestions of a possible veto, stating that “Accountability is not optional; it is obligatory. It is necessary to deter further crimes.”
China, which along with Russia did not attend the April 17 briefing, did not cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry’s investigation, stating that the inquiry’s findings were not credible and its recommendations “divorced from reality.” China voted against a March 28 UN Human Rights Council resolution which endorsed the report and transmitted it to the UN General Assembly.
“Political disputes do not change the fact that crimes against humanity are occurring in North Korea and that those crimes need to be addressed,” said Sifton. “Pursuing justice now will expose political backers of North Korea, preserve evidence for future proceedings, and might serve to deter at least some North Korean actors from committing new abuses.”