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North Korea: UN Should Investigate Crimes against Humanity

New Leader Kim Jong-Un Indicates No Change on Human Rights

(New York) – The United Nations should immediately establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012

Human rights abuses are systematic and pervasive in North Korea, with no sign of change despite the ascension of Supreme Commander Kim Jong-Un, the new paramount leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), following the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, on December 17, 2011.

“Supreme Commander Kim Jong-Un should break with the past and put the human rights of North Koreans first rather than last,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Closing down the government’s network of horrific forced labor camps and ending use of collective punishment against the families of alleged offenders would be a good start.”

In its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. 

In North Korea, The government uses fear – generated mainly by threats of forced labor and public executions – to prevent dissent, and imposes harsh restrictions on freedom of information, association, assembly, and travel, Human Rights Watch said. A vast network of government informants monitors people for subversive behavior, and reports offenders to the police and security services for action. All media and publications are state-controlled, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished. Possession of mobile phones and videos on compact discs, imported from China, is also grounds for imprisonment.

North Korea has ratified four key international human rights treaties and includes rights protections in its constitution, but it still prohibits any organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or the independent practice of religion, Human Rights Watch said. Those who defy the government face arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and systematic torture and ill-treatment. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, enslaving hundreds of thousands of people in prison camps, including children.

During 2011, North Korea did not cooperate substantively with UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch said. The government refused to make a commitment to carry out any of the recommendations made by other governments during the review of North Korea’s human rights record under the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. 

The government refused to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK and refused entry to the current special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman.

North Korea responded with scorn to the passage of critical resolutions by the Council and the UN General Assembly.

“North Korea’s defiance of the UN Human Rights Council’s mandates and mechanisms should not be allowed to stand,” Robertson said. “It’s time for the UN to take the next step, and ratchet up the pressure by giving serious consideration to a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea.”  

In the first half of the year, North Korea suffered from food shortages that reached more than one million metric tons, prompting what the World Food Programme called the worst famine in a decade. Among the causes were the government’s blatantly discriminatory food policies that favor the military, government officials, and other loyal groups; the government’s economic mismanagement; and very poor winter 2010 harvests resulting from floods and an extremely cold winter. International food assistance was very slow in coming, worsening an already dismal and deadly situation for North Koreans outside those identified by the government as its core supporters. 

“Food assistance is a humanitarian imperative in North Korea and the international community should not hesitate to provide it,” Robertson said. “But the North Korean government must also give donor agencies unfettered access to closely monitor aid to ensure that it reaches the people for whom it is intended.”   

Not surprisingly, thousands of North Koreans fled the country in 2011, seeking to escape human rights abuses and economic deprivation. The government criminalizes leaving the country without state permission. North Koreans caught trying to cross the border, or detained in China and returned, face extremely harsh punishments upon repatriation, including interrogation, torture, and detention in forced labor camps characterized by chronic food and medicine shortages, harsh working conditions, and mistreatment by guards.   

“Freedom of movement, and the right to leave one’s country, is a basic human right protected by international human rights covenants ratified by North Korea,” Robertson said. “Only strong action by the United Nations has the hope of compelling Pyongyang to listen, and action on a UN commission of inquiry is long overdue.”


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