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North Korea: Launch a UN Commission of Inquiry

UN Investigation Needed to Document “Systematic and Egregious” Rights Abuses


(Geneva) – Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should vote to establish a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea when the matter comes up before the February-March session of the council, said Human Rights Watch today.
A detailed memo released by Human Rights Watch, Q&A on a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, explains why a commission is urgently needed, how it could be established, what it should examine, and how it will support the efforts of the UNHRC to press for Pyongyang’s compliance with international human rights standards.
“For decades, North Korea has hidden some of the most systematic and egregious human rights abuses in the world behind a wall of bluster and defiance,” said Julie de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director. “It is time for the UN Human Rights Council to respond, and compile a formal, detailed record on the rights abuses of the North Korean state, including political prison camps and abductions of foreign nationals.”
A litany of human rights abuses occur in North Korea, including:

  • use of collective punishment and forced labor in political prison camps,
  • systematic use of torture and extrajudicial executions,
  • rape and sexual abuse,
  • depriving large sectors of the population of food, and
  • forced abductions of foreign nationals, primarily from South Korea and Japan.

The systematic non-cooperation of North Korea with the UN human rights mechanisms – including a refusal to acknowledge or cooperate with the UN special rapporteur, or recognize UN resolutions on North Korean human rights – is evidenced most recently by statements in early November 2013 by a North Korean delegate to the UN who called “the report of the special rapporteur … a product of the hostile policies of the United States and European Union against the DPRK (North Korea) and is a typical example of politicization, double standards and selectivity on the issue of human rights.” Despite participating in the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, North Korea ultimately refused to follow protocol and indicate what, if any, recommendations from other member states it was prepared to accept and implement.

On January 14, 2013, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for a “full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes” in North Korea, noting that it is “one of the worst – but least understood and reported – human rights situations in the world…” She added that the “deplorable” human rights situation in North Korea “affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” and the North Korean government’s “self-imposed isolation” has allowed it to “mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.”

With regard to the political prison camps, Pillay said that “the camp system not only punishes individuals for legitimate, peaceful activities – such as expressing dissenting opinions – it also involves rampant violations, including torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity…” Pillay concluded that “For years now, the government of the DPRK has persistently refused to cooperate with successive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the DPRK appointed by the Human Rights Council, or with my office. For this reason, and because of the enduring gravity of the situation, I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst – but least understood and reported – human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue.”

In his latest report, Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, calls for the international community to launch a “more detailed mechanism of inquiry” into rights abuses that he noted include “extensive use of political prison camps, poor prison conditions and prisoners being subjected to forced labor, torture and corporal punishment.” It is estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners are held without trial in camps with brutal conditions that include near starvation rations, disease, forced labor in dangerous conditions, and sometimes fatal abuse by guards.

A commission of inquiry will be an in-depth investigation into violations of human rights to be carried out by independent eminent persons appointed by the UN. Voices of the victims in North Korea should be heard by the commission because inside North Korea, raising complaints will cause that person to be punished.

As the main sponsors of the North Korea resolution at the HRC, Japan and the EU should play a leadership role in persuading other member states of the HRC to support the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Human Rights Watch recommended that such a commission should be headed by the current UN special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, joined by other eminent international experts.

“The member states of the UNHRC should positively respond to the call of High Commissioner Pillay to establish a commission of inquiry,” said de Rivero. “The unified efforts of governments around the world will be needed to expose the human rights abuses of North Korea and end Pyongyang’s defiance of human rights standards.”

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