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(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council took a landmark step by establishing a commission of inquiry for North Korea. The commission will investigate crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses in North Korea, and make recommendations for accountability.

“This long awaited inquiry will help expose decades of abuse by the North Korean government,” said Julie de Rivero, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The establishment of this commission sends a strong message to Pyongyang that the world is watching and its abuses must end.”

The council resolution creating the commission was adopted by consensus. The resolution also condemns “grave, widespread and systematic” human rights violations in North Korea, and deplores “the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The resolution was presented by Japan and the European Union.

The commission of inquiry will include Marzuki Darusman, who was previously appointed by the council as its expert on the human rights situation in North Korea. The commission is charged with undertaking a one-year investigation into the “violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.”

“Any hope that the change of leadership in North Korea might bring human rights progress has been quickly been dispelled,” de Rivero said. “The overwhelming support for setting up this commission reflects a strong consensus that the time has come to uncover the abuse that North Korea has tried so hard to hide from the world.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, had supported establishment of the commission, noting in January 2013 that “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.” The High Commissioner also highlighted the urgent need to clarify the fate of the many South Koreans and Japanese abducted by North Korea over the years and to seek truth, justice, and redress for their long-suffering families.

In his report to the council, Darusman described nine key areas of violations in North Korea, including extreme forms of discrimination and violations of the right to food. He spoke of the need to set up an inquiry to document the harrowing experience of North Koreans sent to political prison camps, where they are kept on the brink of starvation, used as forced labor and routinely suffer torture, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

Victims of human rights abuses in North Korea had appealed for the council to take action, including during an event at the council earlier this month that featured compelling testimony by Shing Dong Huyk, an escapee from a notorious North Korean prison camp. Human rights activists expressed dismay that the need to address North Korea’s abusive record has often eclipsed by concerns over addressing its nuclear program. North Korea has not only violated the rights of its own citizens but has also abducted thousands of foreign nationals, especially from South Korea and Japan. The council’s decision to establish this inquiry addresses one demand from the families of those abducted, who have advocated for the United Nations to press for information about the whereabouts of their relatives, and for their safe return.

“With establishment of this commission, victims can feel a real sense of achievement,” de Rivero said. “The decision to establish this commission is a crucial first step toward ensuring accountability for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations in North Korea.”

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