A North Korean flag atop a tower at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea.

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should act on a historic General Assembly resolution by referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 18, 2014, the General Assembly endorsed a recent UN Commission of Inquiry report detailing crimes against humanity in North Korea and recommended that the Security Council discuss the report and consider an ICC referral.

“Today’s General Assembly resolution affirms the need for a tribunal to address the North Korean government’s unspeakable crimes,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director. “The Security Council should follow up by referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court to investigate the long list of crimes against humanity.”

The North Korea resolution passed by a vote of 111 to 19, with 55 abstentions. China and Russia, longtime supporters of the North Korean government, voted against the resolution. (A separate draft text tabled by Cuba, without key passages endorsing the Commission of Inquiry report and recommending debate in the Security Council, was defeated by a vote of 40 to 77, with 50 abstentions).

While the resolution passed overwhelmingly, several countries that are members of the International Criminal Court, including Senegal and Bangladesh, abstained on the vote. North Korea had made recent diplomatic overtures seemingly to try to affect the vote, such as by offering for the first time to engage with the UN human rights rapporteur on North Korea and participating in the Universal Periodic Review process at the UN Human Rights Council.

The Commission of Inquiry report, issued in February 2014, documented massive crimes against humanity in North Korea, including deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape, and infanticide, among other crimes – most of them committed in North Korea’s political prison camp systems. The 400-page report concluded that the bulk of the crimes against humanity were committed “pursuant to policies set at the highest levels of the state.” It recommended that the international community take action to ensure accountability, including through possible referral to the International Criminal Court. The report noted that the gravity, scale, and nature of ongoing abuses were “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

Many UN member countries have become more active on human rights violations in North Korea since the Commission of Inquiry report shed light on the human face of the government’s egregious abuses. The report contains numerous accounts from survivors and escapees of North Korea’s prison system of government atrocities.

While North Korea’s new diplomatic efforts are important, they do not begin to address the scope of the government’s human rights violations that fill the Commission of Inquiry report. The North Korean government continues to deny the findings of the Commission of Inquiry, and has issued its own human rights report which declared that North Koreans “feel proud of the world’s most advantageous human rights system.”

“No Security Council country, including China, can deny the horror endured by so many North Koreans,” Roth said. “Decades of impunity have only reinforced North Korea’s unparalleled repression. The time has come for justice.”