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Dispatches: Raising the Profile of North Korea’s Abuses

Earlier today, United Nations Security Council members listened as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, outlined in startling detail the abuses that have inflicted immeasurable suffering on the people of North Korea for decades. This session marks the second year in a row that the UN Security Council debates North Korea’s human rights record – a remarkable event especially in light of China’s and Russia’s ongoing objections to discussing the issue.

UN Security Council session on the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in New York on December 10, 2015. © 2015 John Sifton/Human Rights Watch

For years, Pyongyang benefitted from the world’s complacency regarding its atrocious human rights record. Its status as a hermit kingdom was at times parodied, but never really challenged.

Until last year.

Then, a UN-mandated commission of inquiry revealed the depth of devastation in North Korea. Abductions. Summary executions. Forced abortions. Deliberately causing prolonged starvation. These are only a few of the many widespread abuses the commission found amounted to crimes against humanity, all due to policies set at the highest levels of the North Korean government.

Chief among its many recommendations, the commission urged the UN Security Council to create a path to hold those responsible for these abuses to account, by referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN General Assembly sent a similar message last month, when 112 countries voted in favor of a resolution condemning abuses in North Korea and urged the UN Security Council to consider referral to the ICC.

Today’s Security Council discussion was a step in the right direction.

Of course, Russia and China will not easily abandon their opposition. But the UN Security Council’s regular debate of the human rights abuses in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security raises the political cost of inaction. And the council’s regular engagement sends a clear message to Pyongyang that its deplorable abuses should end.

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