North Korea’s isolation from the international community has deepened over the past several weeks. First came increased sanctions by the United Nation’s Security Council over the pariah state’s recent nuclear test. Then yesterday, in Geneva, the international community spoke with one voice to condemn North Korea’s appalling human rights record and demand accountability for abuses.
On March 23, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution on North Korea to create a group of experts tasked with finding practical ways to hold rights violators in North Korea to account. Their recommendations will be a critical part of the long march to justice for North Korea’s victims. In an extraordinary turn of events, the resolution was adopted without a vote. North Korea declined to participate in the debate, and North Korea’s usual backers – including Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China, and Ecuador – simply made statements distancing themselves from the resolution. It is telling that not a single government was willing to expend any political capital to call for a vote.
The creation of the experts’ panel follows the recommendation of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, who remarked that “repression remains unabated” in the country. Darusman was part of the groundbreaking UN commission of inquiry on North Korea, which offered a harrowing list of Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity in its 2014 report, among them extermination, murder, rape, deliberate starvation, and enforced disappearances “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.”
The commission further recommended that the UN Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC). ICC referral should remain a priority, but its achievement will be an uphill battle given China and Russia’s current opposition to accountability for North Korean officials. And even with an ICC referral, the challenges of addressing decades of impunity in North Korea will require a more comprehensive response – another reason the panel of experts’ work is so critical.
While Kim Jong-Un and other senior North Korean officials may not yet realize it, the threat of criminal liability is real and the light at the end of the tunnel for North Korea’s long suffering victims just got brighter.