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(Geneva, March 9, 2017) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should strengthen the UN rights office documenting grave abuses in North Korea, Human Rights Watch said today. The Seoul office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should be upgraded to include international criminal justice experts who can develop strategies to prosecute North Korean leaders responsible for human rights crimes.

“The Human Rights Council needs to do all it can to ensure that North Korean leaders implicated in grave crimes are brought to justice,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The council can bolster the UN’s existing efforts by approving legal experts who can set out a prosecution strategy for alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea.”

Tomás Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, arrives at a news conference after his speech at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 15, 2010. © 2010 Reuters

On March 9 and 10, 2017, Human Rights Watch is co-organizing two panel discussions in Geneva to address the current human rights situation in North Korea. These events are taking place in conjunction with the Human Rights Council’s 34th session, where Tomas Ojea Quintana, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, will make his first oral report on North Korea to the council on March 13.

The first panel discussion, taking place on Thursday, March 9, at 2:30 p.m. in room XXVII of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, will focus on the importance of ensuring accountability for human rights violations in North Korea in line with Quintana’s report recommendations.

It will feature John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, and the Sages Group, an advisory group on North Korea’s human rights issues composed of Lee Jung-Hoon, South Korean ambassador for North Korean human rights; Marzuki Darusman, former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea; Justice Michael Kirby, former chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea; Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues; Song Sang-Hyun, former president of the International Criminal Court; and David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool.

The second panel discussion will take place on Friday, March 10, at 2 p.m. in room XXVI of the Palais. The event is titled “Unprotected and Exploited: North Korean Women and Children.” It will feature Special Rapporteur Quintana; Sonja Biserko, a member of the council-appointed group of independent experts examining options for accountability in North Korea, and a former commission of inquiry member; and three North Korean escapees who will share their experiences.

The three escapees are Choi Ju-Yeon, who was forced to carry out hard labor in school; Lee So-Yeon, who will talk about discrimination and violence against women and girls; and Park Kyung-Ho, who experienced exploitation in an orphanage and later in a paramilitary forced labor brigade (known as dolgyeokdae).

In his report for the council released on February 22, Quintana highlights the need to address allegations of crimes against humanity and other violations that require perpetrators to be held accountable. He calls for a “two-track strategy” of engagement with North Korea on human rights wherever possible, while also pursuing accountability as necessary for bringing tangible and sustainable human rights improvements. Quintana also endorses the recommendations of the group of independent experts on accountability.

In February, the group of independent experts, created in September 2016 by the Human Rights Council to recommend practical accountability mechanisms for North Korean abuses, released its report as an addendum to Quintana’s report. The experts, Sonja Biserko and Sara Hossain, found that the “crimes described in the COI [commission of inquiry] report are of a gravity rarely seen, involving systems of abuse that have been operating for decades. These crimes are of international concern and cannot go unpunished.” They concluded that addressing these crimes “requires the international community to enhance efforts [in] laying the ground for future criminal trials.”

The group of experts also backs having the UN Security Council refer the grave human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, but recognizes the possibility of a veto from North Korea’s allies China and Russia. They also recommend that the high commissioner’s Seoul field office be strengthened with international criminal justice experts to assess available information and evidence, map government command structures to identify gaps and develop possible investigation and prosecution strategies as well as blueprints of suitable international or internationally assisted court models.

The 2014 commission of inquiry found that the gravity, scale, and nature of the human rights violations taking place in North Korea reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world, and amount to crimes against humanity. The Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a threat to regional peace and security as a formal agenda item three years in a row.

“A crucial task for the Human Rights Council is to make justice for rights abuses by the North Korean government against its people a genuine future possibility,” Fisher said.


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