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Giving North Korea Abuses a Free Pass

UN Security Council Misses Key Opportunity to Confront Atrocious Rights Record

Kim Jong-Un watches a performance in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 23, 2017. © 2017 Reuters/KCNA

It is a bitter irony that on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Security Council will give North Korea’s atrocious human rights record a free pass.

In 2014, a blistering UN commission of inquiry report found the North Korean government responsible for a laundry list of crimes against humanity over decades. Ever since, the UN Security Council has held annual meetings on the situation in North Korea, which has given states a critical opportunity to discuss Kim Jong Un’s continuing authoritarian rule as a threat to international peace and security.

Until now.

Holding a meeting requires the agreement of at least nine of the council’s 15 members and every year, the usual suspects, led by China, try to block it. This year, there are reports that China leaned heavily on Ivory Coast, the critical ninth vote, in order to tank the United States-led meeting, as it did earlier this year to scupper council discussion of Syria’s disastrous rights record. There are also questions about how much diplomatic muscle the US devoted to securing the needed votes this year.

Whatever the reason, this year’s lapse should not become the new normal.

While the council still hasn’t taken up the commission of inquiry’s key recommendations – referring the situation to the International Criminal Court and adopting targeted sanctions on human rights grounds – these annual meetings have broadened the council’s view from an exclusive focus on North Korea’s nuclear program to the rights violations inflicted on its people. As departing US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council last year, North Korea’s “menacing march towards building a nuclear weapon arsenal begins with the oppression and exploitation of ordinary North Korean people.”

The council cannot afford to revert to its nuclear non-proliferation tunnel vision. Keeping human rights on the council’s radar makes it much harder to bargain away the suffering of the thousands of North Korean victims, survivors and their families in the name of security. There are reports that the US may try again in January when new states join the council. If North Korea is truly on the cusp of opening itself up to change, this meeting is needed more than ever. 

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