SEOUL - It started with a French diplomat. He curtly asked which recommendations were being accepted. And then the Norwegian diplomat waved her country's name tag. "It is not clear what is the outcome," she protested, echoing a widely shared confusion. In an ensuing break, forming a large, cascading circle, diplomats tried to out-talk one another. In the middle of the ruckus was a red-faced Ri Tcheul, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations.
It was late afternoon on March 18 in Geneva. An hour earlier, Ambassador Ri sat on the hot seat for a session that concluded North Korea's "Universal Periodic Review (UPR)," a process under which each state's human rights conditions are reviewed by its peers at the UN Human Rights Council. Other member states, which had offered a wide range of recommendations, expected Ri to tell them, as other countries do at these sessions, which recommendations his government accepted. Instead, he would tell them only which recommendations it rejected.
When the spotlight was on Ambassador Ri again after the break, he said that his government had "taken note of" some recommendations, without elaboration.
Sadly, there is not much other states can do when a government digs in its heels at these review sessions. There is no enforcement mechanism, and if a state refuses to accept explicitly even a single recommendation, that's that. But the human rights review unmasks countries for what they are and confirms to the international community the real level of a state's commitment. North Korea failed the test, and governments were forced to acknowledge it.
North Korea by any measure is not only one of the nations most closed to the rest of the world, but also one of the most repressive. North Korea runs large forced labor camps where entire families of suspected offenders are imprisoned, often for life. A steady stream of former prisoners who escaped have testified to Human Rights Watch and other organizations how even babies born inside such camps grow up to inherit their parents' prisoner status.
In North Korea, there is no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and lack of due process remain serious issues. North Korea has never permitted any of the special rapporteurs named by the UN to review its human rights situation to visit, despite repeated requests.
The Human Rights Council's next review of North Korea won't happen until 2013. Until then, states must keep the spotlight on North Korea in other ways. The UN human rights resolutions on North Korea that have become an annual event since 2003 are one way to remind North Korea that the world is still concerned about its extremely poor record. The mandate of the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, currently Prof. Vitit Muntarbhorn, is another. The UN's vote on March 25 to renew this mandate was an affirmation of the commitment of a majority of states to keep the human rights situation in North Korea under international scrutiny.
Some states friendly to North Korea have argued that neither a resolution against North Korea nor a special rapporteur is necessary, as North Korea's human rights situation can be reviewed at the Human Rights Council's review process. North Korea's approach at the session in Geneva, though, mocked the process and left no doubt why other approaches are important. It is naïve to think that North Korea would play fair if only it were treated more cordially.
Three days earlier, when Vitit Muntarbhorn released his last report at the same hall, a North Korean diplomat responded by saying that his country "categorically rejects" the mandate, as it is "a despicable, sinister back-door approach" and "a political plot" to undermine the North Korean government. North Korea said the mandate should be eliminated once and for all.
As long as North Korea responds to genuine criticism with defensive rhetoric and fabrications, only a special rapporteur and new resolutions can focus adequate attention on efforts to address that nation's "harrowing and horrific" problems, as Muntarbhorn described them in his last report. Muntarbhorn steps down in July, when his six-year term will expire.
International efforts to engage North Korea on human rights have made strides in raising awareness and building pressure, but there is still a long way to go to achieve fundamental change. For its own credibility, and for the sake of the North Korean people, the UN Human Rights Council needs to pass new resolutions, continue the mandate of the special rapporteur and ensure that a highly qualified and capable individual is appointed to succeed Professor Muntarbhorn.
Kay Seok is North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.