Arria-Formula Meeting with the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
Tomorrow afternoon (17 April), Australia, France and the US have convened an Arria formula meeting with the members of the commission of inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) established by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on 21 March: Michael Kirby (chair, Australia), Sonja Biserko (Serbia) and Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), who also serves as the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. Kirby will brief on the findings and recommendations of the commission’s report, which was published on 7 February (A/HRC/25/63).
The meeting is open to all UN member states, but due to time constraints, only some have been invited to speak, including Japan and the DPRK. A number of NGOs have also been invited to attend, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
The event will also feature personal testimonies by two witnesses, Shin Dong-hyuk and Lee Hyeon-seo. Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a labour camp in the DPRK in 1982, but escaped to China in 2005 and now lives in the Republic of Korea (ROK). His story is the subject of the book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, authored by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. Lee Hyeon-seo grew up in the DPRK but fled to China in 1997 at the age of 14 and lived there for several years as a refugee before moving to the ROK.
According to the concept note circulated by the organisers, the purpose of the meeting is to provide “an opportunity to discuss the human rights situation faced by the people of the DPRK and its impact on the maintenance of international peace and security” and facilitate an open dialogue about how the UN and its member states can implement the commission’s recommendations. The meeting is also intended as an opportunity to consider “how the working methods can be utilised to ensure the Council remains appraised of human rights situations that can have the potential to impact the maintenance of international peace and security”.
The report of the commission of inquiry concluded that “[s]ystematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials.” It further argued that, in many cases, these violations include crimes against humanity, and that the scope, seriousness and nature of these violations is unparalleled in the world today.
In terms of recommendations, the report emphasises the need to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity committed in the DPRK and calls on the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for the crimes committed. The report also contains a number of recommendations aimed at the DPRK itself, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council endorsed the findings and recommendations of the report in a resolution adopted on 28 March (A/HRC/25/L.17). More specifically, it recommended that the General Assembly “submit the report to the Security Council for its consideration and appropriate action in order that those responsible for human rights violations, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity, are held to account, including through consideration of referral of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism, and consideration of the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.” (The report was circulated to the Security Council at the request of Australia, France and the US on 15 April [S/2014/276]).
The Human Rights Council resolution also extended the mandate of the special rapporteur for one year while requesting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide increased support, including through the establishment of a field-based structure to strengthen monitoring and documentation of the human rights situation in the DPRK. The resolution was adopted by 30 votes in favour, 11 abstentions and six against, including China and Russia.
In a 31 March letter (S/2014/237) to the Security Council responding to the adoption of the Human Rights Council resolution, the DPRK stated that it had not recognised the commission of inquiry, which it referred to as a group of “political swindlers, marionettes of the US and the West”, and said that it “totally opposes and rejects the above-mentioned resolution, a product of the vicious hostile policy towards it.” At press time, it had not responded to the invitation to the Arria formula meeting and was not expected to attend.
While most Council members seem to welcome the opportunity to discuss the commission’s report, perhaps with the exception of China and Russia (the former has said it will not attend tomorrow’s meeting and there seems to be some doubts about Russia’s participation), and many have also publicly expressed support for its recommendations, it is not clear how much appetite there is to push for any formal Council follow up. China has made clear that it does not agree with the commission’s findings, and is widely expected to veto any formal Council action. Accusing the report of making unfounded accusations and recommendations, a Chinese official speaking at the Human Rights Council said that it is “divorced from reality.” China also seems to believe that the Arria formula meeting will be seen by the DPRK as an aggressive move and might aggravate tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Other Council members seem wary of confronting China on human rights for fear of undermining ongoing efforts to secure its support on the non-proliferation file. Most recently, following the DPRK’s 26 March firing of two medium-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan in contravention of relevant Council resolutions, China has apparently agreed to use its leverage with the DPRK to try and de-escalate the situation while the US in return will delay pushing for further Council action at this stage. (The US initially proposed a presidential statement in response to the 26 March incident.)
At this stage, Council members therefore seem eager to play down expectations of any near-term push for action in the Council in response to the commission’ report, citing the limited chances that exist for a successful outcome. Instead they emphasise that the Arria-formula meeting should not necessarily be seen as a first step towards greater Council involvement, but offers an opportunity to focus attention more broadly on the human rights situation in the DPRK, raise awareness about the report in New York and educate the wider UN membership about its findings. They also cite mechanisms that exist outside the Council to address the human rights situation in the DPRK and pursue some of the commission’s other recommendations including to the General Assembly’s Third Committee which will hold its next session in October.