What's In Blue

Meeting on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea

On Monday afternoon (22 December), the Council is scheduled to hold a meeting on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This will be the first time that the situation in the DPRK is considered as a separate agenda item and not as the non-proliferation issue. At the initiative of Australia, ten Council members wrote a letter to the Council president on 5 December (S/2014/872) expressing concern about the situation in the DPRK and in particular “the scale and gravity of human rights violations” described in the report by the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) established by the Human Rights Council (S/2014/276) and its impact on the stability of the region and the maintenance of international peace and security. They therefore requested that the situation in the DPRK “be formally placed on the Council’s agenda without prejudice to the item on non-proliferation” in the DPRK and also requested a meeting, pursuant to Rule 2 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure for the Council to be briefed on the situation by a senior Secretariat official as well as an official from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (According to rule 2, the President shall call a meeting of the Council at the request of any member.) At Monday’s meeting, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović and Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman are expected to brief.

Procedural Vote

It is likely that there will be a procedural vote on the adoption of the agenda for the meeting. (As stated in rule 9 of the Council’s rules of procedure, the first item of the provisional agenda for each meeting of the Council shall be the adoption of the agenda. It has been the practice of the Council to adopt the agenda without a vote unless an objection is raised. If differences over the agenda cannot be worked out among Council members, they are resolved by a procedural vote.) Following the submission of the 5 December letter, Australia asked Chad, in its capacity as Council president, to schedule a meeting on 18 December but this was opposed by China and Russia. The matter was then discussed under “any other business” during informal consultations on 15 December. It was decided that the meeting should be held early the week of 22 December depending on the availability of briefers, but there was no agreement on the agenda. During the discussions, China reiterated its position that the human rights situation in the DPRK does not constitute a threat to international peace and security and therefore does not fall within the mandate of the Council. It also expressed concern about the possible DPRK’s reaction to such a move and the potential for an escalation of tensions in the region. Russia expressed similar views.

Given China’s opposition, Council members’ expectations are that it will object to the adoption of the agenda and a vote will be called for. Such a vote would be a procedural one and the agenda will be adopted given that the at least ten members (those who signed the letter) are expected to cast an affirmative vote. (In the case of Council decisions of a procedural nature as specified in Article 27(2) of the UN Charter, just nine affirmative votes are needed for the adoption and the veto does not apply.) Still, China may choose to object as a matter of principle and to ensure that its position is placed on record. In this case, it would be the first procedural vote since 2006, when on 15 September (S/PV.5526) the Council decided to add the situation in Myanmar to its agenda in a split vote of nine in favour (Argentina, Denmark, France, Ghana, Greece, Japan, Peru, Slovakia, the UK and the US), four against (China, Congo, Qatar and Russia) and one abstention (Tanzania). (Prior to the end of the Cold War procedural votes were quite common, with 153 such votes recorded in the period 1946-1989, but since 1992 they have become increasingly rare.)

The five Council members that did not sign the 5 December letter were Argentina, Chad, China, Nigeria and Russia, but it seems only China and Russia are opposed to the two requests in the letter. Argentina has apparently indicated to other Council members that it will vote in favour in the case of a procedural vote while Nigeria is seen as more likely to abstain. Chad has stayed neutral in the discussions so far (citing its role as Council president), but is seen as more likely to vote in favour than to abstain.

Commission of Inquiry Human Rights Report on DPRK and General Assembly Vote

The momentum for the Council to formally address the human rights situation in the DPRK has been building steadily since the publication of the CoI’s report on 7 February this year. (The report documented widespread and systematic human rights violations in the DPRK and, among other recommendations, called on the Council to consider referring the situation in the DPRK to the ICC and impose targeted sanctions against those individuals most responsible for crimes against humanity.) Among Council members, an overwhelming majority expressed support for the report and its recommendations from the beginning and has continued to seek ways to promote greater Council involvement on the human rights situation.

On 17 April, Australia, France and the US convened an Arria formula meeting with the CoI which included a briefing by its chair, Michael Kirby (Australia) on the findings and recommendations of the report. (The three co-sponsors of the Arria meeting subsequently produced a non-paper summarising the discussions that was circulated as a Council document on 17 July [S/2014/501].) Already at that meeting, some Council members suggested adding a new item to the Council’s agenda to deal with human rights issues in the DPRK and requesting regular briefings by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Several Council members have also repeatedly raised concerns about the human rights situation during the quarterly briefings in informal consultations with the chair of the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee.

Whereas informal discussions were taking place at the Council level, members appeared reluctant to push for any formal action until the General Assembly’s Third Committee consideration of the CoI report during its current session. On 18 November, in its annual resolution on the human rights situation in the DPRK (A/C.3/69/L.28/Rev.1), the Third Committee decided to submit the CoI report to the Security Council and encourage it to consider relevant recommendations and take appropriate action, including through “consideration of referral of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court” and “effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the Commission has said may constitute crimes against humanity.” It was adopted by a vote of 111 in favour, 19 against and 55 abstentions. The resolution was then adopted by the General Assembly’s plenary on 18 December together with all of the other Third Committee resolutions. The number of votes in favour increased to 116 while there were 20 votes against and 53 abstentions. (It is not unusual for the plenary vote to differ from the Committee vote. In both cases China and Russia voted against, Nigeria abstained while all other Council members voted in favour.)

While Council members seem keen to stress that the meeting on Monday should be viewed as a separate initiative and not a response to the General Assembly resolution, the strong backing by the Assembly of the CoI report and its request for Council action seems nevertheless to have added further legitimacy to the initiative. The timing also reflects the widely held view among its supporters that the present moment offers a unique window of opportunity to get the situation in the DPRK on the Council’s agenda since the Council’s composition in 2015 is expected to be less favourable to human rights and protection issues than it is now. The creation of a new agenda item is therefore in itself seen as a major outcome that can serve as a mechanism for the Council to receive regular briefings in the future, highlighting the link between the human rights situation and the maintenance of international peace and security. With regard to the question of a referral of the situation in the DPRK to the ICC, it is generally agreed that this is not likely to be considered by the Council any time soon.

DPRK’s Reactions

As for the DPRK, it has so far reacted angrily, as had been expected, to the increased scrutiny of its human rights record. In a 15 December letter (S/2014/896) reacting to the 5 December letter referred to above, the DPRK denounced the US in particular for “scheming once again to abuse the United Nations Security Council” to implement “its hostile policy” and warned that its actions would certainly bring “serious consequences”. Referring also to the public release on 9 December by the US Congress of its report on the CIA’s interrogation practices, the letter said that the Council should consider “the century-old heinous human rights violations self-revealed” by the US if it were “truly interested in the settlement of human rights issues.” The DPRK had previously denounced the work of the CoI and the response of the international community. It has appeared particularly concerned about the widespread support for an ICC referral despite China’s opposition and its expected veto of any action in the Council. In a 24 November letter to the Council, the DPRK rejected the resolution adopted by the Third Committee and stated that the hostile policy of the US would compel the DPRK not to exercise restraint any longer in conducting a new nuclear test (S/2014/849). In a 28 November letter (S/2014/855), it submitted a detailed report by the Association for Human Rights Studies of the DPRK on how the resolution came into being “in disregard of the cooperative efforts made by the DPRK” and calling the CoI report “a collection of lies and fabrications.”

Although only China and Russia have openly expressed concern about how Pyongyang will react, it seems that other Council members privately acknowledge there is a risk that the regime will respond to the briefing on Monday with new provocative actions such as missile launches. At press time it was unclear whether the DPRK would ask to participate in the meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s rules of procedure.

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