Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Briefing on the Human Rights Situation
On Monday (11 December), the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The briefers are expected to be the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (by VTC) and Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča. This will be the fourth time that the Council has convened a formal meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK. The agenda item, “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” was placed on the Council’s agenda through a procedural vote on 22 December 2014 and discussed also in 2015 and 2016, each time following a procedural vote. (Council decisions of a procedural nature need nine affirmative votes for a decision to be adopted, and the veto does not apply.) The last such meeting was held on 9 December 2016.
Zeid is expected to remind Council members that the human rights situation remains dire and that it should not be forgotten in light of the focus on DPRK non-proliferation issues. Among the areas he is expected to cover are the treatment of defectors repatriated to the DPRK, detention conditions, and the efforts of the High Commissioner to engage with the DPRK. Zeid is also expected to refer to the potential for sanctions to hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Although the Council has been able to agree to three resolutions strengthening sanctions on the DPRK this year, Council members remain divided over whether the human rights violations there constitute a threat to international peace and security. China is expected to object to the meeting, thus prompting a procedural vote. In the past two years, China made clear that it did not see the Council as a forum for discussing human rights issues, which it maintained should not be politicised. It said that discussion of human rights in the DPRK was detrimental to the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Council members are not expecting a change in this position, particularly in light of the increased intensity of ballistic missile tests this year. China is expected to be supported by several members, including Egypt and Russia.
The meeting on Monday therefore is not on the Council’s agreed programme of work for December. Instead, following the practice of the previous two occasions when the Council discussed the human rights situation in the DPRK, the meeting is being convened in response to a joint request from a group of nine Council members. On 1 December, France, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Sweden, Ukraine, the UK, the US and Uruguay sent a letter to the Council president (S/2016/1034), asking for a meeting on the situation in the DPRK with briefings by a senior official from the UN Secretariat and a senior official from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “which will enable Council members to receive further information from the Secretariat on the situation and its implications for international peace and security.” -This is the same language used in the letters sent in the last two years. Senegal, which abstained on last year’s procedural vote, was among those that signed the letter this year.
Council members will be able to draw on the Secretary-General’s recent report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee on the human rights situation in the DPRK (A/72/279). Among the Secretary-General’s recommendations are for the DPRK government to address the serious human rights violations reported by the 2014 Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, and to improve humanitarian conditions and the human rights situation through sustainable funding for humanitarian assistance. Members may also refer to the report (A/72/394) and briefing by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the DPRK mandated by the Human Rights Council. The report found that patterns of grave human rights violations continue in the country and highlighted concerns over the situation of persons in detention and abductees, access to food, corruption, and freedom of information. In presenting the report to the Third Committee on 26 October, Ojea Quintana appealed to members to ensure that human rights were not overlooked amidst the tensions regarding the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, and urged a comprehensive review of sanctions imposed on the regime to avoid possible collective punishment of ordinary North Koreans.
Council members who requested this meeting are expected to condemn the continuing human rights violations in the DPRK, while stressing the importance of implementing the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry. In 2014, the Commission’s report (A/HRC/25/63) 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 to impose targeted sanctions against those individuals most responsible for crimes against humanity. These members may explain why they disagree with China’s assertion that the Council is not mandated to address the situation, particularly in terms of its implications for regional peace and security. In the light of the DPRK’s continuing development of nuclear weapons, some members may reflect on how to balance the two-track approach of promoting dialogue while at the same time pressing for accountability.
Resolution 2321, adopted in November 2016, condemned the DPRK for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while its citizens have “great unmet needs”, and specifically asked the DPRK to respect and ensure the “welfare and inherent dignity” of its people. This language was also included in the three resolutions on the DPRK adopted in 2017. Some Council members are expected to reiterate the need for the DPRK to stop diverting scarce resources towards the development of nuclear weapons while over half of the country’s people suffer from major food insecurity and poor medical care.
The issue of diversion of scarce resources was also included in the Third Committee resolution on the human rights situation adopted on 14 November without a vote. The resolution condemned the “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in the country. It said that more than half of North Korean citizens face a shortage of food and medical services, and denounced the DPRK for applying its resources to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of to the welfare of its people. The resolution also suggested that the Council should take appropriate measures against the persons most responsible for North Korea’s crimes against humanity, such as imposing sanctions or referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The resolution was jointly drafted by the EU and Japan and sponsored by more than 60 members.
Other issues that have been raised in past meetings on human rights in the DPRK and that are expected to be raised again are enforced disappearances, forced labour and the situation of DPRK workers abroad. The abuse of non-citizens by the DPRK may also feature in some members’ statements. American student Otto Warmbier’s death earlier this year, following more than a year in custody in the DPRK for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, may be used by some members to illustrate the treatment of foreigners in the DPRK.
Following the meeting, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US are co-organising a side-event on the experiences of forcibly repatriated women. Two women who were forcibly repatriated will describe their experiences, while Michael Kirby, former Justice of the Australian High Court and former Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, and David Hawk, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, will also share their perspectives.