‘My favourite word is freedom’ – Human Rights Council on North Korea

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by Tuuli Orasmaa

On Monday, 17th March 2014 the 25th regular session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva focussed on an important issue of the four-week conference: the Interactive Dialogue on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In one of the most eagerly expected events of the Council, the Commission of Inquiry[1] presented its report on the human rights situation in the DPRK followed by comments from the member states of the Council, as well as from certain human rights organizations.

Atrocities and state-led discrimination

The report reveals severe human rights violations such as torture, prison camps, enforced disappearances and negation of freedom of movement, expression and religion, just to mention a few. This is permitted by both an all-encompassing control of citizens and information flow and by a state-led discrimination apparatus dividing the population in hierarchic groups that determine one’s living conditions. Many of the findings are considered crimes against humanity – a statement that underlines the gravity of the issue – and the Commission urges the DPRK to undertake ‘profound political and institutional reforms without delay’.

Two diverging blocks

While the majority of the member states participating in the dialogue session praised the work of the Commission and expressed their concerns about the current situation in the DPRK, states such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe opposed to the procedure of state-specific inquiries[2]. The United Nations-led inquiries on particular countries were said to make a real dialogue impossible since the process was seen as politically biased. Besides, it was even described as an attack from the powerful member states imposing their visions and practices on others. The representative of the Venezuelan government stated that the ‘undoubtedly extremely politicized’ country-specific mandates are indeed used ‘for the on-going policy of aggression and hostility promoted by the hegemonic block and its colonialist allies’. This view was accompanied by Syrian concerns of how these procedures ‘sully the reputation of the [concerned] country (…) whereas violations in other countries are ignored’.

Certainly, the very concept of the Human Rights Council can be interpreted as the imposition of Western ideals of a good society. Thus, the worries about biases and partiality are not trivial ones. What other sort of procedure would have been possible in the case of the DPRK? From the beginning of its mandate the Commission tried to cooperate with the government but every request of access to the country had been denied. In the dialogue session, the same policy continued: When offered the possibility to comment on the report, the representative of the North Korean government did not respond to the accusations at all but used its floor to denounce the report as falsified referring to the Commission’s limited methods of gathering information.

Credibility under doubts

The Commission seemed to be well aware of certain problems, which remain concerning the credibility of the report. As the access to the DPRK was denied the report was mainly based on testimonies by North Koreans living abroad, without observation on location. The chair of the Commission, Mr. Michael Kirby, commented on doubts concerning this method by saying ‘the Commission does not ask anyone to believe blindly what we say. Read for yourself the words from the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses who spoke to the Commission of extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.’ The testimonies collected in the Commission’s public hearings are, in fact, available on the Internet. Thus, although the methods for compiling this report were limited, the work was implemented with transparency. While it is important to assess the codes of conduct of the Commission, this should not be done at the expense of the real dialogue – the discussion on the topic itself. This is what, unfortunately, North Korea has decided to do.

‘Now we know’

During the dialogue session Human Rights Watch stated accurately that the UN Security Council has to stop acting as if the nuclear threat was the only issue to deal with,.when it comes to the DPRK. Also the Commission itself appealed to the Security Council to take the human rights in North Korea on its agenda. There is hope to wake up the international community in order to tackle this challenge. The probably most moving plea to the international community was that of Mr. Shin Don-Hyuk, an inmate born in a prison camp in North Korea and one of the witnesses interviewed by the Commission.

My favourite word is freedom. If the North Korean dictator has his freedom, then the North Korean people should also enjoy their freedom. — I do not have any power in my hands, so I would like to ask this from you: Please relieve my North Korean sisters and brothers from their predicaments.’

It is up to the international community to respond to this appeal because – in the words of Mr. Kirby – now we know.

[1] The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a special team working under a one-year mandate given by the Human Rights Council in March 2013.

[2] The so-called country-/state specific mandate is a method used by the Human Rights Council to observe the human rights situation setting one specific country under its target. This differs from thematic mandates, such as examining cultural rights or contemporary forms of slavery worldwide.

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