Foreign Policy Blogs

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Urges Greater Focus on North Korea

Image: U.S. Dept. of State

Image: U.S. Dept. of State

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued statements by High Commissioner Navi Pillay regarding the ongoing human rights crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). While the system of oppression employed by the DPRK is manifest, it remains “one of the worst – but least understood and reported – human rights situations in the world.” Like most statements made by high-level officials, it is abstracted to the point of being difficult to disagree with, but it is also hard to see why the response requested is the most appropriate action at this point in time.

The thrust of the High Commissioner’s statement was a call for an “in-depth inquiry” by the international community into the situation. This could be authorized through by a resolution issued by the Human Rights Council or Special Rapporteurs possessing similar but distinct mandates could be established, but only a U.N. Security Council is empowered with a mandate to authorize international action — e.g., sanctions, bans or intervention. Embargoes and bans are already in place regarding the DPRK via Security Council Resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009). Indeed, the “1718 Committee” has operated since 2009, with a singular purpose of administering the sanctions issued against the DPRK. Though any Security Council response would likely be lackluster, an interesting predicament would arise should the High Commissioner’s call be taken up.

Recent international inquiries must receive some level of support from their subject governments or they cannot carry out their core task. After cutting relations with the Human Rights Council in March of 2012, a fact-finding mission regarding Israeli settlements was established. These settlements were already viewed as illegal under international law by the U.N. Israel refused to cooperate with the mission and refused their entry. This issue continues to languish in the international forum.

The establishment of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur in 2004 successfully uncovered violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws largely because it was allowed to operate continually in the three Darfur states over a period of months. The government of Sudan cooperated with the Commission and engaged in lengthy discussions. Eventually, the state of South Sudan emerged after what was a protracted international response to those on the grounds, but a relatively fast response given the U.N.’s track record.

In Sudan, the central allegation was the commission of genocide. This alleged genocide was neither carried out in any meticulous fashion nor were the types of evidence necessary to meet the standard of proof required under the international law of genocide obvious. Thus, though the Commission was able to operate, it did not gather the evidence necessary to meet the high burden of proof. It however did not rule out the possibility that other peremptory norms of international law were violated, namely war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In DPRK, the general allegation is that the government is violating a host of human rights by oppressing a large number of its people through prison and labor camps. Whether or not these allegations are true, the DPRK is not going to begin complying with the international community starting with an on-site, in-depth inquiry while it is concurrently strengthening its military defense infrastructure. It has thus far refused to comply with every U.N. appointed Special Rapporteur. A Security Council resolution calling for intervention, should one ever be taken up, would almost certainly be vetoed by China or Russia on grounds of sovereign prerogative, territorial integrity, or sensitive political relations close to home, inter alia. Either state may also not want to risk a potential exposure of arms trade violations, which were demonstrated in Sudan.

Perhaps the High Commissioner would prefer to see sanctions that are not half-hearted. For instance, the arms embargo in place allows for the sale of small arms and light weapons. This includes all hand-held or man-portable firearms, as well as many explosives such as rockets, missiles, grenades, mines, mortars, and antiaircraft guns. The trade of weapons of greater destructive capacity is banned.

The regime also prohibits the sale of luxury goods to the DPRK, but China’s border has proven too porous, and European designer clothes, American cigarettes, Japanese beer and top-shelf liquor from around the world pour in for those in power. To demonstrate the egregious flagrancy of the trade, even Big Macs from McDonald’s are flown in daily.

The final measure put in place by the U.N. Security Council reinforces the loyalty of the DPRK government’s supporters, especially when coupled with international community’s attempt at resolving the situation through positive reinforcement. The Security Council has authorized targeted sanctions able to freeze assets or ban the travel specified persons or groups. These persons or groups reside in the most insular state in the world. While the DPRK spent approximately U.S. $10 million on luxury items from China in the first five months of 2011, it spent approximately U.S. $46 million on food staples while receiving international food aid valued around U.S. $14.5 million from the EU. The aid was given out of concern for reports of mass starvation, but experts have characterized the receipt of food aid as “a deliberate campaign to get free food, which will then be distributed to the privileged groups as government gifts. This will allow them to increase their legitimacy and win some popular support at the expense of the Western and South Korean taxpayers.”

These shortcomings reflect the reality that U.N. embargoes and bans are relatively toothless without supportive uni, bi and multilateral agreements from the constituent members of the international community.

An intervention by the U.N. to force the changing of a regime is unheard of. It certainly is not on the radar for the ongoing situation Syria, though fifty states just called upon the Security Council on Monday, January 14, 2013 to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. This could have the effect of indirectly forcing al-Assad to step down, but would not involve a sponsored revolution. The U.N. administration of East Timor’s transition was a one-off situation, and U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor acted in a gap-filling, supportive role for the nascent democracy. Its administration ended following the election of East Timor’s first president.

What a fact-finding mission or Commission of Inquiry would do for the situation seems redundant on its face. The major success such a mission could have would be uncovering the fate of many South Korean and Japanese individuals abducted by the DPRK, but such endeavors could be conducted ex post. That aside, investigating and enforcing the violation of the current restrictive regime over the DPRK may be a better choice. Calling for unprecedented Security Council action of some form conveys the immediacy and seriousness of the situation, and that is precisely how Australia is using its present seat, despite the disagreement over whether the recent missile launch by the DPRK was an intercontinental ballistic missile or a satellite launch. Perhaps an inquiry would resolve that issue, which would give the international community the ability to make a more informed decision to intervene on humanitarian grounds as opposed to its much more reluctant position of taking such action upon human rights grounds.



Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.