Human Rights Roundup II: The Hard Part



In the last few weeks, we have covered in some detail the politics at the UN over the Commission of Inquiry report. Now that the historic Third Commitee vote has been recorded (111 yes, 19 no, 55 abstentions), the hard part begins. Will the UN Security Council actually take up the issue, and even if it does, will anything come of it? The answer to that issue lies in part with procedural issues at the UNSC, and partly with China and Russia. But US policy will also matter: will the Obama pick up the issue and if so how?

Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda Mortwedt Oh (both with the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, but writing in their individual capacities) and Dan Aum (RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights ) have teamed up to provide a summary of the state of play and to advocate a forward-leaning US policy on the issue; the report, issued by the RFK Center, is called Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea: The Case for US Leadership and Action. However, it actually raises important issues of whether the US should be leading on this issue, or whether the action has to come in no small measure from other quarters. To me, the report makes clear that a broader, coalitional strategy is necessary if anything is going to come out of the extraordinary CoI findings.

The report provides a highly readable overview of the Commission of Inquiry process, the North Korean human rights situation and the COIs findings and recommendations; it is a great place to start for those seeking an introduction to the process and the very lengthy CoI report itself. But the novel aspects of the report center on what they US should do next. Scarlatoiu, Mortwedt Oh and Aum argue that US policy has been hamstrung by its primary focus on security issues. But this policy has yielded scant results and is in fact unlikely to succeed because of the underlying nature of the North Korean regime. Rather, they argue for a reversal of priorities that they call a “human rights up front” policy.

The logic is worth outlining at length, as it parallels to some extent arguments we have made about economic reform:

“Ultimately, improving the human rights situation in North Korea will advance the U.S.’s dual interests of human rights and security. North Korea’s showing tangible improvements in human rights…would signal its willingness to respect the sanctity of international agreements. Only then can North Korea begin to develop a record of credibility to engage on other issues with the U.S., including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving the human rights and humanitarian situation should be the litmus test of North Korea’s willingness to verify disarmament of its nuclear and ballistic arsenal.”

As we have long argued, regime change is not a policy; it is an objective. How to get there? The report leads its recommendations with more sanctions, specifically through passage of HR 1771. Marc Noland and I provided a detailed analysis of this bill, including some reservations about its possibly perverse effects and the need to couple sanctions with a restatement of our willingness to engage North Korea. In addition, the report argues for referral to the International Criminal Court—as the CoI report does—the creation of a special tribunal on the issue as well as more targeted sanctions for those accountable for human rights abuses. The US should also add human rights to the Six Party Talks agenda.

An additional set of recommendations center on the Chinese practice of repatriating refugees, a practice that is in clear violation of China’s commitments under the Refugee Convention; we have long made this case as well, including in Witness to Transformation.

At the same time, the report concludes somewhat abruptly with recommendations for more people-to-people interactions and support for NGOs monitoring the country and encouraging the flow of information.

What receives inadequate attention amidst all of these sticks is a greater discussion of the carrots. A strategy focused largely on constraints could easily have adverse effects, at least in the short-run. The North Korean regime, in the guise of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies, issued an extended rebuttal to the CoI process on November 28 on the KCNA website. A regime that is besieged is not likely to see it as an auspicious moment to liberalize and the lengthy report—running to around 4000 words—is not conciliatory; to the contrary, the report concludes by promising to “shatter all ‘human rights’ rackets kicked up by the U.S. and other hostile forces.”

For obvious historical reasons, the US is not likely to lead a dialogue on human rights to which the North Koreans will show up. Moreover, it is more than a little ironic for the US to lead a campaign to put North Korea in front of the ICC given its failure to ratify the Rome Statute.

Although designed to deter serious action on the issue, the failed Cuban resolution actually contained three ideas that bear serious consideration. Moreover, all were actually endorsed by the CoI:

  • The DPRK should be urged by Brussels and the European capitals to reopen the European human rights dialogue (which operated briefly from 2001-3 before the North Koreans shut it down in the wake of the first EU sponsored resolution in 2003. The EU has hardly been soft on North Korea; Willy Fautre surveys the record. But it comes to the process without the same geopolitical baggage as the five parties and several channels such as the EU-North Korea Political Dialogue, a parliamentary channel and a history of relatively unpoliticized humanitarian assistance. The new Association of Human Rights Studies report slams the EU for its partiality, but it is much more likely that a dialogue will open between Europe and the DPRK than with the US.
  • The CoI argues for the development of technical cooperation between the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the DPRK. Although this seems far-fetched, there actually is a Technical Cooperation Program under the Human Rights Commission that is designed to help countries develop human rights infrastructures.
  • Finally, the UN should continue to press for a visit on the part of the Special Rapporteur.

Why bother with such efforts? The answer is simple: we have little evidence that a sanctions-only approach works, and the people-to-people component of the Scarlatoiu, Mortwedt Oh and Aum report could become harder not easier if seen as little more than a Trojan horse. Am I hopeful that North Korea will engage? No. But the human rights issue is not necessarily best led or framed by the US; the most effective envoys are likely to be from Europe, developing democracies—many of whom abstained on the Japan-EU resolution--and the UN. US policy should work these angles as well as those suggested by the highly-readable Scarlatoiu, Mortwedt Oh and Aum report.

Witness to Transformation Posts on the Commission of Inquiry

Commission of Inquiry Report: the Mandate (March 25, 2013)

Commission of Inquiry Report: Initial Reaction (February 17, 2014; includes full links to Commission materials)

Commission of Inquiry Report: What Next? (February 24, 2014).

Roberta Cohen, Karin Lee and Christine Hong on Human Rights (January 29, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup I: The UN Role (March 3, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup II: the UN Role (March 6, 2014)

The Human Rights Council Vote (March 31, 2014)

The Commission of Inquiry: The Arria Meeting (April 21, 2014)

North Korea Admits to Prison Camps--Or Does It? (October 8, 2014)

On the UN politics, October-November 2014: Human Rights Racket: Alive and Kicking (October 10, 2014, on the October 6 letter from the DPRK Permanent Representative); Human Rights Roundup and The North Korean Counter-Resolution (October 20 and 21, 2014); UN Diplomacy Continued, Parts One and Two (October 28 and 29); The End of Charm, Part One and Part Two (November 6 and 7). The UN Vote (November 19). Human Rights Roundup (November 24 on the aftermath of the vote).

All Witness to Transformation human rights posts

More From

More on This Topic