Human Rights Roundup: The Special Rapporteur's Report



North Korea is one of ten countries with a “country mandate” under the UN Human Rights Council’s “special procedures.” As a result, it has a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights. (Several other countries have “independent experts”; the other countries operating under these special procedures are Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Iran, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and the Palestinian occupied territories.) The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was first established by the Commission on Human Rights in 2004, under resolution 2004/13. Since then, it has been extended annually and has just been extended again.

As Roberta Cohen notes in a very useful overview at 38North, hope about establishing a multilateral dialogue with North Korea springs eternal. Don’t hold your breath.

In August 2010, Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, succeeded Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand as Special Rapporteur. As Cohen notes, he was selected in part because his government had friendly relations with North Korea and there might have been hope for a breakthrough. None has been forthcoming.

The most recent Special Rapporteur report, released in February, does not pull any punches; it can be found here. In general, it is a dreary recitation of the country’s human rights problems but with several twists; in particular, the report notes that the situation may have deteriorated because of the food situation and new controls on the border.

A few highlights that caught our eye:

  • The Special Rapporteur is blunt about the underlying sources of the country’s food problems. While noting the obligation to provide humanitarian assistance, the report notes “the importance of meeting the food shortfall by ensuring that an adequate quantity of food of good quality is available through additional imports by the Government…” The report also notes that “the primary obligation to feed people lies with the State, which must take all measures necessary to rectify existing flaws in the production and distribution system that have contributed for the shortage of food” and “calls on the Government to allocate more resources to agriculture rather than to its military sector.”
  • The report provides a good overview of the deficiencies in judicial process, but also highlights a development that we note in Witness to Transformation as well: the 2007 “reform” of the criminal code. The report is worth quoting at length:
  • “On 19 December 2007, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea adopted a unique form of law, referred to as an “addendum to the Criminal Code for ordinary crimes”, which has gone largely unnoticed by the international community. The addendum is a very significant legislative act, given that was formally adopted by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly as a Government directive….The addendum comprises a total of 23 articles, of which 16 stipulate the death penalty for a number of crimes, including smuggling and dealing in narcotics, seizing State property, currency counterfeiting and illicitly selling State resources. With the adoption of the addendum, the total number of crimes that carry the death penalty in the country stands at 22. Furthermore, the addendum contains a number of vague expressions, such as “the gravest cases” or “extremely serious cases”, which leave room for arbitrary decisions by the authorities. The addendum permits the application of capital punishment for various crimes as long as the authorities are able to establish that the crime in question was “extremely serious” and falls under one of the 16 listed crimes.”
  • The Special Rapporteur’s report underlines concerns about the refoulement of asylum-seekers, although not mentioning China by name. It notes reports that border controls were tightened in 2011, making access to international protection more difficult, as well as “shoot to kill” orders against those attempting to flee the country.

The DPRK has been completely uncooperative with the special procedures. While Darusman has made official trips to South Korea and Japan to gather information, the North Koreans continue to reject any dealings with the Special Rapporteur process and no Special Rapporteur has visited the country. Nor has North Korea cooperated with any of the “thematic mandates” dealing with particular issues, such as treatment of prisoners.

The North Korean response to the report contains its usually flowery language (“the ‘Special Rapporteur’… is none other than a marionette running here and there, representing the ill-minded purposes of string-pullers such as the United States, Japan and the States members of the European Union”).

But the North Korean response does contain one interesting detail. The North Koreans note that in 2001 they had entered into a bilateral dialogue with the European Union on human rights that was progressing. They claim this process was derailed by the turn to the UNCHR special procedures. Given the difficulties of the US, Japan and the ROK being involved on this issue, and Chinese indifference, could Europe have a future role in this regard?

We are skeptical it would have much effect. As we noted in Witness to Transformation, the North Koreans reject the UNHCR special procedures because they target North Korea. The North Koreans have cooperated with the UN’s Universal Periodic Review conducted under the aegis of the UN Human Rights Council because it is universal. North Korea showed up for its first review in 2009-10. Member states made 167 recommendations. About a third were rejected out of hand, but to our knowledge the government has not addressed a single one of the others that it offered to take under advisement.

The UN’s North Korean Human Rights page—including all relevant documents—can be found here. The US has a special envoy for human rights in North Korea, currently Ambassador Bob King. The last US special envoy report came out in 2009 and can be found here. And again, Roberta Cohen's overview provides more detail and is worth reading.

More From

More on This Topic

Related Topics