The UN has appointed Tomás Ojea Quintana to serve as the next Special Rapporteur to lead investigations of North Korean human rights abuses. The position was created by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004 and has been renewed on an annual basis by the Human Rights Council, the successor organ to the Commission. Quintana replaces Marzuki Darusman, who served from 2010. (See Quintana's recent interview with HRNK here.) The position and its raison d'être are controversial with a list of detractor countries uncomfortable with the UN’s country-specific focus on North Korea.
Quintana is an Argentine lawyer by training who brings fourteen years of experience in the human rights community. He previously served as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2008 to 2014 during Myanmar’s transition out of military dictatorship. One hopes his experience engaging with rogue regimes will prove useful in his new role. He certainly has his work cut out for him.
Quintana will work with the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul, a regional hub for North Korea human rights issues established in June 2015 which came to existence through a recommendation by the 2014 Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report. (For a detailed list of analyses on the CoI see here.) The CoI mandated the UN to create a “field-based” structure where there can be “sustained access to victims and witnesses,” and that will serve as “a secure archive for information provided by relevant stakeholders.” Establishing such a structure in Seoul was the most logical choice to fulfill this mandate.
In fact, the CoI report called for the North Korean authorities to permit the UN to establish a “field-based presence” (pg 18) in the DPRK. This was clearly a non-starter for the regime, but the geographic proximity of the Seoul office to the DPRK allows for access to North Korean refugees and is well positioned to facilitate discourse between the international community and South Korean society on North Korean human rights.
Due to the politics of engagement with Pyongyang—made more complex by South Korea’s own human rights issues—the ROK government has historically been less than enthusiastic about emphasizing North Korean human rights. This has shifted during the last several years under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, and in fact, last March the National Assembly finally passed the ROK North Korea Human Rights Act. Nonetheless, agreeing to establish the office in Seoul was fraught with local and national-level political squabbles; engagement-oriented South Koreans were convinced the office would do more harm than good for inter-Korean relations.
We’re not holding our breath that Quintana will succeed in convincing North Korea to come to terms with its human rights abuses but his role will be especially salient insofar as to continue to meld the issue of North Korean human rights with the international community’s efforts to engage with the DPRK. This will be particularly important in encouraging the South Korean government to cement North Korean human rights as an inextricable fixture of inter-Korean relations.