Next Stages on the Commission of Inquiry: the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly

September 15, 2014 11:45 PM

We have been in a holding pattern with respect to next steps on the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) findings; our posts on the CoI are collated below. The relevant parties deemed it a non-starter to try to push the issue through the UN Security Council, given the difficulty of securing support for non-consensus resolutions and the ultimate shadow of the veto. But a strong statement from the UN General Assembly—which is in session starting today through October 1--could change the landscape. This is no doubt at least one reason why North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong is planning to attend and give a speech, the first time North Korea has done so since 1999. He will also no doubt be lobbying to slow momentum on any CoI-related UNGA resolution.

We now have confirmation that Secretary Kerry is going to attend what is called a “side event” at the meetings next week. This action was strongly urged by a group representing many of the major players in the North Korea human rights community; their letter is appended below. The meeting would be the first time North Korea's human rights record would be addressed at the ministerial level at the UN. The hope is that Kerry’s presence—along with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se--will catalyze other participants to show. We were gratified to see that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein has made strong statements on the issue, and has apparently helped organize the meeting.

The core procedural issue concerns the drafting of a UNGA resolution, and the support that can be drummed up for it. Japan, the European Commission and the US are taking the lead. The letter to Kerry endorses a number of steps: calling on the Security Council to consider new targeted sanctions against those guilty of perpetrating crimes against humanity; seeking access to North Korean prison camps for human rights monitors and humanitarian groups; and endorsing the creation of a field-based office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue the documentation efforts undertaken by the CoI and other human rights groups (on a disappointing note, the creation of this office in Seoul has fallen victim to political divisions on the issue).

Back in December 2012, we looked at trends in UNGA voting in Third Committee resolutions on North Korean human rights; the trends were turning steadily against North Korea and in the 2012 session the resolution was voted by consensus. That does not mean, however, that the trend will continue given the seriousness of the allegations now on the table and the fact that they could have real consequences. The advanced industrial states will produce a strong resolution and line up behind it. China’s stance will be watched closely, not only how it votes (at best abstain, probably against) but whether it lobbies on the issue. The way the resolution is ultimately read will depend heavily on the major developing country democracies: India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia.

(Our thanks to Roberta Cohen and Victor Cha--see our post on the Bush Institute initiative on North Korean human rights).

Letter to Secretary Kerry on the UN Side Event

September 10, 2014

Secretary of State John F. Kerry

The State Department

Washington DC

Re: United Nations General Assembly action on North Korea

Dear Secretary Kerry,

The undersigned organizations and individuals, comprising several key advocacy groups, academic institutions, think tanks, and others, know that you understand the seriousness of the human rights situation inside North Korea, a country President Barack Obama spoke of in April as “probably the worst human rights violator in the world.”

We write to request that you personally attend a United Nations General Assembly side event on North Korea later this month to highlight the recent work of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea and set the stage for a strong General Assembly resolution endorsing its findings.

As you are aware, the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea earlier this year presented a chilling and comprehensive new report on abuses by the North Korean government, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and forced starvation. The report called on the United Nations to “ensure that those responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable.” The commission also recommended that the Security Council adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.

We commend the work you have done to support the commission and ensure US support for a strong resolution endorsing its report at the UN Human Rights Council this March, and we appreciate the US government’s involvement in this April’s Arria Formula meeting on North Korea at the Security Council in New York.

In this context, we understand that the US government is interested in participating in a high- level side event during the main General Assembly session in September and is prepared to co- sponsor a draft resolution on North Korea currently being written by Japan and the European Union. This is welcome news. We believe that your personal support and involvement in these efforts are crucial for their success—in particular, your personal involvement in the side-event in September.

US government co-sponsorship of the draft resolution and side event during the General Debate week will serve as an important example for other UN member states. A side-event in particular—through your engagement and the involvement of other foreign ministers and the UN’s new High Commissioner for Human Rights—would provide an excellent opportunity for ministerial-level discussion of the key findings of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, and help lay the groundwork for widespread support of a strong UNGA resolution.

Specifically, with respect to the text of the draft resolution, we recommend that the US work to ensure that it condemns the crimes against humanity documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea report in the strongest terms and adopts language at least as strong as that in the March 2014 Human Rights Council resolution, which called on the General Assembly to submit the report to the Security Council, to allow the council to debate its findings and recommendations and consider “referral of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to an appropriate international criminal justice mechanism.”

We also urge that the text contain language urging the Security Council to consider new targeted sanctions against those who are most responsible for crimes against humanity, prioritize the commission’s call for immediate access to North Korea’s prison camps for human rights monitors and humanitarian groups, and endorse the creation of a field-based office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue gathering information and evidence.

Strengthening the link between the Security Council and the issue of accountability is crucial to pave the way for concrete action on holding perpetrators to account in the future. And the credible threat of accountability may help shift behavior among government officials and those with leverage over them. We appreciate your work on these important efforts.


Morton Abramowitz, Senior Fellow
The Century Foundation

Victor Cha
Professor, Georgetown University
Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Board of Directors
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State (former)
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor U.S. Department of State

Felice D. Gaer, Director
Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights

Morton H. Halperin, Senior Advisor
Open Society Foundations

David Hawk, Author of The Hidden Gulag

William Inboden,
Executive Director
Clements Center for History, Strategy & Statecraft University of Texas-Austin

David J. Kramer, President Freedom House

Jae H. Ku,
U.S.-Korea Institute
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Robyn Lieberman, Senior Director Government Advocacy Human Rights First

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director Human Rights Watch

Greg Scarlatoiu,
Executive Director
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Hannah Song, Executive Director Liberty in North Korea

Witness to Transformation Posts on the CoI

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)

All Witness to Transformation human rights posts

More From

Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

More on This Topic

North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 21, 2015
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 7, 2015
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 3, 2015