The international human rights community rightly claimed an important victory in the formation and operation of the UN Commission of Inquiry. A year after the report was issued, questions remain about how to move forward. Here we spotlight a few recent stories of interest. All show one common thread: that Pyongyang is clearly concerned that interest in the CoI is not dying out and has sought—clumsily—to block discussion of how to engage the issue productively.
Following a brief statement issued during a recent trip to Tokyo, special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman had to fend off questions on the fallout from the revisions to Shin Dong-hyuk’s account of his life. Darusman also promised to propose a strategy for pushing along discussion of the abduction issue, which has been stalled since the Stockholm agreement of last summer. But the real blockbuster in Tokyo was Darusman's statement with respect to the camps. Not only did he say that the camps should be disbanded, but he went further, noting the political underpinning of the whole camp system. The closing of the camps, he argued, “can only happen if this cult leadership system is completely dismantled. And the only way to do that is if the Kim family is effectively displaced, is effectively removed from the scene, and a new leadership comes into place."
Serious issues are at stake. The North Koreans have been working to de-legitimate Darusman and the broader UN process. There is a non-trivial coalition on the Human Rights Council, which convenes in March, that does not like country resolutions, mandates and rapporteurs at all. Indeed, Darusman is Indonesian and his own government voted for the Cuban amendment in the General Assembly before subsequently abstaining on the final resolution.
North Korea has also announced it will pull back from its participation in UN human rights bodies. In May 2014, the regime agreed to at least examine some recommendations by the U.N. Human Rights Council, including signing additional conventions and actually implementing others. No one was holding their breath, but the response is telling.
North Korean efforts to intervene were also visible in a recent meeting in Jakarta. The South Korean Human Rights Commission secured Indonesian support—at least tacitly—to host a human rights forum; the ROK HRC has hosted them around the world since 2004. Of interest was the fact that the forum was co-hosted by Indonesia's national institute of sciences and human rights commission and the Indonesian Representatives to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights were in attendance. North Korean response to this was similarly negative. The North Korean embassy protested the event, and even read out a statement at the meeting. But Indonesia held firm, noting drily that “as a democratic country, we cannot forbid an event that has already had legal permission.”
In our view, countries such as Indonesia are likely to play an important role in bridging the gulf between North Korea and Japan, the US and even Europe. Despite our highly competent personnel devoted to the issue, the US is not in a very good position to push this agenda given the other issues on the table with North Korea, from the nuclear question to the Sony hack. More effective would be leadership from Europe, or better still from Asia.
In a thoughtful post in the Huffington Post (of all places), an interesting group of Asian and European political leaders has offered up a strategy that focuses on engagement. The group includes Jose Ramos-Horta, former President of Timor-Leste; Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives; Sir Geoffrey Nice, former Chief Prosecutor in the Milosevic trials; Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea; and Benedict Rogers, co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), which was formed out of about 40 NGOs explicitly to push the CoI idea.
The essence of the Huffington Post piece is that while the threat of ICC referral and holding to the standard of accountability should never be dropped, the practical realities of Russian and Chinese veto argue for engagement. In effect, their strategy is to ignore North Korea’s subsequent backtracking and take up the offers that it made in the context of securing a Cuban counter-resolution during the UN debate:
“The UN should establish a dialogue group, to initiate a framework for engagement with Kim Jong-Un's regime precisely on human rights concerns, taking up his offer of a visit to North Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, the European Union or others. Such engagement must not supercede accountability measures, but instead complement them. It should include issues of war and peace, seeking an end to the armistice - there is still a state of war between North and South Korea - and moves instead to a solid peace agreement. It should include open discussion of abductions, separations and disappearances as well as the horrific conditions in the prison camps.”
The linkage to the idea of peace regime is likely to generate heartburn in the US, and for good reason. Linkage to that issue would provide yet another excuse—if one were need by Pyongyang—to sidestep obligations to denuclearize. But it is important to remember that addressing the armistice was always a stated objective of the Six Party Talks, outlined clearly in the 2005 Joint Statement. The problem remains that the North Korean offers made in the shadow of the UN General Assembly vote were likely disingenuous, as its reactions to these initiatives have shown.
Finally, we have to take note of the extraordinary gathering of the North Korean human rights tribes in Washington at CSIS last week. The conference—one of the largest and most comprehensive that I have seen—was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the George W. Bush Institute, and the Yonsei Center for Human Liberty. The program was a who’s who on the topic, from Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko, and Bob King to Blaine Harden, Roberta Cohen, David Hawk, and many others.
But what is noteworthy again was the sharp reaction from the North Koreans. The New York mission went so far as to call on the State Department to cancel the meeting, exactly the misunderstanding of a democratic society that one would expect. Rather than protesting such meetings, North Koreans should be attending. The conference organizers did not issue any specific invitations, and it is not clear whether the North Koreans made any effort to go; they apparently did make an inquiry to the State Department on the issue. We will be absorbing the material from the meeting over the coming weeks, and strongly endorse unilateral efforts by the coalition of democracies to continue to press the issue. But finding the right dialogue partners and repeating the message face-to-face is also a component of the CoI approach that we endorse. The North Koreans should be attending these meetings, not trying to shut them down.
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-December 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 the Charm Offensive, Part One and Part Two (November 6 and 7). The Third Committee Vote (November 19). Human Rights Roundup and Now the Hard Part (November 24 and December 1 on the aftermath).