The Special Rapporteur’s Report: Prison Camps and “Rights Up Front”

May 25, 2017 7:00 AM

Roberta Cohen, who has a long history with North Korean human rights issues, has drawn my attention to something new in the Special Rapporteur’s February 2017 report (available here). Buried in para. 48 is the following: “the Special Rapporteur particularly calls upon those agencies that conduct humanitarian programmes inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to ensure that vulnerable groups, including those who are in detention facilities, prison camps and political prison camps, are able to benefit from their programmes.”

This is a big deal, and Cohen immediately picked up on it with a long and thoughtful post on HRNK Insider. To be sure, there have been precedents since the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report where the UN family has noted the importance of reaching prisoners. But Cohen focuses in on a very particular incident when the humanitarian and development agencies backed away and argues why it was precisely the wrong thing to do.

The 2016 Typhoon Lionrock that struck North Hamgyong also flooded Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 in Jongo-ri, Hoeryong City. Flooding of the camp was visible in satellite imagery, which was forwarded by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to the UN Special Rapporteur and the humanitarian offices. Faced with the decision of whether to seek access to the camp, estimated to hold 4-5,000 prisoners, the UN backed off. Cohen walks through all of the excuses—from the need to get along with the government, to not overstepping narrow humanitarian boundaries, to the “small” number of prisoners—and effectively bats them all down.

The Human Rights Up Front approach advanced in the CoI report is designed to focus those in the humanitarian community on the complementarity of the human rights and humanitarian agendas. The objective is to use the very small leverage the UN has to generate meaningful dialogue on this central human rights abuse. The High Commissioner for Human Rights and the head of UNDP have signed a Guidance Note on Human Rights for Resident Coordinators and the UN Country Teams (here) which is supposed to provide practical help in sorting out the issues. Such an approach would require not only closer cooperation between the Special Rapporteur and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNDP but ultimately support all the way up the chain to the Secretary General. As we noted in a recent review of OCHA’s annual needs and priorities, recent growth in North Korea’s economy has hardly offset continuing humanitarian needs, including with respect to food. But can there be any doubt that the human rights issues linger as well and are significant? And what could be more emblematic of that problem than the prison camps?

Witness to Transformation Posts on the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK

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