On March 16th, the UN Human Rights Council held back to back discussions on the human rights situations in North Korea and Eritrea. First, Marzuki Darusman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, introduced a new Human Rights Council report (Word document download here) for discussion. The report enumerates the smattering of encouraging signals from the North Korean government for broader engagement and cooperation in the months following the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, but asserts that “the openings have not been sustained, nor borne fruits.” It goes on to push for a multi-track approach designed to keep up pressure on North Korea through a comprehensive mapping of international abductions and enforced disappearances, a dedicated international conference, and other ways to seek closure and accountability, including by referral to the International Criminal Court. The activism of Darusman, who was a member of the COI, is an important signal pressure on North Korea is unlikely to abate in the wake of that commission’s report.
The response from participating national delegates, including North Korea, was highly predictable. Western Europe rallied around the findings of the COI; Venezuela, Russia, and Cuba responded that the UN had exceeded mandates. North Korea’s representative followed the usual script, flatly rejected the report, citing unreliable and fabricated evidence from criminal refugees that had been bribed by foreign enemies.
The discussion on North Korea was followed by an interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, where a UN Commission of Inquiry has been ongoing since June 2014. Inquiry Chairperson Michael Smith argued that there was a clear pattern of human rights violations taking place in Eritrea. Interestingly – but perhaps not surprisingly – the Eritrean response to Mr. Smith’s comments ran through very similar themes as the North Korea response: rejecting the existence of systematic human rights violations, arguing that the COI mandate was politically motivated, and highlighting “hostile” foreign powers and “unjust” sanctions.
This is not the first time the two countries have been linked. The UN Sanctions Experts Panel has documented cooperation between the two countries in the area of conventional arms, and the two countries are regularly identified as among the world’s most repressive on religious rights. Next to North Korea, Eritrea scrapes the bottom of the barrel in terms of the world’s most oppressive states; according to Reporters Without Borders, Eritrea is actually a worse place for press freedom than the DPRK, though to borrow terminology from econometrics, the difference might not be statistically significant. So far, Eritrea is also following North Korea's lead in being highly resistant to the Commission of Inquiry process; time will tell as to whether the ensuing findings will precipitate engagement with the international community or a further digging in of heels.