The UN Field Office in Seoul



Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein opened a new UN Field Office in Seoul to work on human rights issues in North Korea. The office will be staffed by Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights personnel as well as Korean nationals.

The opening of the office follows a mandate contained in the Commission of Inquiry report that is reproduced in full below. The objective is to continue the Commission’s work of documentation and building a “secure archive” that would facilitate accountability for crimes against humanity; if anything, the mandate speaks less to the issue of dialogue than we would like. However social media and outreach has clearly been taken on board, as the office already has a Twitter: Twitter, Facebook, and Naver presence.

Al Hussein also gave a speech at Yonsei University where he was clearly briefed by his staff on an issue that could complicate the office’s work: the comfort women. He handled the issue deftly as follows, but it will be interesting to see if it resurfaces:

“This morning I met with three extraordinarily brave victims of sexual slavery, euphemistically called comfort women.  Like all the victims of war, in the past or the present, and irrespective of location, what they need most from us is not more formal statements or proclamations.  Neither do they need others to claim their victimhood, and abuse it for political motives. What they need are gestures of acknowledgment and heartfelt atonement.  We need to sit quietly with them, listen to them, ask about them, laugh a little with them, hold their hands and lament their suffering.”

His speech at the opening of the office itself can be found here.

North Korean action was predictable, emphasizing a long-standing theme of principle: that any discussion of human rights in the country is not only an affront but violates past North-South agreements extending back to 1972 by challenging the North’s social and political system. But the opening of the office had material effect as well. North Korea was to send a fairly substantial delegation of athletes to participate in the Gwangju Universiade; that trip has now been canceled (Hankyoreh coverage here). This blog has long supported people-to-people exchanges of this sort but the North Korean action shows clearly the thinking of the regime about them: that allowing such visits is a benevolent gesture to the South. That's backwards, isn't it?

The CoI Recommendation

  1. With regard to the international community and the United Nations, the commission makes the following recommendations:

(c)       The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with full support from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, should establish a structure to help to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in particular where such violations amount to crimes against humanity. The structure should build on the collection of evidence and documentation work of the commission, and further expand its database. It should be field-based, supported by adequate personnel deployed to the region so as to enjoy sustained access to victims and witnesses. In addition to informing the work of human rights reporting mechanisms and serving as a secure archive for information provided by relevant stakeholders, the work of such a structure should facilitate United Nations efforts to prosecute, or otherwise render accountable, those most responsible for crimes against humanity;

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).

Implementing the Commission of Inquiry Report (February 23 2015).

Stephan Haggard on the CoI Process (March 2015 for the East Asia Institute)

All Witness to Transformation human rights posts

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