The UN Vote on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea



A year ago this week, the Commission of Inquiry process reached its denouement with the passage of an historic UN resolution on North Koran human rights. Beating back a Cuban alternative, the resolution effectively accepted the findings of the Commission of Inquiry report and referred it to the UN Security Council. The report—and thus the resolution--specifically acknowledged the finding of the CoI that crimes against humanity may have been committed in North Korea and encouraged the UNSC to address the issue and consider referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court (para 8; the original resolution is here). Accountability had been central to the entire CoI effort, and the aspect of the process that Pyongyang most feared. I walk through the CoI process in a YouTube video from the East Asia Institute here.

Last week, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly passed another draft resolution (A/C.3/70/L.35) on the human rights situation in the DPRK; the text of the resolution can be accessed here. The resolution takes note of a number of nominally positive steps: signature of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child; acceptance of recommendations in the second annual periodic review process (albeit in 2014, when the country was trying to project a more positive image). However, the thrust of the resolution is consistently damning, reiterating all of the human rights violations raised by the CoI report.

The resolution appears to acknowledge that little has happened over the course of the last year beyond the establishment of the field office in Seoul. The resolution recalled concessions that North Korea entertained in 2014 as the CoI process was gaining steam. But all came to naught once the resolution was actually passed with accountability provisions: North Korea backtracked on human rights dialogues with “States and groups of States”—a recommendation on which Europe and developing democracies could play a positive role--technical cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner and a country visit of the Special Rapporteur, who has never been allowed in the country.

Yet it would be wrong to be overly cynical. First, mere passage of the resolution means that the coalition in support of the CoI—and accountability--remains robust. The vote was 112 for, 19 against, with 50 abstentions. This marks a one-vote uptick in outright yes votes and a decline in five of the countries abstaining; the 19 “no” votes remain the same. In fact, as Raymond Ha makes clear in a very nice analysis for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the stability in overall numbers hides a fair amount of churning. Among the pleasant surprises: Sri Lanka shifted from an outright no to a yes following the recent change in government, Saudi Arabia voted yes and Ecuador moved from voting against the resolution to abstaining. But more than ten countries didn’t vote at this stage, so support for the resolution is likely to go up. Ha’s analysis of the composition of the Security Council suggests that with the US in the presidency in December, there is likely to be a discussion there as well.

Moreover, there may be small signs of life on several other fronts. First, although reports of a visit by Ban Ki Moon appear to come and go, there are talks underway for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein to visit Pyongyang. The purpose would be to open the door to “technical cooperation” on human rights. In addition, the report by the Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman—sadly stepping down in 2016—contains a discussion at paras. 74-76 of ongoing discussions about establishing a contact group; this blog has always been supportive of creating a human rights channel with such a contact group, either European or rooted in a group of developing democracies with which Pyongyang has diplomatic relations.

There may also be promise in the outlines of an approach underlined by Roberta Cohen in a post at 38North back in April. In the wake of failures during the Sri Lankan civil war, the Secretary-General introduced a “Human Rights Up Front Approach (RUF)” that would call on UN agencies to try to take human rights into account in their programmatic work. Among the examples cited by Cohen would be more aggressive efforts on the part of agencies to urge prioritization of health care, insuring access for the WFP to all parts of the country and to the most vulnerable, and promoting human rights in the UN Strategic Framework. The report of the UN Secretary General on the issue does not explicitly mention the RUF approach, but the report has a section on “UN Entities” (paras. 61-65) and their potential role with human rights that is germane.

Votes on UN North Korea Human Rights Resolutions

60/173 of 16 December 2005. Yes: 88, No: 21, Abstentions: 60, Non-Voting: 22, Total voting membership: 191

61/174 of 19 December 2006. Yes: 99, No: 21, Abstentions: 56, Non-Voting: 16, Total voting membership: 192

62/167 of 18 December 2007. Yes: 101, No: 22, Abstentions: 59, Non-Voting: 10, Total voting membership: 192

63/190 of 18 December 2008. Yes: 94, No: 22, Abstentions: 63, Non-Voting: 13, Total voting membership: 192

64/175 of 18 December 2009. Yes: 99, No: 20, Abstentions: 63, Non-Voting: 10, Total voting membership: 192

65/225 of 21 December 2010. Yes: 106, No: 20, Abstentions: 57, Non-Voting: 9, Total voting membership: 192

66/174 of 19 December 2011. Yes: 123, No: 16, Abstentions: 51, Non-Voting: 3, Total voting membership: 193

67/181 of December 20 2012. Adopted without a vote, 8 disassociate (China, Cuba, DPRK, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela).

68/183 of December 18 2013. Adopted without a vote, 7 disassociate (Belarus, China, DPRK, Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela).

Vote on Cuban Amendment to A/C.3/69/L.28/Rev.1. November 16, 2014. Yes: 40; No: 77; Abstentions: 50.

Vote on A/C.3/69/L.28/Rev.1. November 16, 2014. Yes: 111; No: 19; Abstentions: 55.

Vote on A/C.3/70/L.35. November 19, 2015. Yes: 112; No: 19; Abstentions: 50.

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 (February 23, 2015)

Stephan Haggard video on the CoI Process (March 2, 2015, from the East Asia Institute [Seoul])

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