Moving Forward: An Analysis of the November 19, 2015 Vote on North Korean Human Rights at the UN General Assembly

by Raymond Ha, HRNK Office Manager & Outreach Coordinator



On November 19, 2015, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly approved draft resolution A/C.3/70/L.35 on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with 112 votes for, 19 against, and 50 abstentions [1]. With this vote, the international community strongly signaled once again its deep concern towards the human rights situation in North Korea.


Although the General Assembly has passed resolutions on North Korea’s human rights record since 2005, last year marked a turning point. Taking into account the recommendations of the February 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), the 2014 resolution recognized for the first time that “crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State for decades” (par. 7). It also called upon the Security Council to formally discuss the COI report and consider measures to ensure accountability, including referrals to the International Criminal Court and targeted sanctions against “those who appear to be most responsible” (par. 8) [2].

Despite an unprecedented “charm offensive” by North Korea’s diplomats in New York, the Third Committee of the General Assembly approved this resolution on November 18, 2014 with 111 votes for, 19 against, and 55 abstentions. The plenary session passed the resolution a month later by a similar margin of 116 for, 20 against, and 53 abstentions. Building on this momentum, the Security Council held a historic session on December 22, 2014, where it voted to place the North Korean human rights issue on its agenda with 11 in favor, 2 against, and 2 abstentions.

While recognizing relevant developments in the past year, such as the opening of the UN OHCHR field office in Seoul, this year’s resolution preserves the key provisions of last year’s resolution. It continues the call for accountability for crimes against humanity (par. 10) and encourages the Security Council to discuss North Korea’s human rights record (par. 11) [3]. In this regard, yesterday’s vote can be seen as a sign that the international community continues to stand by the conclusions and recommendations of the COI. The resolution is widely expected to also pass the plenary session of the General Assembly, and Ambassador Robert King, the United States’ Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, has stated that the U.S. will hold a discussion on the issue when it holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council next month [4].

The results of yesterday’s vote are largely similar to last year’s result in the Third Committee. The number of countries in favor increased by one, the number opposing the resolution held constant, and the number of abstentions decreased by five. Although the number of countries participating in the vote fell by four, the overall result remains similar.

However, a closer analysis of each country’s vote reveals notable changes between 2014 and 2015. This article summarizes these differences and briefly examines the implications of yesterday’s vote for the discussion of the North Korean human rights issue at the Security Council. In two instances, it also suggests possible reasons for changes in voting behavior.

The observations and conclusions made here are necessarily tentative, and a more robust examination will be possible after the vote of the plenary session next month. Since it only addresses changes in voting behavior and not the voting behavior of all UN member states, this analysis is necessarily incomplete.

For the purposes of this analysis, it will be assumed that each recorded vote is a correct and accurate reflection of each country’s voting preferences and intentions. This assumption is stated in light of an unusual occurrence last year. The Third Committee’s report to the General Assembly in 2014 noted that Grenada had intended to vote in favor of the resolution on North Korean human rights, although its vote was recorded as an abstention [5]. Since Grenada voted in favor of the resolution in the December 2014 plenary session and in yesterday’s vote, it is excluded from this analysis.



Overall Analysis of Changes in Voting Behavior

The table below provides the full list of countries that changed their voting behavior with regards to the General Assembly resolution on North Korea’s human rights record. Azerbaijan, Equatorial Guinea, and Mongolia are excluded, as they did not participate in any of the three votes.



Third Committee
Nov. 18, 2014
111-19-55
(A/C.3/69/L.28/Rev.1*)
Plenary Session
Dec. 18, 2014
116-20-53
(A/RES/69/188)
Third Committee
Nov. 19, 2015
112-19-50
(A/C.3/70/L.35)
Algeria
Abstain
Abstain
Against
Antigua and Barbuda
Abstain
Abstain
(Did not vote)
Benin
For
For
(Did not vote)
Burkina Faso
For
For
Abstain
Burundi
For
For
Against
Central African Republic
For
For
(Did not vote)
Chad
For
For
(Did not vote)
Comoros
Abstain
Abstain
For
Congo (Republic of)
Abstain
Abstain
(Did not vote)
Dominica
(Did not vote)
For
(Did not vote)
Ecuador
Against
Against
Abstain
El Salvador
Abstain
For
For
Gabon
Abstain
Abstain
For
Gambia
Abstain
Against
Abstain
Ghana
For
For
Abstain
Guinea-Bissau
(Did not vote)
For
For
Kiribati
For
For
(Did not vote)
Sao Tome & Principe
(Did not vote)
For
(Did not vote)
Saudi Arabia
Abstain
Abstain
For
Somalia
For
For
(Did not vote)
South Sudan
Abstain
For
For
Sri Lanka
Against
Against
For
Swaziland
(Did not vote)
(Did not vote)
Abstain
Tajikistan
For
Abstain
For
Togo
Abstain
Abstain
For
Tonga
Abstain
Abstain

Table 1: Summary of Changes in Voting Behavior


The first observation that can be made is that of the nine countries that did not participate in yesterday’s vote, seven voted in favor of last year’s resolution: Benin, the Central African Republic, Chad, Dominica, Kiribati, Sao Tome and Principe, and Somalia. Of these seven countries, five voted in favor on both occasions in 2014. It is therefore highly likely that the number of countries voting in favor will be higher in the upcoming plenary session than in yesterday’s Third Committee vote. This pattern was also observed last year, where the number of countries voting in favor increased from 111 to 116.

Secondly, eight countries moved towards supporting the resolution. Sri Lanka reversed its position, while Ecuador elected to abstain after consistently voting against the resolution in 2014. Comoros, Gabon, Saudi Arabia, and Togo had previously abstained, but voted in favor this year. Gambia and Tajikistan changed their positions relative to last year’s plenary session, but not in relation to last year’s Third Committee vote. Of these changes, Saudi Arabia’s decision is particularly notable; in July 2015, South Korean intelligence sources claimed that twenty Scud missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by Yemeni rebels had been purchased from North Korea [6]. If true, this development may have influenced Riyadh’s vote.

Lastly, four countries moved towards opposing the resolution. Burkina Faso and Ghana, which had voted for the resolution last year, decided to abstain in yesterday’s vote. Algeria, which had previously abstained, voted against this year’s resolution. Burundi was the only member state that reversed its stance. This may have been part of an attempt to deflect rising international criticism of and concern towards the recent escalation of violence in Burundi [7]. That Burundi also voted against country-specific human rights resolutions on Iran (A/C.3/70/L.45) and Syria (A/C.3/70/L.47) later in the same day is consistent with this hypothesis [8].



Implications for the Security Council

As noted above, a procedural vote in December 2014 placed North Korean human rights on the agenda of the Security Council. The table below shows how Security Council members in 2015 and 2016 voted on yesterday’s draft resolution in the Third Committee. Except Chad, all of the countries listed below did not change their position on the General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights between 2014 and 2015 [9].


Membership in 2015
Membership in 2016
China
Against
China
Against
France
For
France
For
Russian Federation
Against
Russian Federation
Against
United Kingdom
For
United Kingdom
For
United States
For
United States
For
Angola
Abstain
Angola
Abstain
Malaysia
Abstain
Malaysia
Abstain
New Zealand
For
New Zealand
For
Spain
For
Spain
For
Venezuela
Against
Venezuela
Against
Chad
(Did not vote)
Egypt
Against
Chile
For
Japan
For
Jordan
For
Senegal
Abstain
Lithuania
For
Ukraine
For
Nigeria
Abstain
Uruguay
For

Table 2: Security Council Membership – Vote on Draft Resolution A/C.3/70/L.35


For both the remainder of this year and into 2016, a majority of members on the Security Council will be supportive of efforts to improve the human rights situation in North Korea and of measures to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity. Although Security Council resolutions can potentially be vetoed by any of the five permanent members, the political climate will nevertheless remain slightly favorable towards a discussion of the North Korean human rights issue.




Notes & References

[1] The voting record at the Third Committee on November 19, 2015 can be found at https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7655352/vote-on-l35.pdf.

The voting record at the Third Committee on November 18, 2014 can be found at http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/69/docs/voting_sheets/L.28.Rev.1.pdf.

The voting record at the plenary session of the General Assembly on December 18, 2014 is not yet publicly available.

[2] “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” UN Doc. A/C.3/69/L.28/Rev.1*, November 14, 2014.

[3]“Situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” UN Doc. A/C.3/70/L.35, October 30, 2014.

[4] Park Byung-Yong, “미 킹 특사 북한인권다음달 안보리서 다룰 것,” Voice of America, November 17, 2015. http://www.voakorea.com/content/article/3061381.html.

[5] See page 4, footnote 1 of “Promotion and protection of human rights: human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representatives: Report of the Third Committee,” UN Doc. A/69/488/Add.3, December 3, 2014.

[6] “Scud missiles fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen traced to N. Korea: official,” Yonhap News, July 29, 2015. http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2015/07/29/67/0301000000AEN20150729005951315F.html.

[7] See, for example, “Burundi ‘shocked’ at Belgium advice,” BBC News, November 19, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-34874734.

[8] The voting records for these draft resolutions can be accessed, respectively, at https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7655362/vote-on-l45.pdf and https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7655367/vote-on-l47.pdf.

[9] Chad voted in favor of the 2014 General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights, both at the Third Committee and during the plenary session. It abstained from the procedural vote at the Security Council in December 2014 to place North Korean human rights on the Security Council's agenda.

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