March 01, 2013

The North Korean Human Rights Conundrum: Why a UN Commission of Inquiry?

By Andrea Torjussen, HRNK Research Intern

In his February 1st report to the Human Rights Council, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman stated that the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) was the first organization to recommend the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on North Korean human rights in its 2006 Report, “Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea”.  The Human Rights Council is soon going to cast a vote on the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on human rights violations in North Korea. The Council will be in session from the end of February to the end of March, and a simple majority vote by at least 24 out of 47 member states is needed to establish an investigative mechanism.1  The questions that may need to be addressed include: Why would a Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights be important? Would a Commission of Inquiry be more effective than other available mechanisms, such as Special Procedures? What difference is a Commission of Inquiry going to make in terms of improving the human rights situation in North Korea?

A UN Commission of Inquiry is an in-depth investigation into violations of human rights, and independent eminent persons appointed by the UN should carry out such investigations.  The primary responsibility of a UN Commission of Inquiry is to establish the facts and investigate allegations of human rights abuses. On the one hand, if abuses are confirmed, the Commission can help make recommendations on how to respond to the violations. A UN Commission of Inquiry can highlight severe human rights violations perpetrated by a state, and help push for accountability. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that the primary responsibility to investigate allegations of human rights abuses and bring those responsible to justice lies with the national authorities, and it is when a state fails to do so that an International Commission of Inquiry should be established.2

Why is a Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights necessary? A memo drafted by Human Rights Watch entitled “Q & A on a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea” presents the reasons why such a mandate should be established. First of all, the human rights situation in North Korea is one of the worst in the world. The abuses are so widespread and systematic that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stands in a category of its own. UN Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has also expressed his concerns about the new leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong-un has practically stated that his first, second and third priorities will be to strengthen the military and implicitly downgrade economic, social and cultural rights. Given such stated priorities, it is reasonable to assume, however unfortunate that may be, that the suffering of the North Korean people will continue, and likely even get worse.3

Another important reason for the establishment of a CoI is that for almost a decade the North Korean government has refused to comply with repeated appeals from the United Nations and other organizations to improve the human rights situation in the country. The government of North Korea has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the UN, rejected resolutions of the Human Rights Council, denied all abuse reported during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and ceased its UPR reporting in 2004.4  The UN needs to react; such egregious human rights violations are unacceptable.

On the other hand, the UN has had a Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights since 2004. Before 2004, North Korea did report under the Universal Periodic Review on a couple of occasions; North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why should a Commission of Inquiry be necessary? The Special Rapporteur provides the UN with regular reports on the human rights situation in the country and can provide recommendations.5  However, the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry would create an opportunity to conduct a more detailed investigation and to elevate the profile of human rights compared to other critical issues pertaining to North Korea. The Special Rapporteur operates based on limited resources, and he requested in his latest report a “more detailed mechanism of inquiry”. A Commission of Inquiry may elicit more resources, attention and commitment to a detailed investigation on human rights in North Korea.

The last question that needs to be addressed is: How would a Commission of Inquiry on North Korea function? North Korea has a track record of refusing to comply or cooperate with UN human rights agencies and other organizations. The country has not recognized the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, and it is not likely that it will cooperate with a Commission of Inquiry. It is important to remember that both access and cooperation are important for an investigation of this sort, and the results of such an investigation should ideally trigger some follow-up at the national level.  While such expectations would certainly be unrealistic under the current North Korean leadership and circumstances, the Commission will still be able to carry out the investigation. Significant evidence can be collected by interviewing the more than 30,000 North Korean escapees currently living in South Korea and other countries—some of them former political prison camp detainees, former guards, or even former employees of internal security agencies tasked to run North Korea’s vast gulag system— and by cross-checking the information they provide using satellite photos of such unlawful detention facilities.

A Commission of Inquiry on North Korea would give a voice to these victims, would symbolize a greater international effort to help the people of North Korea, and would create a platform where information from NGO’s worldwide could be gathered, further analyzed and disseminated.

1. Human Rights Watch. 
2. Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. 
3. Human Rights Watch.
4. Human Rights Watch. 
5. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.