August 01, 2016

Meet Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s New Special Rapporteur on North Korea

By Christine Chung

Based on the recommendations of the Consultative Group, the President of the Human Rights Council, Choi Kyonglim, proposed Tomás Ojea Quintana for the position of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Human Rights Council approved the appointment on 1 July 2016 during its most recent session in Geneva. On August 1, 2016, his first day as UN Special Rapporteur, we wish to congratulate Tomás Ojea Quintana as he officially takes up his mandate today. 

Mr. Ojea Quintana spoke to HRNK Senior Advisor Christine Chung in his first interview as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

Q1:  Many people interested in North Korean human rights have been asking me about you. Could you tell readers a little bit about your background?

Ojea Quintana:  First, thank you for this opportunity to talk to those people who are interested in the situation of those living in North Korea, the DPRK. I have been a human rights lawyer for over 20 years. I have worked in different trials in respect to human rights abuses committed during the military times here in Argentina. I also worked for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia, and I have covered issues regarding reproductive and sexual rights. From 2008 to 2014, I was the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which took a lot of my time but was very rewarding. 

Currently, I am a professor—I teach human rights. I also continue working as a human rights attorney in Argentina in different cases. At the moment, I am working on a trial regarding the involvement of an automobile company as an accomplice to the military regime in crimes against humanity. And last month, I was honored by the Human Rights Council that appointed me as Special Rapporteur for the DPRK. I am very committed to giving my utmost effort for the improvement of the human rights situation in the DPRK.

Q2:  What motivated you to take on this challenging new mandate?

OQ:  As I mentioned, I have been the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar in the recent past for six years. It was a very important and relevant experience working with this United Nations human rights mechanism. I believe that the appointment of country rapporteurs to let UN members know about the situation of the people inside the country is very effective. My experience in Myanmar shows that you can get progress in different areas around the country in respect to the human rights of the people living there.

The former Special Rapporteur on the DPRK and other UN human rights mechanisms made considerable effort into seeking ways to improve the human rights of the people living in the DPRK. This is for me an extraordinary challenge because there is excellent work that has been done by the former Rapporteur and others. The situation inside the country, according to their reports, is critical in many aspects. For me, working for many years to improve human rights around the world, this is a new challenge. I am happy to get involved in this, trying to contribute to the efforts of so many civil society organizations that have been working throughout the years trying to put onto the UN agenda the problems of the common people in the DPRK who are suffering. I am motivated by this. I hope to contribute to improving the lives of people in the DPRK.

Q3:  Do you see parallels between the situations in the DPRK and Myanmar?

OQ:  Myanmar has been ruled by a military regime for 40 years. During my mandate, starting in 2008 and ending in 2014, throughout those years I could establish that there was at that time a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses that entailed crimes against humanity in Myanmar. Therefore, we can draw a parallel between Myanmar and the DPRK since the latest reports, especially those coming from the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (COI), also showed patterns of human rights abuses in DPRK which were considered by the COI as crimes against humanity.

Let me speak about another parallel: the fact that Myanmar was for many years also an isolated country, isolated from the international community where human rights rapporteurs were unable to visit the country. For a combination of factors, this changed. I had a chance then to visit Myanmar many times; I visited at least nine times. I traveled all over the country. I visited political prisoners, and at the same time, I had the opportunity to meet with the authorities, which is always very relevant when addressing a human rights situation. 

In fact, the ideal of cooperation is central for Special Rapporteurs. Now this seems to be a very critical difference between Myanmar and DPRK, since the authorities of North Korea throughout the years haven’t shown a willingness to cooperate with UN rapporteurs. This, of course, will be a challenge. You may know that when the Human Rights Council of the United Nations appoints Special Rapporteurs, they ask them not only to report to it, but to do this through the principle of cooperation, which is a very important principle in the UN Charter. This has been a critical difficulty in respect to the DPRK. This is a clear difference between Myanmar and DPRK, since Myanmar nowadays has opened to the international community and has even changed from a military regime to a civilian government.

Q4:  How are you planning to approach the particular challenges of the DPRK mandate?

OQ:  The very first element that a Special Rapporteur has to show to the concerned parties, in this case the authorities of the DPRK, is independence and impartiality. Of course, my predecessors and members of the COI have been holding this important attitude. But I’m a new Rapporteur, so the first step is to show independence and impartiality in respect to the situation.

And then there is a question of strategy to try to engage those stakeholders who can somehow influence the DPRK authorities to reconsider their policy towards UN human rights mechanisms including the Rapporteurs, to influence them to start cooperating as it might be to their benefit because cooperation means a willingness to offer assistance, to offer help, in addressing human rights problems. This is something that is difficult. Don’t forget that rapporteurs have mandates from the Human Rights Council for six years, so it is a necessity to think in not only the short term but also the long term for strategy. Bearing in mind the importance of cooperation, it’s my main task to provide a voice to those who suffer human rights abuses on the ground. That’s basically our main mandate as Special Rapporteurs: to report independently and impartially about the suffering, the human rights abuses, by those living in the country. A strategy of cooperation can never compromise that important mandate.

Q5:  As you know, there are almost 30,000 North Koreans now residing in South Korea, while a significant number of North Korean citizens labor overseas in conditions that have been characterized as forced labor. How would they fit into your strategy?

OQ:  The mandate from the Human Rights Council is to address the human rights situation inside North Korea, inside DPRK, so this might show a limitation in terms of territoriality. The problem of addressing a human rights situation is that usually this encompasses different factors that come from different places around the world. In this case, it is clear that the situation of those workers from North Korea who leave the country to work overseas, according to some reports under the worst of conditions, including in countries in Europe and Asia then return to the DPRK, will be of interest. The agenda in this respect includes dialogue and engagement with countries that somehow have connections with the people from the DPRK. As to how, this is something that I need to work on. As a preliminary view, I would say it is in my interest as the Special Rapporteur on the DPRK to listen to those other governments and stakeholders who have this kind of connection with people from the DPRK.

Q6:  What’s your game plan for the first year?

OQ:  At the moment, I am looking into all the information regarding the past but, more importantly, the current human rights situation of the people living in the DPRK. While looking into that kind of information, I am also following crucial developments in respect to the nuclear and ballistic weapons tests in the DPRK and the repercussions from those actions on South Korea, but also in the region. I have not yet defined a clear strategy for the long term. My next commitment is to present a report in New York to the members of the United Nations at the General Assembly. I’m starting to work on that, bearing in mind and considering the extraordinary work of my recent predecessor, Marzuki Darusman, and the Commission of Inquiry, which had defined a clear agenda that I will, of course, consider in my next report. 

I think there’s opportunity with a new stakeholder coming from another region of the world, from South America—I’m based in Buenos Aires, I live in Argentina. There’s the possibility for a new stakeholder from this region, with no connection in the past to North or South Korea, to bring new opportunities for new strategies for the important goal of improvements for those living in the DPRK, to look into the situation of the prisons, to see if there are chances to improve the situation of the people in terms of access to economic, social and cultural rights, particularly in terms of access to health and access to food, and other important human rights issues. In terms of achievements, what Special Rapporteurs would always like to see are improvements in these different areas. I believe these types of improvements in the end will help bring peace to the region and particularly on the Korean peninsula.