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Dispatches: The Crimes of North Korea

Two years ago, a United Nations-mandated commission of inquiry exposed North Korea’s devastating human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The world learned that North Korean officials have killed, tortured, kidnapped, raped, and deliberately starved the North Korean people with impunity, all under policies set at the highest level.

Security Council members cast their votes in favor of the adoption of the agenda on human rights abuses by North Korea in New York on December 10, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The commission urged the UN Security Council to consider referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold those responsible for these abuses to account. The UN responded. The Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and General Assembly each forcefully condemned those abuses in resolutions, and in December, for the second year in a row, the Security Council held a formal session to discuss North Korea’s deplorable human rights situation as a threat to international peace and security.

Earlier today, however, the UNHRC heard Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, express regret that despite all this international attention, accountability remains elusive, and the North Korean human rights situation doesn’t appear to have improved. 

Marzuki called on UNHRC members to take further action, specifically by sharpening their focus on accountability for rights violations in North Korea. He repeated his call made at the General Assembly last September, asking the council to include in its resolution later this month a mandate to create a panel of independent experts to devise a comprehensive strategy to address decades of unchecked rights abuses in North Korea.

To be clear, a Security Council referral to the ICC should remain a priority, but achieving that is a long game. And even with an ICC referral, a more comprehensive accountability strategy will be needed to address the decades of impunity, which is why creating a panel of experts on accountability is so important.

There is no justice in a totalitarian state, which only adds weight to the international community’s responsibility to bring accountability for the worst abuses. And North Korean officials now or in the future may refrain from the worst abuses if the threat of criminal liability is real. The UNHRC needs to stand with the long-suffering people of North Korea and support the special rapporteur’s proposal. That is the best way send a clear message to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un and his government that their rights violations must end.


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