Concerted action by the international community was needed following a Human Rights Council report on appalling, systematic abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, high United Nations officials told the Security Council today, following a procedural vote of 11 in favour to 2 against (China, Russian Federation), with 2 abstentions (Chad, Nigeria) that put the situation on the body’s agenda.
“Rarely has such an extensive charge-sheet of international crimes been brought to this Council’s attention,” Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović said, during the first meeting under the new agenda item that was decoupled with that concerning non-proliferation. Today’s meeting also heard from Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Taye-Brook Zerihoun.
The meeting was requested in a letter sent to the Council President by 10 of its members (document S/2014/872) expressing concern about the “the scale and gravity of human rights violations” described in the report of the Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council (document S/2014/276) and its impact on international peace and security.
A resolution to submit the Commission report to the Security Council was adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December, following action by its Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). The resolution encouraged the Council to consider referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, as well as targeted sanctions against those who contributed to what the Commission had called “crimes against humanity”. (See Press Release GA/11604.)
At this afternoon’s meeting, Mr. Šimonović said that the report described murder, extermination, disappearances, enslavement and rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, with victims targeted on political, religious, racial and gender grounds. “The report documents a totalitarian system that is characterized by brutally enforced denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom, expression, information of association,” he stated.
Describing a loyalty rating system in the country, mass denial of food and other abuses contained in the report, he said that the Commission expressed its deepest horror at the country’s prison camp system, where, it estimated, hundreds of thousands had perished and some 100,000 were currently being held.
Noting that the Commission of Inquiry had highlighted the connections between the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and security in the region, he said the sustained military focus and nuclear priority of the Government had been pursued at the expense of the well-being of its people. “If we are to reduce tension in the region, there must be movement towards real respect for human rights in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. This is deserving of the Security Council’s fullest attention and action.”
At the same time, he noted new signs of engagement between that country and international human rights mechanisms and bilateral negotiations with Japan on alleged abductions of Japanese nationals, which were an opportunity for real change. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) would support such progress, he pledged, urging that the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea be invited to visit without preconditions.
The Commission of Inquiry report, he said, would be followed up by a field-based structure in Seoul to serve as a hub for documentation, technical assistance and advocacy to advance accountability and improve human rights in that country.
The report had been presented to the Council in the context of international criminal law, he said, adding that the 15-member body could advance two crucial goals: accountability and engagement for reform. He encouraged it to “carefully monitor developments in the coming months to see whether engagement leads to real change, or should take further action”.
Assistant Secretary-General Zerihoun said that, aside from the Commission’s report, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation had issued a report alleging that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was responsible for a recent cyber attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment. While the United Nations was not privy to information on which the Bureau’s conclusions were based, the rise in the incidence and severity of cyber attacks was of increasing concern.
He concluded: “It is not just the nuclear issue that deserves international attention and action,” and with that, he urged the Security Council to consider the wider implications of the reported grave human rights situation.
Agreeing that recent engagement offered an opportunity for redoubled efforts towards trust, dialogue and cooperation on all tracks, he said Member States should increase humanitarian assistance to the country. He also encouraged a resumption of credible dialogue and meaningful engagement. That would help overcome the standoff and go hand in hand with efforts to ensure accountability.
Before the procedural vote this afternoon, China’s representative, explaining why he and the Russian representative had objected to the agenda item, said that the Council was not the forum to take up human rights issues, which themselves should not be politicized. Issues on the Korean peninsula were sensitive and the additional focus would hamper the Council’s efforts in peace and security there.
Also speaking before the vote was Australia’s representative, who said that the magnitude of the violations depicted a situation that threatened to destabilize the region. That was why his country, along with 10 other Council members, had sent the letter to the Council president requesting that the situation be placed on the agenda, without prejudice to the item on non-proliferation.
Following the briefings, all Council members took the floor. Some mentioned the cyber-attack issue, but most that had requested the meeting described horrors included in the report and urged the Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court and consider targeted sanctions. They urged the body to stay seized of the issue and take action as appropriate. Speakers described the report as heart-breaking and yearned for change.
Those speakers urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to take the opportunity to improve the situation themselves, but, like the representative of the United Kingdom, held that, if it failed to hold violators to account, the international community must be ready to do so. Chad’s representative, in his national capacity, called for prudence before action was taken too hastily. The Russian Federation’s representative stated that the Council must stop taking on issues outside its purview, of which this meeting was an example.
Also speaking today were the representatives of the United States, France, Nigeria, Luxembourg, Jordan, China, Chile, Rwanda, Lithuania, Argentina and Republic of Korea.
The meeting began at 3:08 p.m., was suspended at 3:15 p.m., resumed at 3:22 p.m. and ended at 5:10 p.m.
GARY QUINLAN (Australia) described the meeting as an historic step forward for the international community’s efforts to consider the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its broader implications. It also sent a vital message to the people there that the world was aware of their suffering and stood in solidarity with them. The Council recognized that the dangerous threat to international peace and security posed by that regime was not limited to its weapons programmes and proliferation, but also flowed from its atrocious treatment of its people. Australia strongly disagreed with those who asserted that the Council had no business considering the issue. Human rights violations of the type and scale being seen in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had reverberations beyond that country and amounted to a rejection of global norms that underpinned stable societies and undermined peaceful inter-State relations.
With the Commission of Inquiry’s report, he said, the world now had a comprehensive, evidence-based assessment of the systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations being committed by that regime, which compelled a response. By submitting the report to the Council for consideration and action, General Assembly members recognized that the Council had a responsibility to ensure accountability for the crimes being committed. He urged countries having the most influence on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to press the case for fundamental change there.
SAMANTHA POWER (United States) said today’s meeting reflected a growing consensus that the widespread and systematic human rights violations committed by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea threated international peace and security. The Commission had conducted more than 200 interviews and held public hearings in which more than 80 witnesses had given testimony. It had found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations were being committed; the evidence had provided “reasonable grounds” that crimes against humanity had been committed, pursuant to State policies. A former guard testified that the baby of a political prisoner had been cooked and fed to animals — abuse that fit a pattern of testimonies of sadistic acts. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people were being held in prison camps where such crimes occurred.
She urged the Council to take up the issue because the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s response to the Commission’s report showed it was sensitive to criticism of its human rights record, threatening that efforts to hold it accountable would be met with “catastrophic” consequences. If the Government wanted to be taken off the Council’s agenda, it should acknowledge its systematic violations, dismantle political prison camps, allow free, unfettered access of independent human rights observers and hold perpetrators accountable. The Council must consider the recommendation that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) welcomed the Commission’s report, which documented cases in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of murder, arbitrary detentions, torture, rape, forced disappearances, impeded humanitarian access and use of famine. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners had died in the camps through the years, and today, the Council had convened to hear the cries of those living under a blood-thirsty regime. Its authorities should be held accountable for their crimes, as that was a moral obligation of the international community. The Council should consider the Commission’s recommendation to refer the situation to the Criminal Court. The regime’s violations threatened international peace and security, and destabilized the region. The severity, scale and nature of the violations had revealed a “unique” State in terms of terror. Nuclear blackmail could not dissuade the Council from considering the situation. Pyongyang must take responsibility, release political prisoners and open itself to international media, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.
USMAN SARKI (Nigeria), noting that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had participated in the first and second cycles of the Universal Periodic Review, encouraged that Government to strengthen its engagement with the Human Rights Council and treaty bodies, with a view to promoting and protecting its citizens’ rights.
SYLVIE LUCAS (Luxembourg) said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had methodically flouted international law, and since 2006, conducted ballistic tests, regularly threatening nuclear strikes. Just as serious, the country had repeatedly violated the most basic rights of its people, as documented in the “damning” Commission of Inquiry report on 7 January. The text outlined crimes against humanity, which fell within the purview of the Rome Statute. Respect for human rights was a hallmark of a stable society willing to live peacefully among its neighbours. The Council should consider the Commission’s recommendation to refer the matter to the Court. The Council also should consider taking targeted sanctions against those responsible for crimes against humanity. She invited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to authorize a visit of the Special Rapporteur and encouraged the Council to be regularly briefed on the situation there.
DINA KAWAR (Jordan) agreed that the report depicted a menace to international peace and security when combined with the country’s continued nuclear and ballistic missile activity. The Council should make every effort to put an end to the abuses, as well as to the threat of use of nuclear weapons. She called on the country to take prompt action to meet the concerns of the international community by inviting the Special Rapporteur and facilitating humanitarian aid.
MARK LYALL GRANT (United Kingdom) said the appalling contents of the report showed a paranoid, callous and dangerous regime, and a totalitarian State without parallel in the modern world. The Council could not ignore such grave findings. He welcomed signs that the international community was increasingly paying attention to the country. “If the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] fails to hold violators to account, the international community must be ready to do so,” he stated. He supported appropriate Council action to ensure accountability, including consideration of a referral to the International Criminal Court. Countries untethered from the rule of law presented a threat to peace and security, he added. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must address the situation and take the first positive moves to improve it. The Council must remain seized of the matter.
LIU JIEYI (China) reiterated the position that China was against politicization of human rights issues, and that the Security Council was not the appropriate forum for their discussion. As a neighbour of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China was had great interest in reducing tensions in the Korean peninsula and was working for the denuclearization of the region, by, among other efforts, encouraging the return to six-party talks.
CRISTIÁN BARROS MELET (Chile) said that his country had signed onto the request for the meeting and believed it was timely and necessary. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had dismissed the allegations of violations in the report, threatening at the same time to perform a new nuclear test. A broader focus on the situation must be maintained with greater pressure brought to bear, not only on the nuclear issue, but on bringing an end to the impunity of those accountable. He urged the country to allow a visit of the Special Rapporteur and called on the Council to remain seized of the matter.
OLIVIER NDUHUNGIREHE (Rwanda) said that, as a country that, in 1994, had suffered the worst human rights violations, it valued today’s meeting to examine such gross violations. The three pillars of the responsibility to protect outlined the State’s primary duty to protect its people from the most serious abuses, with the international community obliged to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to do so. If a State failed in its duty, the international community must be prepared to take action, in line with the Charter. The Council should engage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the basis of those pillars. Rwanda was encouraged that that country had indicated a willingness to allow the Special Rapporteur’s access to its territory and hoped that would be pursued. It was important for the Council to receive information from the Secretariat on the situation and its implications for international peace and security. Rwanda supported the Commission’s recommendation to foster inter-Korean dialogue and urged all actors to engage in good faith to create favourable conditions for resuming political talks. He hoped the Council would remain seized of the matter.
RAIMONDA MURMOKAITĖ (Lithuania) said that those responsible to protect the rights of North Koreans had ruthlessly enforced almost complete denial of their freedoms, with extermination, enslavement, torture, forced abortion and prolonged starvation. Even as mass starvation was claiming thousands of lives, the State had given precedence to military spending. There were indications that the Government was ready to engage in a human rights dialogue, but such signals needed to be followed by concrete action. Lithuania welcomed the recent resolution of the General Assembly on the human rights situation in that country and encouraged the Council to follow suit and take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through possible referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, and consideration of the scope for effective targeted sanctions. The crimes against humanity in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would continue as long as the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity there remained in place.
MARÍA CRISTINA PERCEVAL (Argentina) said her Government had voted in favour of the resolutions of the Human Rights Council and Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), both of which condemned the gross, widespread and systematic human rights violations committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The inclusion of the issue on today’s agenda was outside the mandate of the Council, which would not contribute to the correct functioning of the United Nations system to extend its range of action beyond maintenance of international peace and security. Today’s exception should not set a precedent. She voiced concern over the Commission’s conclusion of widespread human rights violations, as well as the existence of crimes against humanity. She also underscored the importance of diplomacy and political negotiations, with the goal of declaring the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, adding that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must protect and ensure the human rights of its people.
EVGENIY ZAGAYNOV (Russian Federation) said his Government was against the convening of today’s meeting, as it could lead to negative consequences for the effectiveness of the Council and other United Nations bodies. Human rights issues should be considered in the Human Rights Council, which was created for that purpose. Today’s discussion was unlikely to promote dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the issue, for which the authorities had earlier stated they would be ready.
OH JOON (Republic of Korea) said that, despite international efforts to address human rights issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the situation had continued to worsen, ultimately warranting the Council’s attention. This year’s Assembly resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was unique in that it contained a recommendation on the Council’s role in considering such matters. The decision to place the situation on the Council’s agenda was a starting point for further discussion and engagement. Human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were so systematic and widespread that they posed a threat to regional and international peace and security.
He urged the Council’s attention to the grave situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, citing the Commission’s finding that many of the violations amounted to crimes against humanity. The Council must play a crucial role in ensuring accountability, including through referring the situation to the Court. His Government took serious note of the United States’ statement that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was behind a cyber attack on Sony Pictures. Addressing the human rights issue was essential for maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula and in the region. He hoped Pyongyang would engage with the international community through human rights dialogue, including with the Special Rapporteur, and through technical cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
MAHAMAT ZENE CHERIF (Chad), speaking in his national capacity, noted the massive violations alleged in the report and said the situation was indeed of deep concern if the veracity of the information was established. At the same time, noting that the country had denied the report and that there had been little access by international observers, he urged prudence, pointing to errors that had been committed in the past due to taking hasty action on the basis of a report. He called on the country’s representatives to clarify the situation and to allow access for that purpose, as well as to engage in dialogue.