Security Council Narrowly Adopts Procedural Vote to Authorize Discussion on Human Rights Situation in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

SC/12615
9 December 2016
7830th Meeting (AM)

Security Council Narrowly Adopts Procedural Vote to Authorize Discussion on Human Rights Situation in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Delegates Say General Assembly, Human Rights Council More Appropriate Forums

In discussing human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Security Council risked disturbing the situation in that country, some delegates warned today following a procedural vote that narrowly approved a meeting on that subject.

By 9 votes in favour to 5 against (Angola, China, Egypt, Russian Federation, Venezuela), with 1 abstention (Senegal), the Council went ahead with the meeting, as requested in a letter sent to the Council President by seven of its members (document S/2016/1034).  They asked for briefings providing further information from the Secretariat on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its implications for international peace and security.

Delivering the briefings were Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.

Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson emphasized the obligations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under international law, equally stressing that the international community also had a collective responsibility to protect that country’s population from the most serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights, while living up to the “principle and norm of the Responsibility to Protect”.

Assistant Secretary-General Gilmour said there had been no improvement in the “truly appalling” human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since December 2015.  The nature and scale of the violations underscored the link between human rights on the one hand, and peace and security on the other.  The Commission of Inquiry formed in 2014 had found ongoing crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

He went on to say that although monitoring that human rights situation remained a challenge, the Office for the Coordination of Human Rights (OHCR) had conducted more than 110 interviews with people who had left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea over the past 12 months.  The major emerging issue was the treatment of people in custody, he said, adding that violations reported included torture, solitary confinement and inadequate access to food, water and sanitation.  There was also a lack of access to lawyers, while freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained almost entirely restricted.  Those seeking to leave were at risk of trafficking and refoulement.

Noting that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also faced challenges in fulfilling the economic and social rights of its citizens, he said chronic food shortages had resulted in protracted under-nutrition, which in turn had affected children, pregnant and nursing women, and older persons in particular.  Most citizens depended on private, mostly illegal, commercial activities to fulfil basic needs, he said, adding that discriminatory access to employment, education and other services based on a person’s family background, or songbun, continued to be reported.

Citing a positive development, he said the Pyongyang Government had submitted reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  However, failure to hold perpetrators accountable for gross human rights violations – some of which amounted to crimes against humanity – would sow the seeds of further instability and tension, he warned.  Genuine and meaningful improvement in the human rights situation would not only protect the dignity and livelihoods of people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but also promote long-term security and stability in the region and beyond, he stressed.  However, escalating security tensions would further isolate the country and leave its population to bear the terrible consequences at the further expense of their human rights.

He said progress was also lacking in efforts to resolve the issue of international abductions from the Republic of Korea, Japan and other countries.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had appointed two independent experts to support the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who had just concluded a mission to the Republic of Korea and Japan.  They had also sought to engage with Pyongyang, he said, noting that the Special Rapporteur was exploring possibilities for dialogue with the authorities.

Ahead of the procedural vote, several delegates spoke in explanation of position.  China’s representative said that the Council’s discussion of human rights was contrary to the goal of stabilizing the Korean Peninsula, describing the situation there as complex, sensitive and dire.  Stressing that China stood for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and in favour of negotiations, he expressed hope that the Council would focus on the big picture and avoid any rhetoric or action that might lead to the escalation of tensions.

The Russian Federation’s representative said the Council should concentrate on real threats to international peace and security, adding that loading up its agenda with items like those proposed for discussion today would reduce the effectiveness of its work.

Venezuela’s representative said it was up to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to address the situation.  Selectivity in dealing with human rights situations in certain countries was counter-productive and would not help the situation on the Korean Peninsula, he emphasized.

The representative of the United States said 2016 had seen an increasingly aggressive Pyongyang conducting missile launches and nuclear tests.  The practices of the brutal Pyongyang Government could not be described as neutral vis‑a‑vis peace and security, she said, describing them as destabilizing and worrisome when taken together with the other aspects of the threat to peace and security.

Japan’s representative said that in the absence of a tangibly improved human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and in light of that situation’s destabilizing impact on the region, the reasons for holding today’s meeting persisted.

The Republic of Korea’s representative described as a delusion the firm belief of the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that only nuclear weapons and missiles could ensure his regime’s survival.  The international community must continue to exert pressure on that country until it saw a change, he emphasized.

Other speakers today were representatives of Angola, United Kingdom, Ukraine, France, Egypt, Uruguay, New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal and Spain.

The meeting began at 10:07 a.m. and was suspended at 10:25 a.m.  Resuming at 10:30 a.m., it ended at 12:01 p.m.

Action on Draft Resolution

LIU JIEYI (China) said his delegation was against the Council deliberating on human rights situations, emphasizing that its primary responsibility was the maintenance of international peace and security.  It was neither the forum for human rights issues nor for their politicization.  China stood for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and in favour of negotiations, and the Council’s discussion of human rights was contrary to the goal of stabilizing the Peninsula.  Noting that the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was complex, sensitive and dire, he expressed hope that the Council would focus on the big picture and avoid any rhetoric or action that might lead to the escalation of tensions.  He called for a resumption of dialogue among the parties, a reopening of the Six-Party Talks and a genuine effort towards peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

SAMANTHA POWER (United States) recalled that in December 2014, the Council had held its first meeting to discuss the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Since then, the human rights situation had not improved, she said, noting that 2016 had seen an increasingly aggressive Pyongyang conducting missile launches and nuclear tests.  Emphasizing that the practices of the country’s brutal Government could not be described as neutral vis-a-vis peace and security, she said they were destabilizing and worrisome when taken together with the other aspects of the threat to peace and security.  The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remained on the Council’s list, she stressed.

JULIO HELDER MOURA LUCAS (Angola) said his delegation supported the statement by his colleague from China.

KORO BESSHO (Japan) recalled that the Council’s meetings in December 2014 and December 2015 had focused on human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and since there had been no tangible improvement in that situation, or its destabilizing impact on the region, the reasons for holding the meeting persisted.

By a vote of 9 in favour to 5 against (Angola, China, Egypt, Russian Federation, Venezuela), with 1 abstention (Senegal), the Council decided to adopt the provisional agenda and to proceed with the debate.

EVGENY T. ZAGAYNOV (Russian Federation) said he had voted against the adoption of the provisional agenda, noting that his delegation had often expressed its negative position on the Security Council’s examination of human rights, which did not fall within its remit.  The Council should concentrate on real threats to international peace and security, he said, emphasizing that loading up its agenda with items like today’s lowered the effectiveness of its work.  Criticism and applying labels had never led to positive results, he said, pointing out that the Council’s main goal should be to create conditions for restarting negotiations.  The current situation should not be a pretext for increasing foreign military capacity, he stressed, calling on all sides to step back from militarist rhetoric.

RAFAEL DARÍO RAMÍREZ CARREÑO (Venezuela) said he had voted against the meeting due to a belief that the initiative constituted interference by the Security Council in matters outside its specific remit, which was international peace and security.  The situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must be addressed by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which had been established and empowered to debate such issues.  Venezuela urged the Council to call for a focus on the Universal Periodic Review as the best way to deal with the situation.  Politicization and selectivity in dealing with the human rights situations in certain countries was counter-productive and did not help the situation on the Korean Peninsula, he emphasized, describing today’s debate as potentially disturbing.  The Security Council must promote initiatives to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic efforts, he added.

The President then suspended the meeting.

Briefings

JAN ELIASSON, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, noted that the Commission of Inquiry from 2014 had concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The Council’s recently adopted resolution 2321 (2016) had for the first time requested that Pyongyang respect and ensure the welfare and inherent dignity of people on its territory, but the authorities had given no effective commitment to remedying the situation.  Reviewing the statistics outlining the scale of the country’s humanitarian emergency, he said that 70 per cent of the population was considered food-insecure, adding that natural disasters were exacerbating the situation.  History taught that serious human rights violations were warning signs of instability and conflict, he cautioned.

Emphasizing the obligations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under international law, he equally stressed that the international community also had a collective responsibility to protect that country’s population from the most serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights, to live up to the “principle and norm of the Responsibility to Protect”, and to consider the wider implications of the human rights situation for regional stability.  He went on to review the United Nations system’s recent actions relating to the country, such as the Secretary-General’s October report to the General Assembly, underlining the Organization’s readiness to help in all possible ways, including through dialogue on human rights.  He urged the international community to use all the tools at its disposal, including the Human Rights Council, General Assembly and the Security Council, to build a better future for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

ANDREW GILMOUR, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that since December 2015, there had been no improvement in the “truly appalling” human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Noting that the nature and scale of the violations underscored the link between human rights on the one hand, and peace and security on the other, he said the Commission of Inquiry had found ongoing crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

Although monitoring that human rights situation remained a challenge, the testimonies of people who had left the country, as well as other information, indicated that the patterns of human rights violations were continuing.  Noting that the Office for the Coordination of Human Rights (OHCR) had conducted more than 110 interviews with people who had left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea over the past 12 months, he said the major issue that had emerged was the treatment of people in custody.  Violations reported included torture, solitary confinement and inadequate access to food, water and sanitation.  There was also a lack of access to lawyers, and freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained almost entirely restricted, he said, adding that those seeking to leave were at risk of trafficking and refoulement.

Noting that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea also faced challenges in fulfilling the economic and social rights of its citizens, he said the country continued to be affected by chronic food shortages.  That had resulted in protracted under-nutrition which had affected children, pregnant and nursing women, and older persons in particular.  Most citizens depended on private, mostly illegal, commercial activities to fulfil basic needs, he said, adding that discriminatory access to employment, education and other services based on a person’s family background, or songbun, continued to be reported.

Heightened security tensions had direct consequences on human rights, he emphasized, noting that people-to-people contacts between the two Koreas had ceased after the nuclear test in January 2016.  Progress was also lacking in efforts to resolve the issue of international abductions from the Republic of Korea, Japan and other countries.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had appointed two independent experts to support the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who had just concluded a mission to the Republic of Korea and Japan.  They had also sought to engage with Pyongyang, he said, noting that the Special Rapporteur was exploring possibilities for dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea authorities.

In a positive development, the Pyongyang Government had submitted reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, he reported.  However, failure to hold accountable the perpetrators of gross human rights violations – some of which amounted to crimes against humanity – would sow the seeds of further instability and tension, he warned.  Genuine and meaningful improvement in the human rights situation would not only protect the dignity and livelihoods of people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but also promote long-term security and stability in the region and beyond, he stressed.  However, an escalation of security tensions would further isolate the country and leave the population to bear the terrible consequences at the further expense of their human rights.

Statements

KORO BESSHO (Japan) expressed regret that since the 2014 release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, there had been no sign that the country’s human rights situation had improved.  Pyongyang had conducted two nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles in 2016 despite the fact that three quarters of its population needed humanitarian assistance, he noted, adding that Japan and every other Security Council member condemned that system of tyranny.  Emphasizing that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should respect and ensure the welfare and dignity of its citizens, he said that message had been conveyed in Security Council resolution 2321 (2016), adopted unanimously on 30 November.  He recalled that, in his 2015 briefing, the High Commissioner for Human Rights had pointed out the clear link between human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and regional instability.

He emphasized that addressing the root causes of threats to international peace and security undoubtedly fell within the Council’s mandate, citing Pyongyang’s abduction of foreign nationals was a case in which human rights violations and threats to international peace and security clearly overlapped.  Hundreds of people from the Republic of Korea, Japan and other countries had been abducted and “disappeared”, he said, stressing that such abductions undermined the sovereignty of the countries concerned, cast fear over their citizens, and constituted grave violations of human rights.  International efforts were needed to ensure accountability on Pyongyang’s part, he said, while stressing that such efforts were not aimed at isolating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  United Nations human rights mechanisms always had their doors open to dialogue with Pyongyang, he added.

MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom) disagreed with the argument that the Security Council shouldn’t focus on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  When a regime spent its resources on “reckless” nuclear policies rather than on its people, international peace and security was threatened.  Forced labour in that country was a tragedy which had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of “North Koreans”, he said.  That “cruelty” generated income for the regime, which it had spent on its illicit programmes in violation of Security Council resolutions.  Tens of thousands of “North Koreans” were forced to work abroad to raise money for the regime, also in contravention of Security Council sanctions.  That was modern slavery; the Government of the United Kingdom was committed to ridding the world of that scourge.  He invited the international community to urge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to re‑engage and start a dialogue leading to the improvement of the human rights situation of its own people.

VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine), recalling Security Council resolution 2321 (2016) adopted in response to the fifth nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said the flagrant human rights violations in that country were a flip side of its nuclear ambitions.  Expressing support for the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, he noted that 2016 was an unprecedented year in terms of increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  “What justification can there be for wasting precious limited resources on military programmes at the expense of the livelihood of the people?” he asked, calling on the international community to find a balance between promoting dialogue with Pyongyang and pressing for accountability.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) welcomed the decision taken by the Council to allow for the debate as the situation warranted its full attention, especially as some of the offenses committed might constitute crimes against humanity.  The Democratic People's Republic of Korea had developed nuclear weapons to the detriment of its population and constituted a threat to peace and security.  The situation had remained unchanged.  Citing that State’s numerous human rights violations, he said crimes against the right to freedom of expression were committed under the guise of censorship.  Foreign media and the High Commissioner had no access.  The fate of victims of forced disappearances was a tragedy and was unprecedented.  As such, he encouraged all States whose citizens had been abducted to ratify the Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.  Citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea working abroad were enslaved and used to finance their home country’s nuclear programme.  The regime must cease its violations and release its political prisoners.  The option of referral to the International Criminal Court should be considered.

SEIF ALLA YOUSSEF KANDEEL (Egypt) said the Council had a mandate to exclusively address cases that were a threat to international peace and security, while other organs of the Organization had been charged with the situation of human rights without using selective targeting for narrow political interests.  He was dismayed at the insistence of some to portray human rights violations of a certain country as one of the root causes of conflict and claim that those situations fell under the mandate of the Council.  The Human Rights Council represented a forum that allowed States to exchange views to achieve the goal of protecting rights in countries under review.  He rejected any consideration of human rights by the Security Council.  All human rights issues must be addressed fairly and honestly and must not be used to interfere selectively in the internal matters of a State.  He expressed, however, sympathy with the issue of Japanese abductees, saying that an effective means must be sought to address the issue through a constructive dialogue between the two countries.

SAMANTHA POWER (United States) said the deplorable human rights situation for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remained unchanged.  The regime was growing its weapons programme rather than its children, who suffered from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition.  The issues were linked, she said, relating personal testimony from a defector who had been forced to work in a coal mine.  Coal exports accounted for a third of the country’s revenue, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea used those proceeds — made though working its people to death in coal mines — to build more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  The debate should be ended over whether the human rights situation constituted a threat to international peace and security, which detracted from a discussion of what could be done to change it.

She then spoke about families that had been separated due to actions by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, noting that in Japan she had met with the family of a girl who had been abducted in 1977.  There was much the international community could do, and it was crucial to keep holding meetings in the Security Council on the human rights situation for as long as the crisis persisted.  Speaking directly to perpetrators of abuses, she warned them that information was being collected and that impunity would not last forever, and speaking to Member States, she said they could for example provide support for the field office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Seoul, as well as ceasing repatriating people who had managed to escape, as those returned would be sent to “gulags”.   The people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had so little power to change their situation, but the international community had so many ways to do so.  She asked the Council, “Would we not want others to do the same if we were in their place?”

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) remarked that he did not recognize there were restrictions on forums for discussion of human rights.  There was a direct link between violations of human rights and the generation of conflicts.  He expressed his dismay at the human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  The situation of human rights in that country was of importance in the context of the high tensions in the region, as that had placed international peace and security at risk.  Noting that there had been some positive signals from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea authorities, he said the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) had adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which constituted a clear message from the international community to the country.  Saying that a solution could only be achieved through dialogue, he urged for the re-launching of the six-party negotiations.

CAROLYN SCHWALGER (New Zealand) said that continuing gross human rights violations demonstrated that the authorities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not feel bound by the rules of the international system.  Its neighbours faced a heightened security threat resulting from Pyongyang’s reckless development of weapons of mass destruction, “a programme advanced on the back of the suffering of its people”, she noted.  Deploring the diversion of domestic funds for the development of such weapons and away from desperately‑needed humanitarian support, she nevertheless emphasized the importance of engaging with Pyongyang so as to ensure improvement in the human rights situation.  There had been some positive developments in that regard, such as improvement on the rights of persons with disabilities, she noted, while reiterating New Zealand’s call for immediate steps to end all human rights violations and to cooperate meaningfully with the Special Rapporteur and other mechanisms in order to ensure that the provision of meaningful assistance would make a practical difference to citizens’ lives.  She also encouraged the international community, particularly those enjoying an established relationship with Pyongyang, to engage the authorities on human rights issues and encourage its cooperation and participation in human rights dialogue.

SITI HAJJAR ADNIN (Malaysia) said that Council members had an obligation not to shy away from issues that might be delicate.  Noting that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had undertaken some constructive actions, she encouraged the country’s authorities to consider positively requests by the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur for access.  Engaging with them would provide an avenue for the Government to give its views on the human rights situation, she said.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had taken dangerous and provocative steps in 2016, including nuclear tests, which did not help to build confidence in the region, she noted, encouraging Pyongyang to step up cooperation with the Council and other organs, and to recommit itself to the relaunching of the Six-Party Talks.

GORGUI CISS (Senegal) emphasized the duty of each State to ensure the human rights of its citizens, thereby strengthening peace and security.  Appropriate mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council, had been established to promote human rights, and Senegal encouraged greater cooperation on the part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with human rights bodies, and especially with the Special Rapporteur.

ROMÁN OYARZUN MARCHESI (Spain), Council President for December, spoke in his national capacity, expressing surprise that the Pyongyang Government was able to modernize its arsenal and yet allowed its people to suffer.  That Government was the main cause of the people’s desperation, he said, noting that people who fled the country risked execution.  Some 80 per cent of such refugees were women, who were often subjected to trafficking or forced marriage.  It was necessary to condemn human rights violations, but not enough, he said, emphasizing that pressure must be accompanied by dialogue.  Agencies and non-governmental organizations carrying out projects in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be supported, and a clear message against impunity was also needed.  The first step must be to enable the Special Rapporteur to visit the country, he said, urging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to shed light on the situation of hundreds of abductees.

CHO TAE-YUL (Republic of Korea) said that despite the concrete steps taken to save its citizens from pain and horror, including the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Seoul, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to turn a blind eye to international calls to improve its human rights record.  Countless instances of torture, executions and arbitrary detention were still being committed, he said, emphasizing that a large number of the country’s citizens were risking their lives to cross the border in search of freedom and happiness.  The Pyongyang leadership had shamelessly employed a reign of terror merely for the regime’s survival, pouring the country’s already scarce resources into nuclear and missile development while completely ignoring the livelihoods of the impoverished.

He went on to point out that Pyongyang had squandered an estimated $200 million on two nuclear tests and 24 missile launches in 2016 alone.  Its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons was not only a serious threat to international peace and security, but also to the very survival of its own people.  “Seven decades after the division of our nation, we are witnessing yet another sad chapter of family separation being written in the history of the Korean Peninsula,” he said, drawing attention to the heart-wrenching story of the country’s 30,000 refugees now settled in his country.  The leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might have a firm belief that only nuclear weapons and missiles could ensure his regime’s survival, yet that was a delusion, he said, stressing that the international community must continue to exert pressure on that country until it saw a change.

For information media. Not an official record.