Security Council Adopts Procedural Vote Allowing It to Hear Briefings on Humanitarian Situation in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

SC/13115
11 December 2017
8130th Meeting (AM)

Security Council Adopts Procedural Vote Allowing It to Hear Briefings on Humanitarian Situation in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Wrong Forum for Humanitarian Issues, Stress Opponents, as United States, Other Supporters Say No Separation between Peace, Human Rights

Amid the security challenges arising from the ballistic missile and nuclear testing activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it was critical to address the dire human rights and humanitarian situation in that country as well, senior United Nations officials told the Security Council today.

“The international community has a collective responsibility to protect the population of the DPRK if the State does not protect its own citizens,” Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary‑General for Political Affairs, said in his briefing.  It must also consider the wider implications of the reported grave human rights violations for the wider region’s stability.

Speaking after a procedural vote on whether or not the Council would hear the briefings, he called for a sustained focus on the humanitarian situation — including better monitoring, effective use of sanctions exemptions for humanitarian assistance and stepped up humanitarian aid — while security issues were addressed.  “Let us use all the tools at our disposal — the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, the Security Council and other international entities — to take action to build a better future for the people of the DPRK,” he said.

Also briefing the Council was Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said escapees had reported widespread violations of human rights — including torture and deprivation of freedom of information and expression — in almost every aspect of people’s lives.  They were combined with increased surveillance and abject conditions endured by detainees in labour camps.  Military tensions in recent months had led to more severe controls over freedom of movement as well as civil and political rights, he said.

Repatriated escapees — often repatriated from China as economic migrants, although many were actually trafficking victims — were routinely subjected to multiple forms of torture, he said.  The people also endured severe violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to chronic food insecurity, due in part to the diversion of resources to military objectives.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) would act on the recommendations of the Human Rights Council’s Group of Independent Experts, he said, noting that the latter proposed monitoring the country more comprehensively in anticipation of the creation of an accountability mechanism.

Speaking earlier, the representatives of China, Russian Federation and Bolivia objected to the meeting, emphasizing that human rights did not fall within the Security Council’s remit — maintenance of international peace and security.  China’s delegate emphasized that human rights issues should not be politicized, describing the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as complex, sensitive and grave.  The concerned parties should consider the proposed “suspension‑for‑suspension” initiative and work towards restarting negotiations.

The Russian Federation’s representative warned against diluting the Council’s work with issues unrelated to its core mandate, and against politicization and double standards, all of which could erode its credibility.  The priority must be the peaceful settlement of the dispute, he said, stressing that today’s meeting must not be used as a pretext for greater foreign intervention on the Korean Peninsula.

However, the representative of the United States stressed that there was no separation between peace and human rights.  “Any country that does not take care of its people ends up in conflict,” she said, adding that such a country could easily abuse others.  While the concerns of some Council members were understandable, staying true to the concept of prevention meant being able to call countries out for their human rights abuses.

Japan’s representative said nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were frequently exploited while working abroad to generate foreign currency that Pyongyang then used to support its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  That was another stark example of the close links between human rights abuses and the pursuit of proliferation, he noted.  Japan called for urgent attention to the abduction of foreign nationals, including Japanese, he said, noting that their families had been torn apart.

The Republic of Korea’s representative said the soldier shot by his own compatriots during his dramatic escape from the North highlighted the dire situation that had compelled more than 30,000 defectors to risk their lives and settle in his country over several decades.  He called on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and to abide by international norms, while investing more of its resources in the welfare of its people.

Following the procedural vote — adopted by 10 votes in favour to 3 against (Bolivia, China, Russian Federation), with 2 abstentions (Egypt, Ethiopia) — several representatives condemned Pyongyang’s unparalleled repression of its own citizens, on the back of which it had built its pursuit of nuclear weapons and testing of ballistic missiles.  Security and human rights issues were therefore inextricably related, they maintained, while detailing reported atrocities and emphasizing the need to focus on persons abducted, disappeared, forced into labour or repatriated against their will.  They insisted that the Council remain seized of the situation in all its dimensions, including access by human rights and humanitarian organizations, and the need to end impunity.

Also speaking today were representatives of Egypt, Uruguay, Ethiopia, France, Sweden, Senegal, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Italy and Kazakhstan.

The meeting began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at 11:37 a.m.

Procedural Vote

In a procedural vote requested by several members, the Council adopted — by 10 votes in favour to 3 against (Bolivia, China, Russian Federation), with 2 abstentions (Egypt, Ethiopia) — a provisional agenda item requesting that senior officials from the Secretariat and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights deliver a formal briefing to them on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its implications for international peace and security.

WU HAITAO (China), speaking before the vote, said he opposed the Council’s consideration of the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The United Nations Charter had clear provisions relating to the functions of the Organization’s main organs, and the Security Council’s mandate was to discuss international peace and security, he emphasized.  Human rights issues should not be politicized and were outside the Council’s remit, he added.  Describing the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as complex, sensitive and grave, he stressed that Council members should avoid mutual provocations that might escalate it.  The concerned parties should consider the proposed “suspension‑for‑suspension” initiative and work towards restarting negotiations, he said.

NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) stressed that there was no separation between peace and human rights.  “Any country that does not take care of its people ends up in conflict,” she said, noting that they could also easily abuse other countries.  While the concerns of some Council members were understandable, staying true to the concept of “prevention” meant being able to call countries out for human rights abuses, she said, adding that such abuses had also been seen in Syria and Venezuela.

EVGENY T. ZAGAYNOV (Russian Federation), speaking after the vote, underlined that human rights issues were not within the Council’s mandate.  The organ had never been, and was not now, a part of the United Nations toolkit for promoting or protecting human rights, and was not fit to monitor those matters.  The Council dealt with issues of aggression or force, and could not be a platform for human rights consideration.  It should focus on the issues representing real threats to international peace and security, he reiterated, warning against diluting the Council’s work with issues unrelated to its core mandate.  He also cautioned against politicization and double standards, saying they could erode the Council’s credibility.  Politicized, country‑specific resolutions had never led to positive results, he said, emphasizing that the priority must be the peaceful settlement of the dispute.  Today’s meeting must not be a pretext for more foreign intervention on the Korean Peninsula, he warned.

SEIF ALLA YOUSSEF KANDEEL (Egypt), expressing his delegation’s rejection of nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula, said it had abstained from the vote due to its full respect for the sovereign equality of Member States and for the principle of non‑interference in their domestic affairs.  The Council was not the right venue in which to discuss such affairs, except when they related to genocide or ethnic cleansing, which had a direct impact on international peace and security, he emphasized.  Considerations like the one before the Council today undermined its work, polarized its members and lowered trust in the United Nations overall, he emphasized.  Egypt also rejected the selective approach to human rights, which did not help to resolve the real causes of international crises.

ELBIO OSCAR ROSSELLI FRIERI (Uruguay) said his delegation had voted in favour of holding the meeting because it did not recognize any limits when discussing human rights.  Full and unconditional respect for human rights, as well as accountability when they were violated, was a key principle of Uruguay’s foreign policy, he emphasized.  Recalling that his country’s military dictatorship of the 1970s had been the subject of intense pressure because of its human rights violations, he said that international scrutiny had been critical to breaking the dictatorship in “those dark hours”.

JUAN MARCELO ZAMBRANA TORRELIO (Bolivia) said that, while his country was committed to the promotion of human rights at the global and regional levels, the Charter stated unequivocally that the Council was the forum for the maintenance of international peace and security, and human rights were not part of its mandate.  Bolivia supported discussions on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and had always called for dialogue among the parties concerned to that end, he said, reiterating that dealing with human rights distracted the Council from those goals.

TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia), citing the specialized mandates of the Human Rights Council, said its specialized bodies should work to improve the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  He went on to express solidarity with Japan over the abduction of its nationals, and to urge their earliest return.  He said that matter had made it difficult for his delegation to abstain, but it nevertheless recognized the complex and grave situation on the Korean Peninsula.  The Council should devote all its time and energy to finding a peaceful and diplomatic solution through dialogue.

The President then suspended the meeting in order to prepare for the briefings.

Briefings

MIROSLAV JENČA, Assistant Secretary‑General for Political Affairs, said:  “While it is difficult to obtain up‑to‑date and comprehensive information about human rights developments in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], the information gathered reveals a continuing pattern of serious human rights violations and a lack of progress on issues such as family reunions and the abduction issue.”  There was no indication of improvement since the Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 report that, on balance of probability, crimes against humanity had been and were being committed.  “The international community has a collective responsibility to protect the population of the DPRK if the State does not protect its own citizens, and to consider the wider implications of the reported grave human rights violations for the stability of the region,” he emphasized.

With the security situation and continuing nuclear and missile activities further isolating the country, more severe restrictions had been placed on freedom of movement domestically and on the border with China, he continued.  People trying to leave were paying a heftier price and taking riskier routes, with women continuing to be primary targets for human trafficking.  Detention remained a cause of concern amid reports of abject conditions in holding centres and labour camps, he said, highlighting the case of foreign detainees like Otto Warmbier, the student who had died a few days after his repatriation to the United States in June.  Three citizens of the United States and six of the Republic of Korea remained in custody today.

He went on to state that 2017 had also seen a surge in forced repatriations of Korean nationals in China.  Many were women victims of human trafficking who left their children in China, and dozens of them remained detained in that country, scheduled for refoulement back home, where they were at risk of torture and other ill treatment, he said.  Recounting the steps taken by the United Nations to address the human rights situation in the country, he said that the pursuit of accountability continued to be an urgent priority.  He noted that independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council recommended in their March report that steps be taken to strengthen monitoring and set up a central repository for any future accountability mechanism.  “While the emphasis is placed on the political and security situation, the DPRK is a forgotten crisis on the global humanitarian agenda,” he stated.  It was estimated that 18 million people were suffering from food insecurity, made more critical with the current lack of funding.

Citing the latest report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he noted that it warned of the possibility that sanctions might have a detrimental impact on the humanitarian situation, although the Security Council had explicitly stated that that was not the intention of the measures.  Communications from the 1718 Sanctions Committee on that country highlighted mechanisms for seeking exemption from the sanctions for humanitarian activities, he said, noting however that international humanitarian workers had reported increasing operational challenges.  To ensure that the humanitarian situation did not deteriorate further, all international and non‑governmental organizations facing challenges were encouraged to use established procedures in seeking guidance or exemptions from the 1718 Committee, and the Committee to continue its expeditious review of such requests.

Furthermore, all Member States were urged to support life‑saving activities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while complying strictly with sanctions obligations, including by clarifying the need to avoid undue restrictions on humanitarian activities.  He concluded by calling upon financial institutions to provide the necessary banking services for humanitarian organizations in the country, adding that “the channel would be sent to the Security Council for approval”.  The United Nations remained committed to furthering efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to outstanding issues and to ensure an improved human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he stressed.  “Let us use all the tools at our disposal — the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, the Security Council and other international entities — to take action to build a better future for the people of the DPRK.”

ZEID RA’AD ZEID AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it was impossible to point to significant improvement in the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The context of military tensions seemed to have deepened the extremely serious human rights violations endured by the country’s 25 million people.  The picture was incomplete, but escapees had reported widespread violations of rights in almost every aspect of people’s lives, he said, adding that testimonies collected by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicated widespread torture in detention centres overseen by the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security, where it was used to extract information or confessions from those suspected of planning to leave the country, of communicating with the outside world using foreign telecommunications networks, or of engaging in smuggling activities.

He went on to state that detainees worked in mines or on infrastructure projects in conditions of severe deprivation, adding that military tensions in recent months had led to more severe controls over freedom of movement as well as civil and political rights.  Increased surveillance made escape more difficult, he said, pointing out a number of escapees were sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and OHCHR had received more than 70 reports of women, men and children having escaped to China only to be sent back after authorities found them to be “economic migrants”, notwithstanding the overwhelming human rights violations taking place in their homeland.  Repatriated escapees were routinely subjected to multiple forms of torture and ill‑treatment in detention centres, he said, citing the case of Otto Warmbier, a student sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  He had been returned in a coma to the United States earlier in 2017, with extensive loss of brain tissue.  His condition was suggestive of the severe violations endured by persons deprived of their liberty in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

That country’s people also faced severe violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, he continued.  They continued to endure chronic food insecurity, due in part to the diversion of resources to military objectives.  A failing public distribution system and pervasive corruption in the delivery of public services had forced people to seek alternative means to secure access to basic economic and social rights.  The humanitarian assistance provided by United Nations agencies and others was literally a lifeline for some 13 million acutely vulnerable individuals, he said, cautioning that sanctions might adversely affect that essential assistance.  Controls over international banking transfers had caused a slow‑down in United Nations ground operations, affecting the delivery of food rations, health kits and other humanitarian aid.  Meanwhile, OHCHR was implementing Human Rights Council resolution 34/24, which followed the recommendations of the Group of Independent Experts on accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Statements

Ms. HALEY (United States) said “we must tell the true story of the North Korean people,” adding that the systematic abuses there were solely a means to keep the regime in power.  The march toward nuclear power was being underwritten by control and suppression of that country’s people, many of whom worked in labour camps.  Meanwhile, theme parks and high rises were being built for the elite in Pyongyang, where 85 per cent of people had to obtain to permission to enter.  Those in the camps, who were often imprisoned because of accusations against extended family members, were subject to starvation, torture and sexual abuse; punishment for possession of foreign media could include execution.  Describing the ordeals of attempted defectors, she invited two women who had recently survived to stand as she related their stories, which she described as waking nightmares.  Following the meeting, her delegation would co‑host a meeting in which the women could relate their experiences in detail.  Leaders within and without the Council must not plead ignorance, but must act to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry.  A channel must be provided to asylum seekers as well, she stated, adding: “the crisis in North Korea is one of human rights as well as security”.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France), condemning massive violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, called for the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on the country.  It was crucial for the Council to keep its focus on human rights in the country, because it was inextricably tied to the issues of peace and security.  The regime was using a wide spectrum of abuses in order to allow it to continue its nuclear and missile programmes.  Detailing a list of atrocities committed, including in detention camps, he stressed the need for continued mobilization on the issue of the abducted and disappeared.  He also urged for the universal ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.  Forced labour and forced repatriation should also be a focus; systematic surveillance and stifling of freedom of information and expression was equally disturbing.  The Council must remain seized of the situation in the country in all of its dimensions and must unite to insist that human rights bodies have access to investigate.

OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) said the pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was built on the back of the unparalleled repression of its citizens.  Links between the lack of respect for human rights, the humanitarian crisis and the threat to international peace and security were clear.  The list of human rights violations was long, cutting across all areas, including civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights.  Reports and witness testimonies pointed to public as well as extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, torture, rape and other forms of sexual and gender‑based violence.  In addition, there were reported systematic violations to freedoms of thought, expression and religion.  The list also included a denial of the right to food and health, leading to severe hunger and malnutrition, which was hitting women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons disproportionately hard.  The international community must make every effort to end impunity, seek accountability and secure truth and justice for all victims.

FODÉ SECK (Senegal) said each Member State must ensure that its citizens’ rights were protected, thereby contributing to international peace and security.  Human rights were central to the dignity of any person, he said, also expressing support for the full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.  Stressing that independent and sovereign States should engage on all issues — including human rights — in a spirit of mutual respect and dialogue, he cited several relevant and complementary mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council and the universal periodic review.  The situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a threat to international peace and security, he said, also urging the United Nations to take note of the effects of sanctions in that country.

MATTHEW JOHN RYCROFT (United Kingdom), affirming his delegation fully supported the Council’s decision to focus on the human rights situation in that country, both in New York and Geneva, underscored that evidence of the regime’s appalling behaviour towards its own people was impossible to ignore.  Indeed, the regime used the threat of extreme punishment to keep nay‑sayers under its thumb.   Member States must not return defectors to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or to profit from its businesses or foreign workers.  Citing Pyongyang’s recent rejection of a Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues) resolution calling on it to respect the basic human rights of its people, he urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to allow full access to independent human rights observers, end illegal missile tests and immediately return to the path of peaceful negotiations.

VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) said he did not share the opinion that human rights were the exclusive purview of the Human Rights Council; consistent gross human rights violations were a clear early warning sign of a credible threat to international peace and security.  The continuous reports of grave human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including torture, rape and extrajudicial and public executions, among others, were disturbing.  Also of great concern was the abduction of Japanese citizens, 12 of whom were still missing.  The regime continued to build up its military arsenal and was using the country’s limited resources to support prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, including through using earnings generated by its nationals working abroad.  He expressed his full support for the establishment of a group of independent experts on accountability for human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and called on the country’s Government to ensure safe and unfettered access for the United Nations monitoring mechanisms.

Mr. ROSSELLI FRIERI (Uruguay) said that the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a source of great concern.  The mere existence of concentration camps and the absence of due process violated all of the freedoms of the civilian population.  He condemned the development of nuclear weapons and missiles through diversion of resources.  While there were other Governments who violated human rights that were not on the Council’s agenda, the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a unique one which threatened international peace and security.  He noted that the Government had made some efforts to improve the situation of human rights, including the implementation of the Strategic Framework for Cooperation between the United Nations and the Government of the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea:  Towards Sustainable and Resilient Human Development.  The solution to the tensions would only come through dialogue, negotiation and political commitment.  He called for respect of Security Council resolution 2375 (2017) and for the resumption of the Six‑Party Talks.

SEBASTIANO CARDI (Italy) said the intimate link between human rights violations and the threat to international peace and security could not be denied.  Therefore, the meeting fell within the Council’s mandate.  Voicing concern at the lack of accountability of human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he pointed out that the regime denied its citizens the most fundamental rights, including violations that could be considered as crimes against humanity.  Full accountability for the flagrant violations had to be ensured, including through referrals to the International Criminal Court.  He also stated his grave concern regarding the reports of abductions, and called on the country’s authority to take concrete steps to resume full investigations.  Strongly condemning the use of its own nationals working abroad to fund its illegal programmes, he urged all Member States to ensure full implementation of resolution 2375 (2017).  The Government should also take action on recommendations issued by the United Nations, and interact with international interlocutors to explore possibilities of cooperation.  The protection of human rights should be central to any rapprochement to ensure the welfare and dignity of the country.  As Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1718 (2006), he said he had made the best efforts to ensure that human rights were given priority.  However, the 1718 Sanctions Committee might exempt any measures if it determined that such exemption was necessary to ensure the work of organizations working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  He underscored that the two ways of ensuring human rights violations and promoting engagement reinforced one another.

KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said his delegation had voted in favour of holding today’s meeting in light of its belief that all international situations, no matter how difficult, should be discussed by Member States.  However, the Human Rights Council would be a more appropriate place for that discussion, and the promotion of human rights must be dealt with in an impartial manner.  He encouraged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to continue its engagement with the United Nations human rights system — including treaty bodies — as well as to engage in negotiations with Japan on the issue of abductions, allocate more resources to development and ensure respect for the basic rights of all its people.

KORO BESSHO (Japan) condemned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at the expense of its people’s welfare.  Well over half of them seriously lacked food and medical care, including many pregnant and lactating women as well as children under 5, and almost a quarter of its total population was suffering from chronic malnutrition.  Rather than address those urgent issues, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had conducted three nuclear tests and launched 40 ballistic missiles since January 2016.  A ballistic missile with the range of an intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched for the third time just two weeks ago, which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea claimed could reach the mainland United States.  The international community must maximize pressure on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including through full implementation of Security Council resolutions, and make it change its policies.

He also noted that nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were frequently working abroad to generate foreign currency that the country then used to support its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  Those workers, exploited by the Government, were another stark example of the close ties between human rights and the pursuit of nuclear and missile development.  He then turned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s abduction of foreign nationals, which was a grave issue affecting a country’s sovereignty.  Agents from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had infiltrated Japan and abducted several citizens, including a 13‑year‑old girl, stealing their futures and tearing their families apart.  With abductees and their families growing older, there was no time to waste.  The international community should work closely together to realize the immediate return of all abductees.

CHO TAE-YUL (Republic of Korea) expressed regret that no progress had been made on human rights in North Korea [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] during the past year.  Systematic, widespread and grave violations were still being committed in the country, and many North Koreans were risking their lives to cross the border in search of freedom.  Recalling the North Korean soldier who was shot by his fellow soldiers recently during a dramatic escape from the North, he highlighted the more than 30,000 defectors that had escaped and settled in the South over several decades.  That was evidence of how dire the human rights situation in that country was.

At the root of such human rights abuses was the preoccupation of the regime with its own security, he continued.  In 2017, the country had conducted yet another nuclear test, as well as 15 ballistic missile launches.  Money that could have been invested for the well‑being of its people had been squandered on developing weapons of mass destruction.  As such, its nuclear and human rights problems were two sides of the same coin, he said, adding that improving its human rights situation without addressing the root causes was as irrational as “climbing a tree to catch a fish”.  He called on the country to abandon its nuclear and missile programmes and abide by international norms, while investing more of its resources in the welfare of its people.

Observing the strikingly different lives that his brothers and sisters in the North led from those of the South, he lamented the human suffering that had been caused by the division of the nation.  For the Korean people, the anguish of family separation was the most urgent humanitarian and human rights problem, he said, urging that country’s authorities to respond to his Government’s proposal for the resumption of family reunions.  Another significant issue was the plight of non‑citizens detained in North Korea, including six South Koreans, and he called on the North Korean authorities to provide them with adequate protection, allow them to contact their families and take measures toward their return.

Pointing to the Special Rapporteur’s recent visit to the country, he expressed hope that North Korea had shown interest in working with the United Nations human rights mechanism, albeit in a limited way, and urged the regime to further expand their cooperation with the international community.

For information media. Not an official record.