Crunch time for human rights in North Korea

21 August 2014

The head of the United Nations inquiry into human rights in North Korea, former High Court judge The Hon Michael Kirby, has said crunch time is coming for the isolated nation.

Mr Kirby was chair of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which found serious crimes against humanity in North Korea during a 10-month investigation in 2013.

Speaking at a public lecture hosted by the Law Reform and Social Justice Program at the ANU College of Law, Mr Kirby said he expected the commission’s report on North Korea would be considered by the UN General Assembly in September, and then sent to the UN Security Council for further action.

“In a few weeks, we will face crunch time for human rights in North Korea,” said Mr Kirby

He was hopeful none of the permanent members of the Security Council – including China and the Russian Federation – would veto the recommendation to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for potential prosecution.

“In the case of the Russian Federation, they have not given aid to North Korea since the end of the Soviet regime, have very little trade with North Korea, and are currently dealing with a large number of other critical issues.

“It’s not at all certain the Russian Federation would take the serious step of preventing the Security Council responding in a strong way as the report suggests.”

Similarly, while China had substantial trade ties with North Korea and was now the nation’s main backer, Mr Kirby said the veto was not generally the way China operates.

“In the time China has had a seat in the United Nations, it has used the veto in the Security Council just 10 times.

“That contrasts with the Soviet Union which has used it 350 times and the USA 250 times,” said Mr Kirby.

Mr Kirby said the commission heard evidence from more than 80 victims and witnesses, finding serious breaches of human rights in North Korea. These included widespread famine, restrictions on movement and information, and sub-standard conditions in detention centres which hold an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people.

“Some of the most powerful testimony we received concerned diet and food shortages among North Koreans held in custody, which in many cases saw people reduced to consuming grass and rodents,” said Mr Kirby.

The commission’s report will now proceed from the Human Rights Council to the General Assembly, the UN body to which the council reports.

Mr Kirby said he expected the report to be tabled at the UN’s General Assembly in September, with a motion to respond to it prepared shortly after.