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Rights Report on North Korea May Have Little Immediate Effect

  • Margaret Besheer

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry has issued a new report that documents crimes against humanity in North Korea -- including forced labor and starvation in prison camps, sexual abuse of prisoners and public executions for political offenses. The commission urges the international community to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court, but human rights experts say that is unlikely to happen.

The report documents systematic abuses allegedly committed by top officials, possibly even North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The U.N. Human Rights Council will discuss the report on March 17. It is likely to adopt a resolution that could bring the matter to the Security Council, which can refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court.

However, Asia Society analyst Mike Kulma said, China will likely veto any effort to do so.

“I don’t think it can ever get through the Security Council. The Chinese are just not going to -- not to put everything on the Chinese -- but the Chinese simply are not going to agree to it,” said Kulma.

Even so, Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for human rights, said his office supports an ICC referral and the report could play a role in a future prosecution.

“I think after this horrendous report, there will be pressure of member states to ensure that something else is done too. On behalf of my office, [the] Human Rights office... [can] document and be a depository of various testimonies, various evidence, that can at a certain point in time be used in criminal proceedings against perpetrators.”

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia chief for Human Rights Watch, said via Skype that the report makes it difficult for world leaders to ignore abuses in North Korea.

"That is as it should be. Because, frankly, if we look at the role of human rights abuses in North Korea, the government uses fear to perpetuate its rule. It’s the fear of being sent to a political prison camp, it’s the fear of being detained, tortured, beaten and perhaps publically executed that keeps the North Korean people in line," said Robertson.

The Asia Society’s Kulma added that human rights could become a recurring point in the discussion of other North Korean issues.

“What might be the impact of this report as countries in the U.N. deliberate on how to react to, say another nuclear test by the North Koreans? Or how they react to a missile test by North Korea? Will it do anything to the strength of any sanctions that are put into place against North Korea?” asked Kulma.

North Korea analysts said that over the short term, the U.N. report is unlikely to push Pyongyang to change its behavior. But in the longer term, sustained international pressure could have some effect.
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