A key U.N. human rights committee has passed a resolution urging the U.N. Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The nonbinding resolution, drafted by Japan and the European Union, passed overwhelmingly Tuesday.
It is based on a February U.N. Commission of Inquiry that detailed decades of systematic executions, torture, rape and mass starvation in the North. That report also called for the Security Council to refer Pyongyang to the ICC.
North Korea has repeatedly denied committing human rights atrocities, and it accuses the United States and its allies of seeking to discredit and overthrow the leadership in Pyongyang.
Debate on the resolution is expected next month in the General Assembly, where it is also expected to pass. But it is not clear whether it can clear the 15-member Security Council, where China has traditionally protected North Korea, its ally.
Speaking before Tuesday's vote, the executive director of the nongovernmental Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Greg Scarlatoiu, said the push to hold Pyongyang accountable will have been worthwhile, even if China vetoes the initiative.
"Let China place itself in the position where it is repeatedly attempting to block initiatives to refer the North Korean case to the International Criminal Court," he said. "Let China place itself in a position where it is clearly and obviously aiding and abetting a regime that is committing crimes against humanity. The political price of doing that is only going to get higher."
Facing the looming U.N. votes, the Pyongyang government has in recent weeks sought to ease mounting international criticism of its rights record. It has released three detained Americans and expressed a willingness to allow top U.N. rights officials to the visit the country.
Despite those gestures, Human Rights Watch called for U.N. members to pass what it described as the "landmark resolution." Amnesty International and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights also urged committee members to resist pressure to delete references to accountability for "decades of terrible abuse."