Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
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On February 7, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly released a report by a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea: you can find it here: .  The report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.  This Council isn’t exactly representative of rights-protecting countries: its 2014 membership includes China, Congo, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.  But it seems that the human rights violations in North Korea are so bad that even these countries feel safe commissioning a report on it.
It’s a very strong report. The COI calls North Korea a totalitarian state, and lists numerous ways that North Korea commits crimes against humanity. These include—but are not limited to-- extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, enforced disappearances, and knowingly causing starvation. It makes special reference to the use of food as a political weapon, thus clearly stating that the famine of the 1990s, in which 3 to 5 per cent of the North Korean population, or 580,000 to 1.1 million people, are conservatively estimated to have died, was a political, not a natural, catastrophe.  It points out the North Koreans are still suffering from severe malnutrition. About the only thing it doesn’t mention, at least in the short version of the report, is that the situation is so bad that there are actually reports of cannibalism. The COI calls on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer those North Korean officials—government, military, and security officials, including the so-called Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un-- to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trial.
ICC Logo- Wiki Commons
There isn’t anything in this report that activists and scholars concerned with human rights in North Korea haven’t known for at least ten years. But it’s very important that a Commission established by an organ of the United Nations (even if it’s the normally very hypocritical Human Rights Council) has recognized these crimes against humanity. Some scholars might go further and say some aspects of the abuses in North Korea constitute genocide; for example, murder of Christians, or the ethnic infanticide of children born of North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers, when the mothers are forcibly returned to North Korea. But the charge of genocide would be hard to prove, whereas there is overwhelming evidence that North Korea commits crimes against humanity.
Why has it taken so long to get this far? One reason is the diplomatic concern with North Korea’s nuclear program. Since 1993 periodic “Six-Party Talks” among North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan have taken place, with the other five countries trying to persuade North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons.  Despite this, it’s conducted three tests of such weapons, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.  “Loose nukes trump human rights,” is more or less what international policy has been.
The other reason it’s taken so long to get this far is that China supports North Korea, although it’s been less willing to do so in the recent past and did not veto the latest round of UNSC sanctions against North Korea after its 2013 nuclear test. The Chinese aren’t pleased that these tests have been conducted close to its borders. Also, they seem to have been trying to persuade North Korea to adopt liberalizing economic reforms, such as they themselves started in 1978, but one of the people seemingly most interested in these reforms was Kim Jong-un’s uncle, recently executed.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un- Wiki Commons
The Chinese view of the COI shows they aren’t willing to accept any responsibility to help North Korean victims of crimes against humanity. The Chinese regard the COI as unnecessarily “politicizing” human rights: they oppose directing criticism against any particular country’s human rights violations. The Chinese deny that the perhaps 200,000 North Korean refugees in their country are legally political refugees: they claim they are economic migrants, whom they are within their rights to deport. They deny that people deported back from China to North Korea are subjected to executions, rape, torture and –in the case of women pregnant by Chinese men—forcible abortions and infanticide.  They claim that voluntary and Christian groups that help fugitives in China are in it to make money, deliberately confusing them with the traffickers who force North Korean women into prostitution.  
On the other hand though, the Chinese might be pressuring the North Koreans in secret to engage in some reforms. It doesn’t do China’s reputation any good to be known to protect one of the worst countries on the planet.  And reforms might mean fewer North Korean refugees in China itself.
One good thing about this report is that it takes the ICC spotlight off Africa. Since it was established in 2002, all the ICC prosecutions have been of Africans. This isn’t because of racist or colonialist bias: in most cases, it’s been because African leaders referred individuals for prosecution. But these same leaders –for example, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni—are becoming worried that they themselves might be referred for prosecution; this is what happened to Kenya’s now President and Vice-President, both of whom are accused of having stirred up murderous ethnic violence during the 2007-8 elections. These Africans are playing the anti-Western card, claiming they are victims of colonialism. But if—and it’s a big if—the UNSC actually does refer North Korea to the ICC, they will be less able to make that claim
For other blogs I’ve written about North Korea, see (North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die))

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