The United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights abuses in North Korea began taking testimony from defectors in South Korea yesterday. It is the first U.N. commission to investigate whether North Korea’s human rights abuses could be classified as crimes against humanity.
“Crimes against humanity” are legally defined as acts committed as part of a widespread attack directed against a civilian population, including murder, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, and inhumane acts causing great suffering.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission created the commission with Resolution 22/13 in March 2013. The panel is chaired by Michael Kirby, former U.N. Special Representative on human rights in Cambodia, and other panel members are Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur human rights in North Korea; Sonja Biserko, founder and head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia; and nine other investigators.
The commission, which has until next March to complete its mandate, began its investigation into North Korea’s prison camps, food insecurity, arbitrary detention, forced abductions, and a host of other human rights abuses. While the commission has reached out to the U.N. Special Representative from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea has proven unwilling to work with the commission.
North Korea’s grave human rights situation is undeniable. An estimated 200,000 people are imprisoned in North Korea’s modern-day gulags, which are identifiable on satellite imagery. North Korean defectors such as Shin Dong-hyuk, an escaped prisoner born into North Korea’s Camp 14, have documented the horrendous conditions in the camps, including unimaginable torture, arbitrary execution, and forced abortions.
Testimony collected from North Korean defectors in South Korea will undoubtedly inform the commission’s recommendations for human rights accountability in the DPRK. In addition to visiting South Korea, the commission will interview families of the 17 Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean government between 1977 and 1983. Arrangements are being made for the commission to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The commission will give an update on its progress in September at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and will present findings in October at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. At the conclusion of its investigation in March 2014, it will release a report detailing its findings and recommendations.
If the commission rules that North Korea committed crimes against humanity, it would not necessitate action by the international community, but it would bring the issue before the International Criminal Court. Since its creation in 2002, the court has only opened investigations into four conflicts: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Darfur.
The U.N. commission of inquiry is just one step toward holding North Korea accountable for its human rights abuses. Whether the deeply flawed UNHRC will do anything with its recommendations is unclear. The ultimate judgment against North Korea will depend upon the international community’s willingness to apply the pressure necessary to induce change with or without U.N. concurrence.