UN reports appalling human rights abuses in North Korea

Report cites deliberate starvation, secret prison camps and total lack of free thought

 Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, presents his report on the human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, yesterday.  Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, presents his report on the human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, yesterday. Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 17:09

North Korea’s leadership is committing systematic and appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale unparalleled in the modern world, including crimes against humanity, a United Nations report has concluded.

The UN’s commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea has been gathering evidence for almost a year – including in an unprecedented series of public hearings in four cities around the world, which heard sometimes harrowing testimony from North Korean escapees. Its report cited the country’s system of secret prison camps, deliberate starvation and a complete lack of free thought as among probable crimes against humanity.

The inquiry chairman has personally written to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to warn that he could face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, saying that as head of state and overall commander of the country’s military, Kim bears personal culpability.

“The commission wishes to draw your attention that it will therefore recommend that the United Nations refer the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity,” Michael Kirby, the retired Australian judge who chaired the panel, wrote to Kim, using the formal name for North Korea.

After the publication of the report, Mr Kirby described the allegations as reminiscent of those committed during the Nazi eras. “Some of them are strikingly similar,” he said. “Testimony was given in relation to the political prison camps of large numbers of people who were malnourished, who were effectively starved to death and then had to be disposed of in pots, burned and then buried. It was the duty of other prisoners in the camps to dispose of them.”

Saying he hoped the report would “galvanise action on the part of the international community”, Mr Kirby said it was possible that hundreds of senior North Korean officials could be criminally culpable.

The inquiry heard public evidence in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. Among the more than 240 witnesses were escapees from the feared prison camps, including one who reported seeing a prisoner forced to drown her newborn baby because it was presumed to have a Chinese father.

The commission’s near 400-page main report says there is overwhelming evidence that crimes against humanity have been, and are still being, committed within the hermetic nation.

“These are not mere excesses of the state: they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Korea, which refused to participate in the investigation and refused to give permission for the commission to visit, immediately rejected the findings, calling them “a product of politicisation of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the US hostile policy”.

The report recommends that the UN refers the situation in North Korea to the ICC. While North Korea is not a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC, the UN Security Council can extend the court’s remit in exceptional cases.

This would most likely be vetoed by China, which has close links with North Korea and maintains a policy of sending back people found to have fled across the North Korean border, despite widespread evidence that they face mistreatment and detention on their return. The commission’s report heavily criticises China for this, saying the policy appears to breach international laws on refugees.

However, the report issues a challenge over the wider international community’s relative lack of action on the right abuses, saying the world must accept its responsibility to protect North Korea’s citizens from crimes against humanity, something their own government “has manifestly failed to do”. – (Guardian service)