posted on Wed 9 Dec 2015 3:56 PM
Meeting on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

Tomorrow afternoon (10 December), the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with briefings by High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. The US, as president of the Council, convened the meeting in response to a joint request from Chile, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US, presented in a 3 December letter to the president of the Council (S/2015/931). The letter specifically asked that a senior official from the Secretariat and an OHCHR official “formally brief at a meeting of the Security Council” in order to provide Council members with further information on the situation in the DPRK and its implications for international peace and security “as early as possible in the month of December”. At the time of writing it was unclear whether the DPRK would participate in the meeting in accordance with rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, but participation of some other non-Council member states was expected.

This will be the second formal Council meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK, following its decision on 22 December 2014, to add “the situation in the DPRK” to its agenda as a separate item from the non-proliferation issue, in response to the findings of the February 2014 report of the Human Rights Council commission of inquiry (A/HRC/25/63). That decision, which came about as a result of a joint request from a group of ten Council members (S/2014/872), was highly contentious, with objections from China prompting a procedural vote in which Russia joined China in voting against adding the situation to the Council’s agenda. Chad and Nigeria abstained, while the remaining 11 Council members voted in favour.

Although the situation in the DPRK is now formally on the Council’s agenda, China has made clear that it is strongly opposed to having another meeting, as has Russia. China’s position appears to be the same as last year, when it argued that the situation does not constitute a threat to international peace and security and therefore does not fall within the mandate of the Council. It also expressed concern about the potential for an escalation of tensions in the region. It is therefore possible that there may again be a procedural vote tomorrow.

As stated in rule 9 of the Council’s rules of procedure, the first item of the provisional agenda for each meeting of the Council shall be the adoption of the agenda. It is normally agreed ahead of the meeting and adopted without a vote. If however differences over the agenda cannot be worked out among Council members ahead of the meeting, the president will have to call for a procedural vote. In a procedural vote the veto does not apply, and just nine affirmative votes are needed for a decision to be made, as specified in Article 27(2) of the UN Charter. China may choose to object to the adoption of the agenda for the meeting tomorrow as a matter of principle and to ensure that its position is placed on record. It would be the first time there is a procedural vote in the Council over whether to discuss an item already on its agenda. However, as at this stage it knows that it will lose such a procedural vote, China could also choose to not object to the draft agenda but make a statement during the meeting expressing its concern.

In light of these continuing Council differences over the appropriateness of discussing the human rights situation in the DPRK, some members are likely to explain why they disagree with China’s assertion that the Council is not mandated to address the situation, in particular in terms of implications for regional peace and security. They may choose to address more specifically linkages that exist between Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation policies and its human rights abuses, both in terms of how these abuses enable its proliferation activities and how the DPRK’s Songun or “military first” policy impacts the human rights situation.

A main concern for some members is likely to be the lack of progress since the Council last considered the situation, despite the international community’s continuing condemnation of the human rights abuses and efforts to engage in a dialogue with the government in Pyongyang. While there was some hope at the Council meeting last year that the intensified international focus on the situation would have a positive impact, recent reports to the General Assembly highlight a clear lack of progress.

An 8 September report to the General Assembly from the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman, (A/70/362), said there had been no improvement over the past year, with grave violations continuing on a large scale. It called on the international community to step up its efforts based on a two-track strategy involving measures to ensure accountability while seeking continued engagement with the DPRK authorities. A 28 September Secretary-General’s report to the General Assembly on the DPRK similarly noted the lack of progress on any of the key human rights issues. More recently, on 26 November the special rapporteur warned at the end of a five-day visit to Seoul that nothing had changed since the commission of inquiry issued its report.

With regard to Zeid’s briefing, Council members are likely to be interested in an update on the activities of the OHCHR’s new field office in Seoul which was inaugurated on 23 June this year. This office, which was mandated by the Human Rights Council to update and deepen the information gathered by the commission of inquiry and the special rapporteur, focuses in particular on strengthening monitoring and documentation of the human rights situation in the DPRK; promoting accountability; enhancing engagement and capacity-building in cooperation with key stakeholders; and maintaining the visibility of the human rights situation.

Council members may also be interested in hearing about efforts to engage DPRK authorities in a dialogue with international partners. A year ago, before the General Assembly’s Third Committee adopted its annual resolution on the human rights situation in the DPRK, Pyongyang extended an invitation to the special rapporteur to visit the country on the condition that the resolution would not refer to the ICC. The invitation was subsequently withdrawn when the Committee went ahead and adopted a resolution calling on the Council to consider referring the situation to the ICC (A/RES/69/188). However, recently there have been some positive signs, with Pyongyang extending an invitation to the High Commissioner to visit. His office is currently discussing the details of the visit with the DPRK authorities. There are also ongoing talks about a possible visit by the Secretary-General. While there seems to be a considerable amount of scepticism over Pyongyang’s intentions, some Council members may choose to welcome these developments and stress the importance of serious engagement with the international community.

A further question that may be raised tomorrow is what action the Council should consider in response to the continuing human rights abuses. In its most recent resolution on the DPRK, adopted on 19 November, the General Assembly’s Third Committee renewed its request to the Security Council to continue considering the recommendations of the commission of inquiry and take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including a referral to the ICC or the imposition of targeted sanctions against those found to be responsible for crimes against humanity (A/C.3/70/L.35). As last year, the resolution was adopted by a large majority of 112 in favour, 19 against and 50 abstentions. The special rapporteur has continued to call on the Council to consider a referral to the ICC or other measures aimed at ensuring accountability, and to hold regular briefings on the situation in the DPRK.

Although China is expected to continue to oppose any Council action relating to the human rights situation in the DPRK and to be supported by Russia, other Council members may wish to express their support for further measures, in particular with regard to ensuring accountability for crimes against humanity. There seems to be a sense among some members, however, that it is important at this stage to deliver a balanced message that calls for accountability, but also adequately takes into account the importance of engagement with DPRK authorities. More generally, members are likely to stress the importance of regular briefings on the situation in the DPRK and make clear that they expect the Council to take up this issue again in 2016.

Postscript: China asked for a vote on the agenda which led to a procedural vote. The outcome of the vote was four against – China, Russia, Angola and VZ- two abstentions – Chad and Nigeria, and nine in favour.