posted on Thu 8 Dec 2016 3:14 PM
Briefing on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Tomorrow morning (9 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 Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour. It will be the third time that the Council formally considers 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). The last such Council meeting was held on 10 December 2015 (S/PV.7575).

The meeting tomorrow comes just a little more than a week after the Council unanimously adopted a new sanctions resolution in response to the DPRK’s 9 September nuclear test (S/RES/2321), containing significant new provisions aimed at increasing the pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This resolution also included new human rights related language emphasising the necessity of the DPRK “respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity of people” within its borders, while reiterating the Council’s deep concern at the grave hardship that the population is subjected to, and condemning the DPRK for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of the welfare of its people.

Despite the consensus achieved regarding resolution 2321, Council members remain sharply divided in their assessment of whether the human rights violations in the DPRK constitute a threat to international peace and security. China’s position appears to be the same as last year, when it argued that the Council is not the right place to discuss human rights situations and that such issues should not be politicised, a view shared by other Council members, including Egypt, Russia and Venezuela. The meeting tomorrow therefore does not appear on the Council’s agreed programme of work for December. Instead, following the practice of the previous two occasions when the Council discussed the human rights situation in the DPRK, the meeting is being convened in response to a joint request from a group of nine Council members. On 1 December, France, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, Ukraine, the UK, the US and Uruguay sent a letter to the Council president (S/2016/1034), asking for a meeting on the situation in the DPRK with briefings by a senior official from the UN Secretariat and an OHCHR senior official “which will enable Council members to receive further information from the Secretariat on the situation and its implications for international peace and security” – the same language as the letter that was sent last year.

In light of these differences among Council members, it is likely that there will be a procedural vote tomorrow, as was the case before the meetings held in 2014 and 2015. China is expected, as a matter of principle, to again ask for a vote on the adoption of the agenda of the meeting, although it is already clear that it does not have enough support to be able to block the meeting. In the case of Council decisions of a procedural nature, as specified in Article 27(2) of the UN Charter, just nine affirmative votes are needed for a decision to be adopted, and the veto does not apply. In addition to the nine Council members who signed the 1 December letter, Senegal has signaled that it supports the request for a meeting.

The meeting tomorrow will provide an opportunity for Council members to express their views on the appropriateness of the Council continuing to discuss the human rights situation in the DPRK in response to the contrary assertion by some members. These members may choose to highlight the nexus between human rights and peace and security, including 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 by preventing internal dissent and how the DPRK’s Songun or “military first” policy impacts the human rights situation.

In terms of format and substance, the meeting tomorrow is likely to proceed along the same lines as previous years’ discussions. Eliasson is expected to focus on the political and security situation in the region, which is expected to include a discussion of the implications of the recent escalation in violations of Council resolutions by the DPRK and the effect of the increase in tensions. Gilmour is expected to provide an update on the human rights situation, the UN’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang and the activities of the OHCHR’s office in Seoul. The office, which has been operational since June 2015, and was established in response to a request from the Human Rights Council (HRC), is mandated to strengthen monitoring and documentation of the human rights situation in the DPRK with a view to establishing accountability; enhance engagement and capacity-building with governments and other stakeholders, and contribute to sustaining attention on the situation.

Council members will be able to draw on the Secretary-General’s recent report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee on the human rights situation in the DPRK (A/71/439), as well as the report (A/71/402) and briefing by the new Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the DPRK mandated by the HRC, Tomás Ojea Quintana. Also, in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting, France convened an informal meeting last Thursday (1 December) for all Council members at expert level, with briefings by staff from the OHCHR’s office in Seoul, from OHCHR in Geneva and from the Department of Political Affairs. The meeting, which was a new initiative this year, was attended by all Council members except China and Russia. In addition, some Council members attended a panel discussion last Thursday titled “Human rights situation in the DPRK – current situation and initiatives by the international community”, organised by Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the US and the EU, which was held at the UN.

In reviewing the human rights situation and recent developments, Council members are likely to express concern about the lack of progress since the Council’s 2015 meeting, 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 meeting last year that the intensified international focus on the situation would have a positive impact, recent reports have underscored that there appears to have been very little, if any improvement, in the human rights situation for the population. Although Pyongyang has shown some willingness to engage with the international community, the recent increase in tensions over the nuclear issue has made it difficult to advance further dialogue.

As in previous years, the question of how to ensure accountability for the human rights violations committed in the DPRK and the Council’s role in this regard is likely to be a key focus of the discussion. In its most recent resolution on the DPRK, adopted on 15 November, the General Assembly’s Third Committee renewed its request to the 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.3/71/L.23). It seems Council members may choose to play down the ICC referral as an option, however, because of the sharp Council divisions on the role of the ICC, with China and others being firmly against a referral. They may instead want to focus on the need to explore other accountability measures. In this context, they may welcome the decision by the HRC, in its 23 March resolution, to request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to designate for six months at least two independent experts to support the work of the rapporteur with a focus on accountability for human rights violations, in particular crimes against humanity (A/HRC/RES/31/18). The resolution also asked for recommendations for practical accountability mechanisms, including through the ICC. The two experts were appointed on 9 September and will present their report to the HRC in March 2017 as an annex to the report by the special rapporteur.

More generally, members are likely to stress the importance of regular briefings on the situation in the DPRK, and to make clear that they expect the Council to take up this issue again in 2017 and perhaps more frequently than once a year. Although members recognise that getting agreement on any Council action to address the need for accountability in response to the human rights abuses in the DPRK is unlikely in the foreseeable future, they see value in the Council regularly discussing the situation, to keep up the pressure on Pyongyang.

Also happening tomorrow is a related event organised by Japan, the ROK, the UK and the US which many Council members are likely to attend. Titled “Separated, but Not Forgotten: the Heartbreaking Impact of North Korea’s Repressive Policies on Families”. It will feature testimonies by two DPRK nationals who were separated from their families as the result of human rights abuses. The event coincides with the publication on 7 December by the OHCHR of a report on the human rights dimension of the involuntary separation of Korean families based on testimonies collected by its office in Seoul.