Dignity Denied: North Korean Atrocities Revealed

On September 17, 2013, Michael Donald Kirby, Chairperson the Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea presented to the 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council. Image: Jean-Marc Ferré. On February 17, a Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council—the United Nations’ top intergovernmental human rights body—released a devastating report on the human rights situation in North Korea. The nearly 400-page document enumerates a shocking litany of human rights abuses by the regime.

Amounting to “crimes against humanity,” these abuses include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. . .and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. “The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” concludes the report, which is based on 80 public testimonies from survivors as well as more than 270 confidential interviews.

The Commission’s report is unprecedented in detailing the extent of rights abuses in North Korea. In the words of Commission Chair Michael Kirby, “We cannot say we didn't know. . .We now do know."

Among other recommendations, the report calls upon the UN Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court and to slap the regime with targeted sanctions. It also suggests that UN members should act to ensure that some form of investigatory mechanism continues the work of the Commission.

Interestingly, the Commission also sent a letter directly to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, informing the young ruler that he could very well come under prosecution for the astonishing array of rights violations in the country.

Beyond the report’s role as a step-forward toward accountability, the commission’s chair framed the undertaking in terms of human dignity. One exchange during the press conference announcing the official release of the report is telling in this regard. A journalist asked the panel:

Do you think that the people in North Korea are aware that there is something like human rights and that they are violated on a regular basis in the country?

Commission Chair and former Australian High Court Justice, Michael Kirby, responded:

That's a question I asked when I was special representative of the secretary general in Cambodia and the response I got was mirth. They couldn't believe I could be so stupid as to ask that question. Ordinary human beings know when things are being done that are arbitrary, cruel, ruthless, but often they can't do anything about it. And I think it's probably the same in North Korea. They may not know the great treaties, they may have never heard of the Palais des Nations, but that they know that they have a dignity as being a human being is something I think we should never forget.

Kirby’s candid response highlights an essential element of the concept of dignity, namely in terms of universality.

Perhaps it was the same universal sentiment of dignity that opened the door for the 47 members of the Human Rights Council to establish the Commission back in April 2013. Indeed, despite the routine vociferous objections of many UN members—including some on the Council—that it is unproductive for the United Nations to address human rights violations on a country-specific basis, the resolution creating the mandate for the Commission was adopted on a consensus basis; not a single country voted nay.

The international human rights regime—including intergovernmental institutions, individual governments, and civil society—should continue to investigate, expose, and document human rights violations of Kim Jong-Un’s regime as well as maintain the march towards justice for unconscionable violations of dignity in North Korea. With North Korea having powerful friends in institutions like the UN Security Council, this will not be easy. Nevertheless, the Commission’s report marks a key precedent moving forward.

Accordingly, both the concept of universal human dignity as well as the implementation of human rights norms should continue to drive the efforts of the Council, and more often animate those of the broader United Nations, in turn giving hope to brave human rights defenders worldwide, like those on North Korea.

More about the Commission of Inquiry, including satellite images of labor camps in North Korea and survivors’ renderings of daily rights violations, is available on the UN Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.