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Special Rapporteur Discusses North Korea’s Engagement with the UN on Human Rights

By Robert R. King

Tomás Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), delivered his annual report to the UN General Assembly and gave an oral presentation at the end of October.  (See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, September 20, 2019.)

This was Ojea Quintana’s third year as Special Rapporteur since he was first appointed in 2016.  The topics on which he focused are the same human rights issues that have been raised since the first Special Rapporteur was appointed in 2004.  Ojea Quintana has provided the most recent information on these issues, but he gave a different twist on some themes.

North Korea and the UN Human Rights System

In the past, North Korea has generally been unwilling to engage with any of the UN Human Rights Council’s mechanisms and programs which constitute what Mr. Ojea Quintana identifies as the “UN human rights system.”  These UN mechanisms are (1) the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in an annual resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, which has been done since 2004;  (2) the creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry (2013-2014); (3)  discussions of North Korea’s human rights in the General Assembly and the adoption of a resolution critical of its actions (2005-present); (4) discussion of its human rights abuses as a threat to peace and security in the UN Security Council, which occurred annually from 2014 to 2017; and (5) the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process of self-examination on human right obligations with discussion and comments from other UN members countries.

(1)The UN Special RapporteurSince 2004, the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur, who reports annually to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.  From the very beginning, Pyongyang has refused to have any dealings with the Rapporteur.  The government has refused to invite any one of the three individuals who have served in that position in the last 15 years to visit the North.

The October 2019 Report to the General Assembly (paragraph 59) confirmed that the DPRK “continues to take a firm position that it ‘categorically rejects’ and ‘will in the future too neither accept nor recognize’ the Human Rights Council resolution and the Special Rapporteur.”  Ojea Quintana noted that in May of this year in Geneva, the DPRK delegation stated that “the Special Rapporteur is used as a political tool of the hostile forces.”

The only brief and temporary exception to North Korea’s willingness to engage the Special Rapporteur was in 2014 when DPRK diplomats offered a visit to North Korea if the Special Rapporteur would change the draft General Assembly resolution commending the Commission of Inquiry, and remove any reference to accountability for North Korea’s senior leadership calling for referral to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.  The resolution is the responsibility of UN member states, not the Special Rapporteur.  No changes were made in the resolution and no visit to the North took place.

The North Korean government did invite the UN Special Rapporteur for rights of persons with disabilities to visit North Korea in May 2017.  That was easier for the North Koreans to be accommodating.  The issue was not politically sensitive, as political prisons or access to information is.  Also, the Special Rapporteur was not singling out North Korea, since she was focused on a broad issue and visited a number of countries.

(2) UN Commission of Inquiry (2013-2014).  Pyongyang viciously denounced the Commission of Inquiry (COI) from the time it was created, and commission members were personally attacked.  A request by the Chair of the COI to meet with North Korean officials and to visit the country was ignored.  Ironically, when the COI report was publicly released, the North Koreans denounced the Commission for not coming to the North to see human rights conditions in the DPRK first-hand.

(3) UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly Resolutions and Discussions.  The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York have adopted resolutions highly critical of DPRK human rights annually since 2004, and both organizations hold separate meetings devoted to a discussion with the Special Rapporteur annually, but North Korea has not participated in these discussions.  The DPRK has not spoken or responded during the public discussions, which certainly is its right as a member of the United Nations.

(4) UN Security Council Discussions (2014-2017).  In December 2014, several months after the COI report was released, the Security Council met to discuss human rights abuses in North Korea as a threat to peace and security.  China and Russia were adamantly opposed to the discussion, but from 2014 to 2017 the Security Council had the necessary votes to place the issue on the Council’s agenda, at which North Korea was sharply criticized for its human rights record.  North Korea refused to exercise its right to participate in the discussion, but viciously blasted the United States and other Security Council members in the media.

(5) The Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  Each member country of the UN undergoes a human rights review every five years.  The review involves a self-evaluation of as well as questions from other member countries.

Title V of the report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly is focused on cooperation—or more accurately, the lack of cooperation—between North Korea and the UN human rights system.  In the past, North Korea has been hostile to all of these UN human rights mechanisms, but Ojea Quintana was more positive about North Korea’s participation in the UPR process, and this was particularly noteworthy.

North Korea’s Robust Participation in the Universal Periodic Review

In his recent report to the General Assembly, Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana was complimentary about North Korea’s engagement with the UPR  process.  This was the only positive note about engagement with UN Human Rights mechanisms (paragraph 60):  “The Special Rapporteur takes positively the fact that the Government sent a delegation of officials, including women, from its various branches and engaged in dialogue with other States.”  He quoted the DPRK delegation as saying it “highly values the dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights, in particular the [Universal Periodic Review] mechanism.”

There are a number of reasons the DPRK has participated actively and willingly in the UPR process while it has been unwilling to engage with the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies in the case of other human rights mechanisms.

First, the process is based on self-evaluation, not evaluation by outside specialists who are not under the control of Pyongyang.  The self-evaluation in the North Korea report is effusive in its praise.  The DPRK report praised its own efforts and included the vow to “faithfully fulfill its obligations under the international human rights treaties to which it is a State party, and will make positive contributions to the international efforts for the protection and promotion of human rights by promoting international cooperation and exchanges in the field of human rights based on the principles of impartiality, objectivity and equality.”  Such a positive spin on North Korea’s human rights situation is not likely to come from any outside source.

North Korea is sensitive about its legitimacy and international acceptance.  South Korea claims sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula, and North Korea makes that same claim as well.  Any international action that raises questions or doubts about North Korea’s international status and legitimacy is a threat.

Second, the UPR is not a process focused only on North Korea, but one in which all UN member countries participate.  Each one of the 193 UN member countries are evaluated during every five-year UPR cycle.

At the beginning of August 2017, 56 special rapporteurs held mandates under the UN Human Rights Council, and of that number, 44 dealt with a thematic issue area, such as cultural rights, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, independence of judges and attorneys, migrants, religion, children, persons with disabilities, etc.  Only 12 special rapporteurs focused on a single county.  In addition to North Korea, other countries with a human rights Special Rapporteur were Belarus, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria.  North Korea seeks legitimacy and to be treated like other UN member countries.  The UPR process is the only human rights mechanism that involves all UN members.

Third, the UPR process does not have mechanisms for following up on the accuracy of their self-evaluation or their record of fulfilling commitments they make during the UPR process.

Recommendations to North Korea During the Universal Periodic Review

The interactive dialogue is held with the participation of other UN member states for every country’s UPR.  Countries make suggestions and recommendations that are included in the UPR record, and the country under review is expected to respond to these questions and issue.  This is the opportunity in the UPR process to raise critical issues.

At its first UPR in December 2009, North Korea received 167 recommendations from other UN member countries.  In the follow up meeting in March 2010, the North did not accept a single recommendation.  Of the recommendations, 50 “did not enjoy the support of the DPRK” because they were politically sensitive.  On the remaining 117 recommendations, the Human Rights Council report on the UPR said these “will be examined by DPRK, which will provide responses in due time.”

The second UPR cycle in 2014 took place just three months after the Commission of Inquiry presented particularly damning evidence of DPRK human right abuses to the Human Rights Council.  Because of the attention given the COI, North Korea made a serious effort to demonstrate its observance of UN human rights norms. During this second UPR cycle for North Korea, the North responded not only to recommendations made in 2014 for the second UPR cycle, but went back and reviewed again the recommendations made in 2009 for the first cycle.  North Korea wanted to demonstrate a more accommodating attitude.

This acceptance of a large number of the first and second cycle UPR recommendations earned North Korea a positive commendation from then Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman in his October 2014 presentation to the Third Committee of the General Assembly.  He noted that the North had accepted 113 of 268 recommendations, and said: “I welcome these signs of increased engagement by the DPRK with the Human Rights Council and international community, and I hope they will bear fruit.”  The accepted recommendations mainly related to economic, social and cultural rights, and the protection of women’s and children’s rights.  Darusman, however, noted that the DPRK had failed to accept any of the well-thought out recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry.

A detailed analysis of North Korea’s response to the UPR process in 2009-2010 and 2014 also concluded that the North responded positively to the UPR, unlike its response to most other UN human rights mechanisms including the Commission of Inquiry.  But the study also concluded that the North “consistently accepted weak recommendations, rejected more specific policy changes, and implemented accepted recommendations on a limited basis, allowing it to claim compliance with human rights at minimal cost.”

Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana came to the same conclusion regarding North Korea’s response to recommendations in the 2019 UPR process (Report, paragraph 60).  The North received 262 recommendations from 87 countries and agreed to review 199 of these.  The 63 recommendations rejected by North Korea were all the extremely serious rights violations:  “political prison camps, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, abductees, the songbun class system” and cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights.

Special Rapporteur Recommendations on the UPR Process with North Korea

It is noteworthy that North Korea felt it important to participate in the Human Rights Council’s UPR process.  By making even limited changes in some of its policies, it recognized the validity of the human rights criticism, and it at least accepted this human rights mechanism.  Most important, it was accepting the idea that sovereign nations who seek international legitimacy and recognition have a responsibility to observe internationally acknowledge rights.

In the report to the General Assembly and in comments made at a press conference the day after his presentation on October 22, 2019, Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana acknowledged the importance of North Korea engaging with the UPR process, while also acknowledging the limitations:  “While those 63 recommendations concerning the fundamental rights of citizens were initially rejected by the Government, talking openly about these controversial issues is an important first step to address these human rights concerns.”  He also quoted a North Korean government statement that they “highly value the dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights, in particular the [universal periodic review] mechanism.”

Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana identified three areas in connection with the UPR process where changes could improve significantly the effectiveness of the process.  The first concern is that engagement with the North needs to be more frequent than once during the five-year cycle of the UPR.  He noted (Report, paragraph 60) that the North said it had “implemented all the recommendations provided in the previous cycles.”  But at his press conference at the UN, though he expressed positive support for engagement with the North Korea in the UPR process, he also emphasized that there needs to be more frequent engagement with the North than once every five years.

The second concern is that there is no mechanism for monitoring claims made during the UPR process.  North Korea said it had implemented hundreds of recommendations it received in the three cycles of the UPR process, but there has been no objective monitoring to determine if, in fact, there has been actual progress on these identified human rights issues.

The third concern that Ojea Quintana raised is that the North has not taken advantage of expertise and technical help available through the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  In his report, the Special Rapporteur encouraged the Government to consider “accepting advice and support from external actors in the implementation of the recommendations.”

The UN human rights measures are not a magic solution and it is not quick or immediate, but as the problematic case of North Korea has shown, these procedures can be helpful.  It does, however, require continued effort and monitoring by UN members and by UN institutions.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from the United States Mission Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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