GENEVA / SEOUL (27 July 2017) – Human rights should feature high on the talks agenda in South Korea’s proposed initiative to resume military and humanitarian dialogue with the North, a United Nations rights expert has said.
The Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Tomás OJEA QUINTANA, said the opportunity to discuss human rights must be seized as part of the current efforts to restore severed ties between the two countries.
“While I welcome the initiative by the administration of President Moon Jae-in to resume dialogue, it is important that that engagement serves as a platform for North Korea to discuss ways to improve human rights,” Mr. OJEA QUINTANA
said, ending his second mission to the Republic of Korea (ROK) since his appointment by the UN Human Rights Council last year.
Pyongyang has recently rejected a call by Seoul to resume family reunions, which have not been held for two years, after the DPRK resumed nuclear tests and long-range missile launches.
North Korea has also said that further reunions can only take place if 12 restaurant workers, whom it says South Korea abducted from China in 2016, are returned. Mr. OJEA QUINTANA said the account he has received contains inconsistencies, and pledged to follow up on the issue with the concerned parties to help the women and their families reconnect.
The Special Rapporteur also met with a man who wishes to return to North Korea where his wife and son live, despite the risk of being punished for leaving for South Korea three years ago.
“If anything, these cases highlight the complexity of the family separation issue that started 70 years ago, and the fact that it continues to take new forms and affect people in the Korean peninsula in profound ways,” he argued.
The expert highlighted a surge in detentions and forced repatriations of North Koreans caught in China, who usually receive harsh labour sentences when they are sent back.
“North Koreans who leave their country are caught in a horrendous cycle of physical and psychological violence, and I received information that some take their own lives when they find out that they are scheduled for repatriation,” said Mr. OJEA QUINTANA.
The expert noted that China has a responsibility to abide by the principle of non-refoulement in international law. “I appeal to the Government of China to halt the policy, protect those in custody and engage with my mandate and with relevant UN agencies to think of alternatives,” he stressed.
The Special Rapporteur reiterated his deep concern about the human rights situation in North Korea.
“The information I have been receiving points to different violations that continue to affect the lives of ordinary North Koreans and even foreigners,” he said, highlighting allegations of arbitrary detention, human trafficking and enforced disappearances, as well as sexual and gender-based violence against women detained in holding centres in the border areas.
He also identified detention conditions as a matter of continuing concern: “The prospect of being sent to a political prison camp keeps haunting North Koreans. The fear is so great that people assume anyone who disappears must have been sent to one of the five known camps.”
“The issue concerns foreigners too, some of whom have been detained for months without access to consular assistance to which they are entitled”, he added.
A recent crackdown on the use of electronic equipment and foreign audiovisual material was brought to the expert’s attention. “The Government campaign seems to contrast with wider access to smart phones and foreign DVDs within the population. Information does come in despite all the restrictions and penalties,” he said.
Since his appointment the expert has pursued what has been termed by his predecessor a ‘two-track approach’, combining calls for dialogue with an emphasis on the need to hold the authorities to account.
“While the debate on accountability will continue to expand following the latest DPRK resolutions at the UN Security and Human Rights Councils, we need to broaden the concept and consider it as part of the larger question of what it takes to ensure freedom and dignity for all North Koreans. Of course that conversation also involves the authorities”, Mr. OJEA QUINTANA emphasized.
During his five-day mission to Seoul, from 17 to 21 July, the Special Rapporteur met senior members of the Government as well as representatives of civil society and other groups. His requests for access to North Korea have not been granted.
The Special Rapporteur will report his findings and recommendations to the UN General Assembly in October 2017.
Mr. Tomás OJEA QUINTANA (Argentina) was designated as the Special Rapporteur on
the situation of human rights in the DPRK by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Ojea Quintana, a lawyer with more than 20 years of experience in human rights, worked for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and represented the Argentinian NGO “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” in cases concerning child abduction during the military regime. He is a former Head of OHCHR human rights programme in Bolivia, and served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2008 to 2014.
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