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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the Yonsei University

Korean version

Korea in the Human Rights World

24 June 2015

Mr President,
Your Excellency,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for this warm welcome. Yonsei is not only one of the world’s top universities, with an admirably long list of graduates who have become public servants, opinion-makers and business leaders. It also features the important work of the Human Liberty Centre at the Graduate School of International Studies, which is led by Ambassador Lee.

Both in raising awareness of human rights violations, and in its support for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we are glad to be able to count on the Centre’s strong assistance.

We live in an era of anxiety and troubling global instability. Despite the extraordinary scientific and technological progress, and the economic advances, which are transforming the lives of so many of us, our world is also wracked with violence, brutal oppression, deprivation and despair. In too many countries geo-political considerations and the narrow interests of the few are given precedence over massive human suffering, and this creates threats to peace, to development, to human life and human rights.

Our world cries out for better global leadership. Leadership that embodies a broader, more principled vision – transcending narrowly defined, defensive national interests and identities, and recognizing that the collective interest of humanity is in the national interest of every State. Leadership which is sensitive to the experiences and needs of people, and which acknowledges that the principles of human rights build societies that are more stable, more peaceful, more welcoming, and more prosperous. Leadership which understands that where there are differences among us, these should be resolved through dialogue, cooperation, mutual respect, and reconciliation.  

The Korean people have gained deep understanding of these needs. For the history of this region is majestic, but also painful; rich with inspirational achievements, and shot through with suffering. It has been 65 years since the beginning of the Korean War that left this peninsula devastated; 70 years since the end of the Second World War brought the partition of Korea. It is time, in this year of remembrance of great pain, to take stock of the progress we have made – and above all, of the lessons that we have learned, which we must seek to employ in the future.

We have learned that history ceaselessly informs the present. A sense of a shared history is a precious, and vital, element in creating the understanding that we belong to a common community – one in which differences in the interpretation of history should be discussed and resolved.  Because when the wounds of history remain unattended, they widen and deepen.  When their very existence is doubted, they will not heal: they will harden into fault-lines that impede our ability to manage disagreements with harmony and respect.

Often there is a failure to see how other groups have very different narratives of those same historical events.  Certain episodes may also be airbrushed out of history textbooks – their victims excluded from official memory, their rights and therefore their fundamental humanity erased.  Specific communities may be portrayed negatively, so that children grow up with a slanted vision which pits one people against another, inciting the discrimination and extreme nationalism that drive new violence.

I believe that impartially examining a painful past, acknowledging it, understanding it, and above all transcending it together, is the best way to guarantee that it will not happen again for all states.  In a sense, this means that it is the victims – and their families – who measure whether or not societies fully recover from the brutality of war or repression.  If their needs are not addressed as a central priority, reconciliation will never occur, and the state of deep distrust, though partially buried, will continue to smoulder.

We all hope to live long, healthy, lives and yet too many human beings across the world experience terrible trauma and pain, many, tragically, in the form of outrageous assaults on their most fundamental rights.  If they survive war, torture or persecution, time will dim the initial razor-sharp memories.  But pain has an unusual quality.  Even with the passing of many years, memory can blur, but the pain is always there.  With only a little nudge, it can spring back, and the memory becomes alive again. Suddenly, very suddenly, decades disappear and the past overwhelms the present.

This morning I met with three extraordinarily brave victims of sexual slavery, euphemistically called comfort women.  Like all the victims of war, in the past or the present, and irrespective of location, what they need most from us is not more formal statements or proclamations.  Neither do they need others to claim their victimhood, and abuse it for political motives. What they need are gestures of acknowledgment and heartfelt atonement.  We need to sit quietly with them, listen to them, ask about them, laugh a little with them, hold their hands and lament their suffering.

The Asian continent has witnessed, and continues to witness in some parts still, its share of persecution, brutal oppression, and the denial of human rights, including economic and social rights.  But it can change, and it must.

If leaders do not encourage the voices of their people, they are cutting themselves off from their most precious resource. When institutions have been constructed to enable a political elite to monopolize power, to extract economic resources, and to act in detriment of the common good, this builds instability. Groups will struggle to seize that power, and the élites will live in fear of their own people. Their fear breeds obsessive surveillance systems and mistrust, hampering progress on every level, including economic prosperity. Such systems are also averse to change and loss of control, hindering the creative dissent that generates innovation. 

The true hallmarks of a stable, peaceful, mature and strong society are democratic institutions, access to impartial justice, an independent media and a strong voice for civil society.


The transformation of the Republic of Korea from the bloodshed and rubble of war to its current prosperity and embrace of democratic values is one of the great success stories of modern times. This country's human rights journey has spanned decades of colonial subjugation. The cruelty and exploitation of World War II. The atrocities and destruction of the Korean war. It has included – and indeed still includes – the pain of partition between the two Koreas, which separates hundreds of thousands of families, and imposes appalling suffering on millions of people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

It has encompassed military rule, which for decades stifled fundamental freedoms.

Today, the Republic of Korea is a country that embodies hope. As an economic powerhouse, and a source of creativity and innovation – including on sustainable development – the Republic of Korea is helping to shape our world. With its strong democratic and judicial institutions, thirst for education and broad-based civil society networks, it is an example for many other States, and one I wish that more would follow.

Both as a longstanding member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and most recently as a member of the Security Council, the Republic of Korea is taking its rightful place in the work of the UN. As the past Chair of the Executive Committee of our sister agency, UNHCR, it has contributed to the search for solutions to the human rights violations which drive migration. The recent decision to send peacekeepers to the UN mission in South Sudan also highlights this country’s efforts on behalf of peace and human rights.

The Republic of Korea has also taken several inspiring initiatives that expand our conception of human rights accountability at the local level. I refer in particular to the idea of a “human rights city", in which the contract between local government and the people is strengthened by human rights principles. I am heartened that the Republic of Korea is bringing this initiative to the world, through its sponsorship of resolutions at the Human Rights Council on local government and human rights.

And of course no discussion of The Republic of Korea’s contributions to our work at the United Nations would be complete if I did not acknowledge the role of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- who with his ground-breaking work on sustainable development, climate action, LGBT rights and the vital Human Rights Up Front policy, has made human rights central to his legacy.

Yet as I view the remarkable work of this country on the global human rights scene, I note with regret that similar efforts cannot be made at the regional level, for lack of strong institutions. In 2012, when he was awarded the Seoul Peace Prize, the Secretary-General said, “The countries of the region are now each other’s most important trading partners. Yet tensions from the past are still all too present. Let us draw lessons from other parts of the world where regional integration and cooperation are well advanced.”

These are wise words, from a man who was forced to flee his home-town at the age of six, and who, from his refuge in the mountains, watched as his village was bombed out of all recognition. It is indeed striking to observe the weakness of political integration, and even cooperation, in Northeast Asia, despite accelerating economic interdependence and travel. In the absence of an adequate architecture for regional cooperation, we see a landscape characterised by disturbing elements of nationalist acrimony – even hate speech and incitement to violence.

The strangle-hold of history is particularly ruthless in this peninsula. This country's spectacular progress and development has a shadow in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – a country that is almost an exact inverse image of the Republic of Korea's successes. All of us can vividly recall the famous NASA image of the blackness of night in the north, where people starve for lack of resources and because of deliberate official actions; are murdered for whispered dissent; and may be subjected to enslavement, torture, forcible transfers and persecution.

Because of the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry – which has benefited from the support of the Republic of Korea – those conditions are now known. After years of neglecting the human rights of Koreans in the north of the peninsula, the international community was shocked and galvanised to action by the Commission of Inquiry’s ground-breaking report last year. Strong resolutions were adopted by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, and in the Security Council the situation in the DPRK has received sustained attention – extending well beyond the nuclear question. There is now unprecedented determination among Member States to demand far greater respect for the human rights of the people of the DPRK, and accountability for those responsible for these extensive violations, as well as for the disappearances and abductions of nationals from neighbouring countries, including from Japan.

The prospect of concerted action by the international community can have a strong deterrent effect. We have seen very encouraging early signs of responsiveness from the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with evident willingness to engage more fully with the international human rights system. These small steps forward that have been taken during the two Universal Periodic Reviews of that country lead us to endorse the idea of a “two track” approach, which was first suggested by the Special Rapporteur on DPRK – combining strong efforts for accountability with engagement, and offers of international assistance, for change.

Our new Seoul Field Office embodies that hope and that resolve. It will be a strong platform for monitoring, reporting and engagement – a hub for all stakeholders interested in promoting human rights improvements in the DPRK. It will stand for the rights of the victims – who have endured cruelty of such magnitude and duration that they almost defy human understanding, and who have an indisputable right to justice. By involving regional actors in a common search to end impunity in the DPRK, it is our hope that we can encourage much broader understanding of accountability and justice among key partners.

The passage of time cannot, alone, repair human rights violations so unspeakably brutal as those in question here. And to deny those wounds adds further insult to the injury – for neglecting the respect that is due to victims denies them their rights, and thus, in a deeper sense, their humanity. These are wounds that must be acknowledged, remedied and healed, with real justice – or they will harden, in bitterness and hatred, ready to burst forth once again.