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Human rights in North Korea top priority despite rising tensions, Special Rapporteur and UN experts

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GENEVA (10 March 2017) – A call to firmly assign responsibility for gross human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will be made by the UN Special Rapporteur, Tomás Ojea Quintana, when he presents the first report to the Human Rights Council since his appointment in June 2016.

The report* will be discussed amid increasing political tensions between the DPRK and its neighbours after the authorities in Pyongyang resumed nuclear tests and missile launches using ballistic technology. The UN Security Council has already strengthened sanctions against the DPRK as a result.

The report of the Special Rapporteur highlights the need to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations accountable, and practical options towards accountability are further explored in the report by the group of independent experts, Sonja Biserko and Sara Hossain, who were mandated by the Human Rights Council to support the Special Rapporteur on issues of accountability.

Mr. Ojea Quintana argues that recent political developments and the push for militarization have further isolated the country from the international community and reduced opportunities to discuss human rights. He says: “It is clear that the deteriorating security and political situation, and the prospect of instability, do not make room for an easy conversation about human rights.”

There have been a few attempts to set up a dialogue between the DPRK and UN human rights mechanisms, including through the submission of long-overdue national reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“These are important channels for the DPRK to discuss ways to implement their international human rights obligations, and I urge the authorities to make the most of them,” the expert said.

The report provides an overview of developments in several key issues, including deficiencies in the public food distribution system, restrictions on access to information, and violations of international labour standards concerning overseas workers. The report also expresses continuing concern over the grave situation in political prison camps and the unresolved cases of enforced disappearances involving the DPRK, including the abduction of citizens of Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Mr. Ojea Quintana says the information he received came from several sources including people he met who had recently left the DPRK. He said he was “impressed that they were well aware of their rights and despite all the obstacles they faced, looked forward to the future.” 

“The testimonies I have received confirm what the international community has been saying for years regarding the critical nature of the human rights situation in the DPRK, and the need to take immediate steps to protect people. The current tensions should not distract us from pursuing that goal,” Mr Ojea Quintana added.

The Special Rapporteur is calling on all parties to implement without delay the recommendations in the report of the group of independent experts on accountability, which is annexed to his report.

The group of independent experts said: “We call for a framework for accountability that is human rights-based – ensuring that the rights and needs of victims of human rights violations are at the centre of any accountability measures.” They added: “this goal can be achieved only through a fully participatory process involving victims and affected communities, to ensure that accountability measures reflect their experiences, views, and their expectations of justice.”

The group of independent experts emphasized that given the severity and complexity of the human rights situation in the DPRK, “a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach is required, in line with international norms and standards.”

This approach should encompass measures to establish individual criminal responsibility of perpetrators, as well as measures to ensure the rights of victims and societies to know the truth about violations, the rights of victims to reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence.  In this context, “accountability requires coordinated efforts on all these fronts and in multiple forums,” the group added.

In their report, the independent experts mapped options for accountability within the domestic system of the DPRK and other countries; through international and internationally assisted courts; as well as through the international human rights machinery. The group of independent experts reiterated that “the DPRK is the primary duty holder of the obligation to bring perpetrators of violations in the country to account,” while the group concluded that it appeared that no viable options for accountability were in existence or had been used in the DPRK.

Given these findings, the group of independent experts called on the international community to “continue to pursue a referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. The scope for the establishment of an ad hoc international tribunal must also be duly considered - including as a deterrent for future crimes and a signal that victims will be heard,” the group added.

Finally, the report of the group of independent experts identified practical steps that should be taken immediately to contribute to a comprehensive approach towards accountability.

The group of independent experts stressed that: “concrete steps towards making accountability a reality are needed now”. The group said practical steps should include conducting awareness-raising of victims and affected communities, as well as coordinated and comprehensive consultations with victims and other stakeholders. Additionally, the group called for sustained and sound information and evidence gathering and storage, and for an assessment of available information and evidence to be undertaken in order to identify gaps and develop possible investigation and prosecution strategies and blueprints for suitable international court models.

The Special Rapporteur and the experts will hold a joint press conference on Monday 13 March at 14:00 in Palais des Nations, Press Room 3. Once delivered, their statements will be available here.

(*) Check the advance edited reports by the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/34/66) and the Group of Independent Experts (A/HRC/34/66.Add1):

ENDS

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. Learn more

Ms. Sonja Biserko (Serbia) was designated by the High Commissioner as a member of the Group of Independent Experts. She is the founder and President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, a founding member of the Centre for Anti-War Action in the Belgrade Forum for International Relations, and a senior fellow in the United States Institute of Peace. She has received several human rights awards, including the Human Rights Award of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York and the Human Rights Award of the University of Oslo. She was a member of the former commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Ms. Sara Hossain (Bangladesh) was designated by the High Commissioner as a member of the Group of Independent Experts. She is a Barrister, practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh for over 20 years, with a focus on constitutional and public interest litigation, including on freedom of expression, economic and social rights, and gender justice. She ran the South Asia Programme at INTERIGHTS from 1997 to 2003. She served as a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, and founding Director of the South Asia Women’s Fund. She is a recipient of awards, including from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Learn more

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

For more information and media requests please contact Tarek Cheniti (tcheniti@ohchr.org) or Sebastiaan Verelst (gie-dprk@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant1@ohchr.org

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