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Oral update on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

40th session of the Human Rights Council

12 March 2019

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Pursuant to resolution 34/24 of March 2017, on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I have the privilege of presenting our full report (A/HRC/40/36) on the implementation of the recommendations related to accountability, as contained in paras 12-13 of the resolution.

Following the oral update we presented in March 2018, OHCHR established a “DPRK Accountability Project” team, led by a high-level international expert and including international criminal law experts.

In fulfilling the Council’s mandate, the team has strengthened OHCHR’s monitoring and documentation efforts by collecting, and assessing from an international criminal law perspective, information relating to suspected crimes against humanity that may have been committed in the DPRK. The team has pursued various sources of documentation, given the lack of access to the country and the difficulties in collecting information directly from within the DPRK itself. This has included conducting interviews as well as reviewing statements and information collected by our Office in Seoul, the DPRK Commission of Inquiry, and by governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In addition, the team has sought to establish evidence that links alleged crimes with those individuals possibly responsible for the acts in question or with the commanders and superiors responsible for formulating the relevant policies, issuing the orders or failing to exercise proper control over the relevant subordinates.

Also in fulfilment of the mandate, the team has established a secure electronic repository to function as a central archive for information and evidence collected. This will also be a useful analytical and investigative tool, with capability to sort stored information and generate reports based on various criteria, including crime locations, elements of crimes, and suspected perpetrators.

The breadth of the data gathered since the establishment of our Office in Seoul supports the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry, namely, that there are reasonable grounds for believing that crimes against humanity may have been committed (A/HRC/25/63, para. 74), especially imprisonment and detention-related crimes, such as torture, other inhuman acts, enslavement and murder.

By way of example, former detainees interviewed by OHCHR consistently have described the harsh conditions of detention, in particular widespread malnourishment causing severe health problems among prisoners, and consistently have described being subject to physical and psychological violence, including during interrogations by officers of the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security.

Several interviewees reported cases of prisoners who had died in detention centres from malnutrition, overwork or untreated diseases, or a combination of these factors. Some women reported having been sexually assaulted by guards while in detention. The accounts given by former detainees also suggest a total absence both of judicial oversight of detention centres and of any system for inmates to report abuse.

The alleged systematic perpetration of crimes in detention centres under the direct authority of the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security also supports the inference that such crimes may be committed pursuant to policies formulated at higher levels and implemented by local political and administrative authorities.

While at this stage, more substantive and specific evidence is necessary to detail those who at all levels may have been responsible for these alleged criminal acts, it is important to stress that the crimes believed to have been committed- and which may be ongoing, are of the gravest kind.

The conditions may not yet be in place for the prosecution of such allegations either through a national process or through the creation of an ad hoc tribunal or a referral to the International Criminal Court, however, it remains imperative that the relevant information is expertly collected and stored to a standard suitable for any future accountability purposes.

As highlighted in the report, the expert collection, analysis and preservation of information about such serious crimes is a major undertaking, being further compounded by the lengthy time-scale and the fact that crimes have been committed throughout DPRK.  This undertaking requires significant resources and time and needs the full support of this Council.

Should this Council extend the mandate of the accountability team, OHCHR proposes to strengthen it, with the aims of continuing to investigate, document, and store securely information pertaining to criminal allegations, and of developing possible strategies for ensuring future accountability processes commence.

Efforts aimed at securing a long-lasting peace on the Korean peninsula must also integrate the human rights of the people of the DPRK, including with regard to accountability, respecting and upholding victims’ rights to justice, remedy and restoration of their dignity.  A lasting peace will be possible only if the voices of victims too are heard and past injustices are addressed adequately.

The ‘DPRK Accountability Project’ is a unique and, in many ways, historic opportunity for this Council to help secure today such justice in the future in respect of human rights violations perpetrated in the DPRK; an historic opportunity thereby to uphold the right to justice both of the victims and of their families.