SEOUL, August 26 -- A UN inquiry into human rights in North Korea on Tuesday completes a 10-day mission to Seoul, half of it devoted to often dramatic public hearings in which more than 40 witnesses – some of them recently arrived from the North -- testified on a host of rights-related issues.
"Witnesses appearing before us over the past week have provided information of great specificity and detail,” said Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge who serves as chairman of the three-member UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). “We have been deeply moved by the testimonies. The commission wants to thank each and every one of them for making the brave decision to share with us their often painful experiences in the DPRK. And we want to assure them that, when we report, we will bring their accounts and concerns to the attention of the United Nations and the international community.”
The commission was established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 with a one-year mandate to investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea. In addition to Kirby, the commission is comprised of Ms. Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert, and Mr. Marzuki Darusman, a senior Indonesian jurist who also serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, a post he has held since 2010.
Alleged violations to be investigated by the commission under its mandate include those concerning the right to food and those associated with prison camps; torture and inhuman treatment; arbitrary detention; discrimination; freedom of expression, movement and religion; the right to life; and enforced disappearances, including abductions of nationals to other countries. Over the past 10 days, the commission has heard testimony linked to all of these issues.
Kirby has noted that the commission, which is scheduled to hold a press conference in Seoul’s Korea Press Centre on Tuesday morning before departing for Japan, is paying particular attention to determining accountability, including the level of responsibility for any violations by state institutions and individuals. And he vows that the commission’s final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014 will not be just another UN document.
“The fact that the resolution establishing this commission was adopted in Geneva with unanimity is an indication that the international community now agrees that something must be done,” Kirby said. “What we have seen and heard over the past days in Seoul, the specificity, detail and shocking character of much of the testimony, appears to call for a response from the international community. In the contemporary world, it is not good enough to produce just another UN report. Today, leaders and governments are accountable and the commission of inquiry has been created with that objective in mind. But equally, it is not good enough to respond with denunciation.”
The decision to hold public hearings in Seoul last week and in Tokyo later this week is aimed at raising international awareness of human rights conditions in the DPRK. It also follows a lack of response by the Pyongyang government to requests that the UN team be allowed entry to North Korea to see the situation for itself, as well as to an invitation to participate in the inquiry.
Kirby, who spent 35 years as a judge, said criticism of the commission late last week by the DPRK government could be resolved through such cooperation.
“Since we began our hearings in Seoul, the government of North Korea has at last responded to the mandate of the commission,” he said. “It has attacked the testimony we have heard and comments upon it as a ‘slander’ of the DPRK. An answer to any suggested ‘slander’ exists where what is said is true. If any of the testimony on the conditions of political prisoners, abductees, torture, starvation conditions and inter-generational punishment and so forth can be shown to be untrue, we would welcome evidence to that effect. But so far, the evidence we have heard has largely pointed in one consistent and disturbing direction – and it is so far unanswered.”