Lord Alton of Liverpool has been a Crossbench Peer since 1997 and previously served for 18 years as a Liberal Democrat MP. He is co-chairman of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, and has written several books and reports on the country. The following article is the text of remarks delivered last month at a forum held during the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.
I have four points.
Let me deal with impunity and accountability first.
The Korean regime has committed egregious and enormous outrages so great that they constitute crimes against humanity.
With China increasingly unhappy with a regime that it has protected thus far, new efforts should now be made to persuade China to consider not using a veto and to allow a resolution referring Kim Jong-Un’s regime to the ICC.
Failing that, an ad hoc Regional Tribunal, allowing victims to detail the crimes committed against them, should be established.
Three years ago, a referral to the ICC was a key recommendation of the United Nations’ damning report on North Korea’s appalling human rights record. Eighty witnesses, and more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses, led Justice Kirby’s Commission of Inquiry to conclude that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
It detailed a catalogue of crimes against humanity, that included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions”, as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation and that the “unspeakable atrocities” faced by up to 120,000 prisoners in the country’s system of prison camps “resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century”. No official or institution is held accountable, the inquiry concluded, because “impunity reigns”.
On their website the ICC says this about the crimes it was established to investigate:
1. 27. What are crimes against humanity?
“Crimes against humanity” include any of the following acts committed:
- sexual violence;
- persecution against an identifiable group – such as – on religious grounds;
- other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury.
The small group of people that rule North Korea (the five or six, 80-years-old-plus men who run the Organisation and Guidance Department; and Kim Jong-un) will never put themselves in a position to be prosecuted. But, like Sudan’s Field Marshall Bashir they can be tried in absentia. He was indicted for genocide.
The new UN Special Rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana, rightly insists that the international community must “ensure that serious human rights violations, especially those amounting to crimes against humanity, do not go unpunished.”
Countries like the UK should be laying a resolution to that effect before the Security Council.
Ultimately, accountability and justice for millions of North Koreans will come through transitional justice mechanisms (Truth Commissions, memorials, evidence taking sessions etc) where communities come to terms with the horrors of the past decades that have been committed by people they know.
We must shine a light on these outrages, and make it clear that a Nuremburg moment awaits those who continue to carry out such outrages and atrocities.
Secondly, in the UK:
In Parliament we have an effective and active all-party group that regularly raises questions and debates.
Among its achievements have been to focus on breaking the information blockade and persuading the BBC and the British Government to support BBC World Service broadcasts to Korea. Other parliaments, all over the world, should be urged to establish similar groups and to co-ordinate specific initiatives.
But even in the UK – with an embassy in Pyongyang and an active parliamentary presence – the Government has not assigned any funding to promoting human rights inside North Korea, and should support UK-based NGOs who work on North Korea.
However, to its credit, the UK Government has long supported General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, often helping draft them, and enforced appropriate sanctions.
Thirdly, in the EU:
The media focus has been on forced labourers in Poland and Malta. This has achieved some success in that Poland claimed it had stopped issuing visas to North Korean workers and the company that hired North Koreans in Malta sent them home. However, we hear that Poland’s claims and realities don’t match and that North Koreans still enter and disperse across the Schengen area, as per their visas allow.
Moreover, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of North Korean ‘businessmen’ living legally in Europe that operate for the state and pass almost undetected. It is worth noting that one of the suspects in the killing of Kim Jong-nam was living perfectly legally in Malaysia, but can be considered a sleeper cell. The same is true all over Europe – especially in Southern Europe.
The EU remains too focused on the nuclear issue. Less so on the human rights issue.
Finally, it was encouraging to note the Group of Independent Experts report issued last week, and the UN Special Rapporteur’s first report, both of which contain helpful ideas – some of which I and others raised during a question on the floor of the House of Lords last week.
This is precisely the sort of information – along with the Commission of Inquiry report – that needs to be regularly despatched to parliamentarians and governments.
To those who suggest that there have been improvements on human rights in North Korea, I would say that all the evidence suggests the opposite. The human rights of ordinary North Koreans continue to decline in the Kim Jong-un era.
Individual human rights-based sanctions have been instituted by the US, but not the UK or EU. No on-the-ground action has been taken to prevent the Kim regime from continuing their depredations.
Meanwhile, even as we meet, children in North Korea are taught to hate South Koreans, Japanese, Americans and the ‘West’ in general. A new report, Forced to Hate: North Korea’s Education System, analyses text books in North Korean schools. In their classrooms children are fed on a diet of distorted history and Kim worship, along with hateful propaganda against those denounced as their enemies.
Kim Jong-nam’s cruel assassination in Malaysia using a banned toxic nerve agent – in a country that has an estimated 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons – is a wake-up call to us all, including China, that the North Korean regime is not simply a pariah to be ridiculed, but a dangerous threat to the world; that human rights and security are two sides of the same coin; and that, if this is truly a state without parallel, then our efforts to expose what it does to its own people must surely be without parallel, too.