North Korea is arguably the world's worst human rights crisis, in the world's most closed nation - but it can no longer be its most forgotten.
Last week's publication of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea, with its damning conclusion that the regime is guilty of multiple widespread and systematic crimes against humanity and its call for a case to be referred by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court shines a long overdue light on the darkest corner of the globe.
The inquiry, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, concludes that "the gravity, scale and nature" of North Korea's human rights violations "reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world".
The 400-page report draws on hours of first-hand testimony by more than 320 witnesses, mostly North Koreans who have escaped from the country. It is the most comprehensive, detailed and authoritative study to date, and provides compelling evidence to support its findings.
It details crimes against humanity including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence," as well as religious persecution and starvation. It concludes that there is "an almost complete denial" of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or expression and association. "The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps," the report continues, "resemble the horrors that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century." Until now, no one has been held accountable. "Impunity reigns," it concludes, and the fact that the North Korean regime "has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community".
That the investigation has reached these conclusions is no surprise. The question facing the UN and all its member states now is what to do about it. The Commission of Inquiry sets out a number of recommendations, notably bringing a case to the International Criminal Court, imposing targeted sanctions against key figures in the regime guilty of these crimes, extending the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, and establishing a UN-mandated system for collecting evidence and documentation "to help ensure accountability for human rights violations". The report puts the ball firmly in the international community's court, arguing that it "must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity" because their government "has manifestly failed to do so".
There is a tendency among many to be cynical about the UN, to dismiss it as toothless and ineffective. Now is a moment for the UN to prove its critics wrong. Of course, the UN is only as good as the sum of its parts, and there are member states who can be expected to take an unhelpful position in response to this historic report - but for all member states with anything resembling a conscience, there is now no excuse for inaction. Even North Korea's few friends must now examine their consciences carefully.
For this to be simply another shocking report, which is then left to gather dust on a shelf, referred to academically in years to come, would be nothing short of a tragedy. Instead, it must be taken as a plan of action, a manifesto for the world to come together around, to stop the continuing suffering of the North Korean people. That task will not be easy, but no one should rest easy in the delusion that the inquiry's completion means our work is done. Indeed, quite the opposite - it is only just beginning. Yet of one fact we can all be sure: from this day on, no one can claim they did not know what was happening in North Korea. As the great British parliamentarian William Wilberforce said when he introduced legislation to end the slave trade two hundred years ago: "We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot turn aside." The spotlight has finally shone on North Korea, and now its beams are cast on the international community for a response.
Jose Ramos-Horta is former President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Benedict Rogers works for the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is a co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK).Suggest a correction