THE BLOG

A Year on From the UN Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, It Is Time for Action

18/02/2015 16:26 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 10:59 BST

By Jose Ramos-Horta, Mohamed Nasheed, Geoffrey Nice, David Alton and Benedict Rogers

A year ago yesterday, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea's human rights record published its damning report. It concluded 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". A catalogue of crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions", as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

One year on, what has happened? Well, a lot and not a lot is the answer.

In procedural terms, in terms of getting the issue of North Korea's human rights crisis onto the international agenda, extraordinary progress has been made.

Just over a month after the publication of the inquiry's report, the UN Human Rights Council passed a very robust resolution, endorsing the recommendations.

In April the Security Council held an informal briefing.

In October, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea presented a very strong report, calling for accountability and for the international community to exercise its "responsibility to protect".

A month later, the General Assembly's human rights committee moved matters on by passing a resolution recommending a referral to the ICC.

That was endorsed by the General Assembly in December, and just before Christmas the Security Council had the first formal discussion of North Korea's appalling human rights situation, and placed the matter on their agenda for future deliberations.

In many ways, this is more than we could have dreamed for. Those of us who have been working away at this for years have always known that we were in for the long-haul. This is the world's most closed nation, but also the world's most overlooked human rights crisis. And we were under no illusions about the workings of the UN. To get to the Security Council agenda less than a year after the conclusion of a Commission of Inquiry - indeed, to have achieved the establishment of an inquiry after seven years of advocacy - is in itself an achievement.

But - and this is a huge but - reports and resolutions are meaningless unless they lead to change. They may bring some comfort to those on the ground who are suffering - if they ever get to hear of them. But in themselves they change little. As the superb Australian judge who chaired the inquiry, Justice Michael Kirby, said: "The world is now better informed about [North] Korea. It is watching. It will judge us by our response. This Commission's recommendations should not sit on the shelf... It is now your duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea".

So what next? How do we ensure that the report and the ensuing resolutions do not simply gather dust? After all, Justice Kirby and the inquiry at all times insisted that its success could only be measured in terms of improvements in human rights in North Korea, not in terms of resolutions and procedures, important though those are. And there has, by all accounts, been no improvement in North Korea at all so far.

As Justice Kirby says in a speech in Washington, DC today, "the fact that the COI report has cast a sharp light on human rights in the DPRK, previously isolated from global scrutiny, may, of itself, have produced some beneficial outcomes. The threat of the possibility of prosecution of DPRK leaders and officials, at some future unspecified time, may instil a measure of caution, improvement and responsiveness on their part." Let's hope so.

Yet the attention of the international community is transient and other priorities come along. Those who support the inquiry's recommendations must calculate a mix of carpe diem and marathon-running. And we must not be put off by recent setbacks. The most prominent North Korean defector, Shin Dong-hyuk's account of life in prison camps, severe torture, slave labour conditions remains unchanged, whatever slight corrections to detail have been made, and this reinforces the mass of evidence Justice Kirby's inquiry gathered.

So the way forward? An international strategy that combines accountability, pressure and engagement.

The UN should establish a dialogue group, to initiate a framework for engagement with Kim Jong-Un's regime precisely on human rights concerns, taking up his offer of a visit to North Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, the European Union or others. Such engagement must not supercede accountability measures, but instead complement them. It should include issues of war and peace, seeking an end to the armistice - there is still a state of war between North and South Korea - and moves instead to a solid peace agreement. It should include open discussion of abductions, separations and disappearances as well as the horrific conditions in the prison camps.

Calls for accountability and justice must never, ever be dropped and the threat of activation of the recommendation of referral to the ICC should be palpable to North Korean leaders. This will be effective on them and will do something to soften the emotional blow to activists - even to parts of the Commission itself - who will have to understand the need to balance the hopes of millions for what the ICC might achieve against the real damage that a veto by Russia or China in the Security Council would undoubtedly do.

Nevertheless with the threat remaining publicly in place, critical engagement should be conducted in parallel. In tandem, the two apparently contradictory but actually complementary approaches should be pursued, to leverage action that will improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Key to this will be information-flow - finding and funding ways to send information into North Korea, primarily through radio broadcasts and smuggling of USB sticks and USBs - and investing in developing the skill-sets of those who have escaped and want to use their new-found freedom to prepare for the future.

A year on from the historic UN inquiry, we should study afresh their findings and recommendations - and ensure that it does not sit as a historic text on academics' shelves, but instead serves as a policy manual for imminent implementation.

Jose Ramos-Horta is former President of Timor-Leste,

Mohamed Nasheed is former President of the Maldives,

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC is former Chief Prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic,

Lord Alton of Liverpool is Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea in the British Parliament,

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at 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).