THE BLOG

If the UN Does Not Hold the World's Most Brutal Regime to Account, the World's Citizens Will

17/06/2014 11:55 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 10:59 BST

Wicked leaders of the awful governments of oppressed countries can no longer ignore public opinion simply because the 'international community' - usually the UN - does nothing to stop the oppression. The citizen of the world has too much power at his or her fingertips to be disregarded and is slowly becoming sovereign. Wicked leaders know that; so does the UN. Of all expressions of citizen opinion the op ed is the most modest - so let us turn your attention to North Korea.

Last month, the latest in a recent succession of compelling publications about North Korea was published. Dear Leader, by Jang Jin-sung, once Kim Jong-Il's former Poet Laureate and propagandist who defected because he feared execution simply for losing a book, lifts the lid on the inner workings of the world's most closed nation. It follows Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin Dong-hyuk who was born in a North Korean gulag, saw his mother and brother executed in front of him, and spent the first twenty years of his life convinced that the entire world was a prison camp, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, Victor Cha's The Impossible State, David Alton and Rob Chidley's Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea?, and a number of other excellent works which have helped ensure that the world is more informed about the horrors of the world's most brutal regime - and leave us all without excuse.

Yet while all these books are valuable, no publication is more significant for international policy than the United Nations' own Commission of Inquiry report, published in February. We campaigned for several years for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, to investigate North Korea's gross violations of human rights, and in March 2013 the Human Rights Council opted unanimously to do just that.

Skilfully chaired by Australian Justice Michael Kirby, the inquiry took first-hand testimony from more than 320 witnesses, including many survivors of North Korea's prison camps and leading international experts. Its findings are damning. Justice Kirby has compared North Korea's human rights record to the Holocaust, and his inquiry concludes that the North Korean regime is guilty of "a wide array" of "crimes against humanity". The "gravity, scale and nature" of North Korea's human rights violations, according to the UN inquiry, "reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world".

The list of crimes includes "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence," as well as religious persecution and starvation. The inquiry concludes that there is "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," and the North Korean regime "has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity and raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community".

Of all its recommendations, it is the inquiry's call for a referral of a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) which requires most attention. The report puts the ball firmly in the international community's court, arguing that it "must accept its responsibility to protect the people" of North Korea.

In March this year, the Human Rights Council voted to endorse the report's findings and recommendations, and in April the Security Council met with the Commission of Inquiry and some of their witnesses for an informal briefing - the first time North Korea's human rights record has been considered by the UN's highest body. These are welcome steps forward. Vocal support offered by the United Kingdom, the European Union and other countries is encouraging. At last, North Korea's human rights crisis is on the international agenda. A long overdue spotlight has been shone on the darkest corner of the world.

Yet nobody should be satisfied with this. Fine words are good, attention is appreciated, but what is needed is action. It is imperative that the Commission of Inquiry's report serves as a manifesto for international policy, not simply a harrowing catalogue of horrors or an academic piece of research that gathers dust on a shelf. Truth-telling is an essential part of justice, but it is only a part.

So, what next? Sympathetic countries should seize the initiative and bring the issue to the formal agenda of the Security Council. Human rights should feature alongside the nuclear question in every discussion of North Korea. And every effort should be made to ensure accountability.

Cynics claim that there is no point in even seeking a referral to the ICC, because China or Russia will veto it at the Security Council. This is lazy defeatism that overlooks what energetic action can achieve.

First, the task of our politicians must be to put the issue to the test, rather than to second-guess China and Russia and to surrender before even trying to do the right thing. Inscrutable China and Bear-like Russia are not immune to world opinion and China, in particular, has surprised us in the past, abstaining where a veto was predicted, and supporting measures few expected. Privately, Chinese officials have acknowledged their North Korea headache, describing the pariah state as "the neighbour from hell". Although China continues to prop up the Kim regime, they do so without much enthusiasm and because they fear the alternatives. Let's put the question to them - and to Russia - and see what happens.

If an ICC referral is vetoed, China - or Russia - will have to live exposed for all to see that they prefer to support a regime that is barbaric in the extreme than to give the mechanisms of justice a chance. And they will do this knowing that the modern citizen may be able to take over from the UN Commission by establishing an informal mechanism to record and judge North Korea and to do so publicly. There is an increasing number of North Korean exiles who have escaped the tyranny of their country's regime and there are very many supporters of their plight in South Korea and all round the world.

Between them they will find the comparatively modest funds required and do whatever is necessary. And they will do so - in parody of UN language: 'taking note of the inactivity of the great powers' and 'mindful of the duties of the world citizen to pursue justice for the oppressed'. The internet at our finger tips makes every aspect of this kind of enterprise inexpensive and easy - witnesses can be produced to informal tribunals by Skype; proceedings can be made public worldwide to guarantee visible due process. The proceedings can probably be infiltrated into North Korea itself - live or in other electronic formats - something the UN itself would not dare to enforce. There will be no shortage of top jurists and judges in retirement willing to give their services pro bono to such an enterprise. The judgments prepared - as with other informal tribunal judgments that have filled and are filling gaps left by underperforming international bodies - are likely to become authoritative in years to come about the regime and about the failure of the international community. The veto will have denied the proper 'official' trial court - the ICC - a chance to provide such a judgment. Enforcers of the veto will only have themselves to blame if the authoritative judgment of others turns out not to be to their liking.

China and Russia - and North Korea itself - know these things can be done and that they cannot hold back the tide of judicially assessed world opinion just as they know that the case for ending impunity of Kim jong Un's murderous regime is overwhelming and that the international community's responsibility is clear. The backup option of informal process allows us citizens to press even harder for the issue to be brought to the Security Council before October. If successful there, a General Assembly resolution should include a strong call for the Commission of Inquiry's recommendations to be implemented and for the Security Council and the Secretary-General to prioritise this.

For too long, North Korea's human rights tragedy has been largely ignored, languishing either in the "unknown" basket or the "too difficult" file. Now, the international community has been confronted with the shocking truth of the suffering of the North Korean people, and some concrete proposals for action. No dictatorship lasts forever, and the time will come when the North Korean people themselves will look back and discover that the world knew about their plight after all. And they will ask: "What did you do about it?" How we answer that question is the test before us today. And if the international organisations we pay by our taxes to do this work will not act, then the world's citizens will. Everyone can play a part.