The United States and its allies are applying a new form of pressure on North Korea, already facing a tightening ring of United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests: tougher UN censure of Pyongyang’s human rights record.
In a move human rights advocates say is long overdue, the European Union and Japan are circulating a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling for a formal commission of inquiry into North Korea’s record.
The US-backed move could, in theory, lay the foundation for referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for its system of gulag penal camps and other serious abuses.
More significantly, former US officials and rights experts say, the action in Geneva is helping to break down a de facto separation of human rights and nuclear diplomacy in Western dealings with North Korea.
“Exposing the North’s brutality toward its own citizens has not been a priority component of US policy,” Robert Joseph, the top State Department disarmament diplomat in the George W. Bush administration, told a US Senate hearing on Thursday.
“In fact, concerns about how such exposure might affect the prospects for engagement with the regime have worked to place human rights atrocities in a separate box which is mostly neglected if seen as complicating higher order diplomacy,” he said, in a view widely shared by the human rights community.
An informal draft of the EU-Japan text was circulated and discussed in Geneva on Friday. It calls for the UN Human Rights Council to set up a two-member commission of inquiry for a year to investigate systematic, widespread and grave rights violations in North Korea, diplomats in Geneva said.
NO RUSSIAN, CHINESE INTERFERENCE
Some Asian countries on the council are expected to call for a vote on the resolution in the final week of the four-week annual session, which ends March 22, the diplomats said.
Although there is no veto on the 47-member-state council, the absence of traditional North Korea allies China and Russia is seen as beneficial to a smooth negotiations.
North Korea has been the target of critical UN resolutions on its human rights record in Geneva or New York in each of the past 10 years and its prison camps have been the subject of tough reports from the independent UN special investigator on North Korea, an Indonesian lawyer named Marzuki Darusman.
But North Korea has vehemently denied all allegations and stonewalled UN investigators. And the US policy focus for the past two decades has been not on human rights, but on Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs that are the subject of multiple rounds of UN sanctions.
Frustration with nuclear diplomacy and increasingly belligerent North Korean words and actions have helped overcome concern that pressure on human rights would make the country more suspicious of the outside world.
“North Korea is a country where diplomacy hasn’t worked on the nuclear issue and it has utterly and completely failed on human rights, for decades and decades,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for the US group Human Rights Watch.