Using the UN to Create Accountability for Human Rights Crimes in North Korea

Experts on human rights agree that the UN needs to work through multiple channels to support ongoing investigations and build evidence for future litigations in order to create accountability and pressure the DPRK to desist in committing human rights crimes.
[Top left] Gi-Wook Shin; [top right] Roberta Cohen; [bottom left] Tomás Ojea Quintana; [bottom right] Joon Oh

Political attention is turning once again to the Korean Peninsula and the United States’ policy towards both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. On April 15, 2021, the Human Rights Commission of the United States Congress convened a hearing on “Civil and Political Rights in the Republic of Korea: Implications for Human Rights on the Peninsula.” This follows on the announcement of the first face-to-face White House visit between President Biden and President Moon Jae-In where “North Korea is likely to be high on the agenda.”

In the first of three public events on North Korea Human Rights, APARC’s Korea Program hosted Tomás Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK; Roberta Cohen, co-chair emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; and former South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Joon Oh for a discussion of what role the United Nations plays in creating accountability for the ongoing human rights violations and crimes against humanity being enacted by the North Korean government against its people.

The full discussion is available to watch below.

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Exploring Means of Enforcing Accountability

Speaking as an independently acting investigator, Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana echoed the findings of his predecessors in warning that the activity within North Korea has escalated from human rights violations to international crimes against humanity, including extermination, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, and knowingly inflicting prolonged starvation.

What governing body has the ability to hold national leadership at the highest level accountable for such crimes? Quintana outlines several options. One is the International Criminal Court, the international tribunal seated in The Hauge. However, superpower nations such as the United States, China, and Russia are historically recalcitrant to the jurisdiction of this legal body and could feasibly veto a case against the DPRK sent to the ICC.

Another option is for the UN Security Council to create a hybrid tribunal through which international prosecution could litigate. This option is more ad hoc, but would circumvent some of the potential veto pitfalls to using the ICC.

The Secretary General of the United Nations could also use the pejoratives given under Article 99 of the United Nations Charter to force action and accountability forward. This would be a difficult and even unprecedented means of jurisdiction, but it is supported by an already existing, if rarely enacted, legal framework.

Moving Forward

Each of the avenues proposed by Special Rapporteur Quintana has varying levels of efficacy and shortcomings, particularly in the immediate context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the further hindrance it has created to gathering evidence and intelligence directly from North Korea. As Roberta Cohen notes,

“No possibility exists right now for International Criminal Court referral, or establishing an ad hoc tribunal, but progress is nonetheless being made in laying the groundwork for eventual criminal prosecution and other aspects of transitional justice.”

Former Ambassador Joon Oh echoes the importance of keeping the issue of human rights and international crimes in North Korea in the spotlight even if immediate legal options stall.

“The issue of accountability is extremely important. These alternative ways [of creating accountability] should be explored. Exploring these avenues adds pressure on North Korea. Even remote possibilities add pressure, which might help change their behavior.”

On April 26, 2021, Ambassador Robert King, former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues will continue the dialogue on accountability in North Korea with a discussion of his forthcoming book, Patterns of Impunity: Human Rights in North Korea and the Role of the U.S. Special Envoy, and the role the South Korean and U.S. governments play in promoting human rights in North Korea. Registration for the book launch is open through the day of the event.  

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