End The Culture Of Impunity Over Sexual Violence

03/18/2014 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014
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H.E. Yun Byung-se, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea (South Korea). This article is drawn from remarks at 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on March 5.

The Republic of Korea is a member of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council. As such, it is actively participating in the UN's noble efforts to promote and protect the human rights of all -- as embodied in the letter and spirit of the UN Charter -- "We, the peoples of the UN."

In fact, my government has set out "the happiness of the global village" as one of its core foreign policy objectives. We are committed to help shape a world where human dignity and the human rights are respected, and the quality of life is improved for all the people in the world.

As a country that experienced the pillage of colonization, the devastation of war, the scars of poverty and repression, and, even today, is suffering as a divided nation, we are in a unique position to empathize with the plights and pains of others.

My country highly regards the UN's efforts in the mainstreaming of human rights, which constitute one of the three core pillars of the United Nations, alongside peace and security, and development.

We firmly believe that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's 5-year action agenda announced in 2012 and the "Rights up Front" initiative launched last year will strengthen the UN's capacity to promote and protect human rights.

Despite these efforts, threats against life and liberty as well as discrimination and violence are still prevailing in places such as Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the DPRK (the Democratic Republic of Korea, or North Korea). Meanwhile, sexual violence in armed conflicts continues into this century.

In order to address and prevent human rights violations, the international community should make continued efforts to end the culture of impunity and ensure the accountability.

As for Syria, we are frustrated by the continued degradation of the human rights situation despite the particular attention of the Human Rights Council through its four special sessions since 2011. It is our sincere hope that the international community could reach a consensus toward a political solution to put an end to the worsening human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria and neighboring countries.

As for the DPRK, the international community has expressed grave concern over the DPRK's human rights situation. Last year, this Council resolved to establish the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK.

Over the last several months, the Commission submitted a comprehensive and authentic report with extensive accounts of the victims' vivid testimonies. This report will serve as a landmark report for discussions on the DPRK's human rights situation. In this regard, we express our deep appreciation to the Commission led by Chairman Michael Kirby for its hard work.

The Commission concluded that grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations have been, and are being committed in the DPRK. We hope that the DPRK will take substantive measures toward this end, recognizing the Commission's call to improve its human rights situation.

For the international community, it is now time to begin the discussions on next steps to effectively follow up the Commission's recommendations to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK.

In this vein, we strongly support the strengthening of the UN mechanisms to implement the Commission's recommendations.

Even at this very moment, scores of North Koreans are leaving DPRK in search of freedom. We call on all countries to uphold the principle of non-refoulement (not returning refugees who face harm at home) and to grant rightful protection to these refugees and asylum-seekers so that they can live a life of dignity on their free will.

In addition to the need to improve the DPRK human rights situation, we are faced with the challenges to address -- with great urgency -- the humanitarian concerns arising from the continued division of the Korean Peninsula. In this respect, we commend the Commission's report for dealing with the serious humanitarian tragedies in the Korean Peninsula, such as separated families, abductees and the prisoners of war.

Capitalizing on the momentum of the recent reunion of separated families, we call upon the DPRK to make efforts to seek durable resolution such as regular exchanges, before it is too late.


In the aftermath of the horrendous shock of sexual violence in conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the international community has been working hard since then to put an end to the sexual violence in armed conflicts.

As a result, the international community has forged a consensus that sexual violence in armed conflicts is a serious human rights violation that constitutes a war crime and may also amount to a crime against humanity.

However, sexual violence in armed conflicts is still being perpetrated in various places around the world. Under such circumstances, I cannot agree more with the British State Minister Swire's statement that "all of us, governments, civil society and the UN must work together to shed light on these crimes, to shatter the culture of impunity."

As one of the champions of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), I applaud the UK's leadership in launching the PSVI and hosting the Global Summit in London in June. The Republic of Korea will eagerly participate.

The prevalent sexual violence in armed conflicts even in this century is largely attributable to the culture of impunity and the failure in ensuring accountability.

Without repenting the past wrong-doings, a brighter future will not be secured.

The victims of wartime sexual slavery drafted by the Japanese imperial armed forces, the so-called "comfort women," are the evidence in point. This is not only a bilateral issue between Japan and other victimized countries - including Korea, China, the Netherlands, and various Southeast Asian countries - but also it is a universal human rights issue, an unresolved problem still haunting us today.

This is the reason why various UN human rights mechanisms have all rendered a consistent conclusion. That is, for the Japanese government to accept its governmental responsibility, take responsible measures, and educate current and future generations with regard to the "comfort women" issue.

In addition, resolutions on "comfort women" that were adopted in legislatures of the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the EU all emphasize the urgency and importance of resolving this issue.

Twenty years ago, a Korean victim of Japanese military sexual slavery had the courage to break the silence and talk about her own indescribable ordeal of victimization. Her courageous action inspired many other victims to come forth, thus making the untold comfort women into a living human rights issue.

Let us not forget the brave testimony given by Mrs. Ruff-O'Hearn, a Dutch-Australian lady, a former comfort woman.

In 2007, she testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, and I quote, "for 50 years, the comfort women maintained silence... I broke my silence and revealed one of the worst human rights abuses of World War II, the forgotten holocaust." She concluded, "Japan must come to terms with its history... they must teach the correct history of the mistakes made in the past."

Recently, Japanese political leaders are blatantly ignoring such a vivid account and attempting to reexamine the background of the official statement of Chief Cabinet Secretary and Spokesperson through which the Japanese government admitted the involvement and the coercion by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces and expressed sincere apologies and remorse.

Furthermore, just two days ago, a high-ranking official of the Japanese government responsible for the education of the next generation claimed that the comfort women issue is a fabricated story.

This is an added insult to the honor and dignity of those victims who had weathered physical and psychological pains in the life-long haunted memories. Such an attitude is an affront to humanity and disregards the historical truth.

In addition, it is a direct challenge to consistent recommendations to Japan made by various UN mechanisms for the last 20 years. Under such circumstances, for Japan to claim that "it is a matter of outrage that there continues to be sexual violence against women during times of armed conflict even now," and at the same time to speak of a "wish to bring about a society where women shine" simply shows the double standard on the very issue concerned.

During the last century, we have witnessed gross human rights violations in many wars and conflicts including the two world wars. The starting point of the prevention of human rights violations is, for countries to admit past wrong-doings, take responsibility for such deeds, and educate the correct history to the future generations.

By doing so, I sincerely hope that the Republic of Korea and Japan, sharing common values and interest, will be able to make joint contributions toward a peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia and beyond.

As anchored in the UN Charter, the founding fathers of the UN expressed their determination to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and reaffirmed the faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.

Based on this spirit, continuous efforts have been placed to promote human rights and democracy across the world since the inception of the United Nations. This is the right path into the future.

However, we have to recognize the daunting challenge ahead of us on this journey. This is why the Human Rights Council must play a central role, to ensure the success for mainstreaming human rights in the United Nations.

The Republic of Korea is committed to be an important partner in its noble endeavor.