THE BLOG
11/19/2014 12:48 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

UN Advocates Prosecuting North Korea for Gross Rights Abuses

A key U.N. panel condemned human rights atrocities in North Korea and recommended the Security Council refer the abuses to the International Criminal Court -- but that isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future.

Still, North Korea cared very much about the suggestion that its leader, Kim Jong-un, be held accountable and threatened further nuclear tests.

China, backed by Russia, has veto power in the Security Council. Both countries voted against Tuesday's draft resolution in the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural (3rd) Committee of the General Assembly. The full Assembly will vote next month but usually the tally does not differ much from the draft adopted by the committee. (see text)

The vote was 111 in favor, 19 against with 55 abstentions in the measure drafted by Japan and the European Union.

The resolution backed a groundbreaking investigation by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, headed by Australian jurist Michael Kirby. He produced a 400-page report and lobbied for its implementation, in news conferences, sessions with Security Council diplomats and human rights advocates.

Kirby concluded that the North Korean atrocities "exceed all others in duration, intensity and horror." He described murder, enslavement, torture, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, deliberate starvation and political prison camps.

Why It Matters to North Korea

So why does it matter if General Assembly resolutions are non-binding and China and Russia will block Security Council action?

The finger pointing at Kim Jong-un's accountability in the Kirby report was enough to inspire a so-called "charm" offensive that included press conferences, lobbying of diplomats and even the release of three Americans held in the North.

Kim was not mentioned in the resolution. But it says the Kirby report found "reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity" had occurred under "policies established at the highest level of the State for decades."

In response, Jang Il Hun, a deputy U.N. ambassador, told the Council on Foreign Relations that his countrymen hold "our respected Martial Kim Jong-un in the highest esteem" so we could "no longer sit idle, just watching and responding back, and we think we have to take action on our own in response to such a political plot."

Nuclear Threat

Such action was revealed by Choe Myong Nam, a foreign ministry adviser, in an address before the vote:

"The outrageous and unreasonable human rights campaign staged by the United States and its followers in their attempts to eliminate the state and social system of (North Korea) is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests," he said.

No details were given but North Korea (official name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea--DPRK) rarely makes idle threats.

Cuba Intervenes

Cuba argued that if the paragraph referring to the International Criminal Court were deleted, North Korea would allow Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, a human rights rapporteur (investigator), to come to Pyongyang. Its amendment was rejected with 77 votes against, 40 in favor and 50 abstaining. Still, it was a measure of Havana's diplomacy that 90 countries were did not oppose the measure.

Several Asian nations, including India, Pakistan and Indonesia supported the amendment and as a result abstained on the main resolution vote.

The paragraph Cuba unsuccessfully deleted said:

...Decides to submit the report of the commission of inquiry to the Security Council, and encourages the Council to consider the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the commission and take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through consideration of referral of the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court and consideration of the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission has said may constitute crimes against humanity.

Despite China and Russia's chilly reception to human rights measures in the Security Council and North Korea's denial of serious abuses, Kirby believes one had to try anyway. He said that those who oppose accountability also had to be held accountable "not only to the people of the world but to the pages of history."

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, said no one expected justice now but "our hope is to set the stage for accountability in the future."

We will see... but we can't say we didn't know..