Something amazing occurred in Geneva today. For the first time in the history of North Korea's three-generation totalitarian rule, a U.N. body acknowledged the regime's massive abuses and invoked U.N. members' obligations to address them.
The U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution urging North Korea's human rights crisis be taken up at the U.N. Security Council and referred "to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism," which could include the International Criminal Court in the Hague or an ad hoc international tribunal.
The U.N. body's resolution comes in response to the release of a special report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry for North Korea, which was tasked by the Human Rights Council a year ago with investigating crimes against humanity in North Korea and making recommendations for justice and action. The chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, Australian jurist Michael Kirby, delivered the commission's devastating final report to the Human Rights Council on March 17, detailing massive past and ongoing abuses by the regime.
Abuses documented by the commission, similar to many documented by Human Rights Watch, include summary executions, enslavement, rape, forced abortions, abductions and disappearances, and intentional starvation. The report describes a "systematic, widespread attack against all populations...who pose a threat to the political system" via a system of prison camps, collective punishments, and executions--a penal system that exploits and kills. The crimes committed, the report states, collectively amount to "extermination," a crime against humanity.
The report also finds that the widespread starvation that occurred countrywide in the 1990s, and which has occurred in some areas more recently, was the result of intentional acts and omission by government actors, another type of crime against humanity.
Accounts in the report are chilling. A former guard tells the commission that camp inmates "are not treated like human beings. They are never meant to be released ... their record is permanently erased. They are supposed to die in the camp from hard labor. And we were trained to think that those inmates are enemies. So we didn't perceive them as human beings."
Another prisoner described being forced to dispose of more than 300 bodies during his time at a camp, and how authorities once bulldozed a hill formerly used to bury dead prisoners, to turn it into a corn field: "As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of friends vomited.... The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface."
The report describes camp prisoners, which included children and even babies born to prisoners, only surviving "by hunting and gathering insects, rodents and wild plants" or finding ways to divert food meant for guards. "[The] babies [had] bloated stomachs. [We] cooked snakes and mice to feed these babies and if there was a day that we were able to have a mouse, this was a special diet for us. We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground. Any grass that grew in the field, we had to eat."
In presenting the report, the commission noted that the "gravity, scale and nature of violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." Justice Kirby has compared the severity of abuses to those committed by Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, invoking the well-known international slogan "never again."
The European Union, along with other council members including Botswana, Canada and Albania, have already decided to endorse the Kirby report's recommendations, and together support efforts to have the Security Council refer North Korea to the ICC. The question now is whether other members of the international community--in particular the United States, Japan, and South Korea--will agree to prioritize this effort.
This week in Amsterdam, President Obama met with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and although North Korea issues were discussed, none of the three mentioned the new commission report or how to address it at the United Nations. Obama will see the two leaders again in Asia in late April. The three, as key actors on North Korea, now need to reach a common strategy to put North Korea on the Security Council agenda this year.
It will also be important to consider alternative strategies if countries like China or Russia attempt to block U.N. efforts on North Korea.
No one should be naïve about the hopes for swift justice, but pushing for it now--either through an International Criminal Court referral or ad hoc tribunal--is important. A standing tribunal with investigatory powers to gather evidence for future proceedings could be a vital step on the road to justice and serve to deter at least some government leaders from committing new abuses. After enduring decades of atrocities, the people of North Korea deserve that much.
John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.