UNITED NATIONS – “The international community cannot ignore the suffering of the people of North Korea. It must take action.”
With this declaration, 111 countries including the Philippines voted to pass a landmark United Nations resolution seeking to refer North Korea’s human rights atrocities to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Despite North Korea’s charm offensive and rare diplomatic overtures, Japan and the European Union (EU) successfully sponsored the resolution on Tuesday, November 18, urging the UN Security Council to ask the ICC to prosecute the reclusive state for crimes against humanity.
In a vote at the UN General Assembly’s 3rd committee handling human rights issues, only 19 countries including North Korea voted against the resolution while 55 abstained.
“The lack of accountability for human rights at the national level leaves us with no option but to ask the Security Council to recommend this to the ICC. There is a need for accountability for widespread gross rights violations, some of which amount to crimes against humanity,” said Sebastiano Cardi, Italy’s Ambassador to the UN, who spoke on behalf of the EU.
The resolution adopts the recommendations of an exhaustive UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report released in February that found that Pyongyang’s rights violations are “without parallel in the contemporary world.”
Based on testimonies of defectors and witnesses, the COI said that North Korea and the Kim Jong-Un leadership are liable for abuses including torture, rape, forced labor, and starvation in the prison camp system.
Defectors who spoke at a UN forum last month said the prison system starved them so much that mothers were forced to eat their babies to survive.
The COI’s jurists led by Australian judge Michael Kirby compared the abuses to those during World War II. Kirby said that the vote was a “moment of truth” for the UN.
North Korea reacted strongly to the vote, rejecting the resolution as a US-led “military and political plot” against its social system.
“The outrageous human rights campaign of the US and its followers in an attempt to eliminate social system of DPRK is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests. Sponsors should be held responsible for all the consequences as they are the ones destroying opportunities for human rights cooperation,” said North Korea’s Ambassador Sin So Ho.
The vote is just the first step to hold North Korea accountable. The whole UN General Assembly will take up the resolution next month, where a similar vote is expected.
Yet it is uncertain whether or not the Security Council will pass the resolution. This early, Pyongyang’s close ally China already voted against the resolution along with Russia. The two countries are permanent members of the Security Council and have veto power.
Only the Security Council, not the General Assembly, can refer the case to the ICC.
Syria, Myanmar, Vietnam side with Pyongyang
The United States voted in favor of the resolution, and was among the countries that rejected a Cuba-drafted amendment that removed the ICC referral.
“The international community must send a clear message to the [North Korean] regime that human rights violations must stop and those who perpetrated this must be held accountable,” the United States said.
Yet North Korea also found staunch allies in countries like Syria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Belarus, which voted against the resolution.
In Southeast Asia, countries that voted “no” to the resolution were Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. Thailand and the Philippines voted “yes.”
Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia abstained from the vote. Kuala Lumpur is an incoming member of the Security Council, with its term set to begin in 2015.
The countries that voted against the resolution argued that the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) should be the mechanism to examine states’ human rights record. They said that countries should not be singled out through UN resolutions.
“We reiterate our principled position, our rejection, complete rejection of the tactics by which selective approach is taken and we also reject efforts to interfere in the affairs of other states,” said Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari.
The Cuban delegation also decried what it called the “double standards” applied in the resolution. “Cuba maintained a principled position against country-specific resolutions, targeting developing countries.”
‘Huge victory for victims’
Ahead of the vote, North Korea launched a charm offensive to try to persuade UN member states not to bring its leaders to the war crimes probe. In a rare move, North Korea held press briefings at the UN, produced its own human rights report, released 3 detained Americans, and offered a UN rights rapporteur a visit to Pyongyang.
Human rights groups closely watched and welcomed the UN vote after calling on the world body not to succumb to pressure from the North.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the vote “a huge victory for North Korean victims of crimes against humanity.”
“The UN General Assembly acts decisively. Now the ball is in the UN Security Council’s court to punish North Korea’s crimes against humanity,” Roth said on his Twitter account. – Rappler.com
Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.
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