Human Rights Update: UNSC and Committee on Torture
In what could become an ongoing pattern, a majority on the Security Council managed to force a discussion of the North Korean human rights situation. China and Russia were joined by Venezuela and Angola in opposing the proposal, Chad and Nigeria abstained but the remaining nine members voted in favor. The vote permitted a particularly strong briefing by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Al Hussein argued that the systematic nature of human rights abuses pose a threat to international peace and security and therefore deserve referral to the International Criminal Court, a step on which the UN General Assembly had already voted.
Elsewhere in the UN, Christine Chung follow up on her earlier piece on the deliberations on the Committee against Torture, the body with the responsibility of overseeing the torture convention. As we noted in an earlier post, China was called on the carpet at the most recent periodic review for its ongoing practice of refoulement: denying North Korean refugees any meaningful asylum procedure and turning them over to North Korean authorities, with the predictable outcome of detention and abuse. The Committee statement stated in blunt language that Beijing should cease and desist. The common thread of these UN developments: as much as China would like international condemnation of North Korean human rights practices to go away, the Commission of Inquiry and refugee situation are going to continue to keep it in the spotlight.
In the meantime, South Korean human rights legislation continues to generate sharp political division. In the fall, an international coalition of human rights groups formed under the aegis of Gary Kasparov’s Human Rights Foundation initiated a public campaign for passage of the bill, which has been stalled in the National Assembly for nearly a decade. However, partly as a result of the August 25 agreement and the beginning of talks, civil society groups have mobilized against the bill, arguing that it could upset detente. The problem of passing such legislation in the South reflects deeper polarization on foreign policy issues more generally and the strategy of approaching the North in particular. Groups with an engagement and humanitarian focus believe that the legislation, which would provide support for defector organizations—including those involved in sending balloons and leaflets across the border—would be needlessly provocative. This is unfortunate. South Korea needs to tirelessly explain to the North that it is a free society in which the government cannot—and should not—constrain the political activities of its citizens.