[Excerpts of a CFR piece by Roberta Cohen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in human rights and humanitarian issues:]
For decades, the international community has largely sidestepped its responsibility to hold North Korea to account. To be sure, the challenges are formidable. Take the most publicized recommendation from the report by UN Commission of Inquiry(COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK—that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although a logical step, it will be difficult to implement because North Korea has not ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute; consequently the court has no jurisdiction over the case. It will require a UN Security Council referral, but China’s veto could thwart its adoption. China’s veto could also prevent targeted sanctions from being applied to those most responsible for crimes against humanity, another COI recommendation.
The report recommends tapping the entire UN system, most notably humanitarian and development organizations, so that they also address human rights concerns in their work. But here too it will be difficult to bring everyone on board. Those working on the ground may be resistant because it could interfere with their access and cooperation with the government. Yet agencies dealing with food, health, children, and refugees can hardly afford to overlook the findings in this report—state policies leading to mass starvation, discrimination in food distribution and health care, and children mistreated in camps—and then claim they’re doing their jobs of reaching the most vulnerable.
One tangible result thus far is the approval by the UN of an office in Asia to continue monitoring and documenting the human rights situation in North Korea and reinforcing the UN’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for crimes against humanity. If properly funded, staffed, and given a broad mandate, the office should be able to maintain the momentum created by the COI report.
A strong UN voice will be needed as well. Regrettably, COI Chair Michael Kirby’s powerful voice has begun to recede now that the COI’s work is completed, while Navi Pillay, another leading voice, will no longer be High Commissioner for Human Rights after July.
Overall, a sustained and broad-based effort will be needed by governments, international organizations, NGOs, foundations, experts, and business enterprises to make sure that human rights concerns in North Korea remain firmly rooted on the international agenda.