The United Nations General Assembly’s human-rights committee denied Cuba’s attempt to stop efforts to send the North Korean leadership to trial in the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. The abuses include starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and infanticide — committed mostly in the country’s political prison camps.
Instead, the committee voted on Nov. 18 to pass a strong, albeit nonbinding, resolution condemning North Korea’s human-rights record and pressuring the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the court, which is often called the ICC and is the world’s only permanent judicial institution to try atrocity crimes.
The next step is for the full General Assembly, or all 193 UN members, to vote on the resolution, scheduled for December. Since North Korea is not a member of the court, a case must be referred to it by the Security Council for the court to begin prosecution. Such action has occurred twice in the history of the ICC, involving cases in Darfur, Sudan, and in Libya.
If the resolution, which was introduced by Japan and the European Union, is approved in the full General Assembly, as many observers say could happen, the question of what to do about North Korea and its abysmal human-rights record, documented in a UN-commissioned report released last winter, will most likely move to the Security Council. There, it will undoubtedly test the notions of justice for China and Russia, two veto powers, as they (and the rest of the council) decide whether North Korea’s possible crimes merit the attention of the ICC.
The resolution was spurred by a commission of inquiry report led by Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, which said that crimes against humanity have been committed under policies “established at the highest level of the State for decades.” The resolution also calls for sanctions against individuals who seem to be most responsible for the crimes — including, perhaps, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“This will be an historic step, when it is taken,” Kirby said in an email from Sydney, Australia, to PassBlue, just before the human-rights committee voted. “Although the United Nations is sometimes disappointing, I have told everyone who will listen that, in respect of the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, the United Nations has done everything that should have been done. It established a strong and independent commission. It appointed a capable, hard-working and independent secretariat. It supported an innovative methodology that embraced public hearings and engagement with the Internet and international media.”
Kirby added that the UN had also followed up with “strong and action oriented resolutions” in the Human Rights Council and will “hopefully” do so in the General Assembly.
“I am confident that, when the resolution gets to the Security Council, real progress will be made towards strong and principled action. Already, the Security Council has adopted a strong resolution on DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea] and monitors various matters through an expert committee that it has appointed.”
The human-rights committee is not part of the UN’s Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva and operates independently of the General Assembly, in New York. Yet these bodies’ respective work can overlap, as in the instance of dealing with North Korea’s standards on human rights.
Cuba’s attempt to hollow out the resolution passed today in the human-rights committee would have cut language endorsing the report and recommending a Security Council referral to the ICC. The amendment failed to be entirely persuasive even among Cuba’s tight allies in Eastern Europe, and the final resolution won over countries usually skeptical of the court, reflecting near universal concern over North Korea’s secretive, antagonistic government.
Cuba and powerful countries like China, Russia and South Africa contended the resolution singled out one country unnecessarily, yet it passed with a tally of 111 to 19 and 55 abstentions. China and Russia, longtime supporters of the North Korean government, were among the no votes.
But as Kirby pointed out in his email, 12 former members of the Eastern European bloc voted yes: Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Macedonia.
“This speaks volumes,” he said.
[This article was updated on Nov. 19, 2014.]