Interview: The World Must Hold North Korea Accountable on Rights Abuses

nk-kirby-hr-commission-sept-2013.jpg Michael Kirby gives a press conference following a report before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Sept. 17, 2013.

Michael Kirby, a former Australian judge, chaired the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea. The report, which documented widespread abuses in North Korea, was released in February 2014 and approved by the U.N. General Assembly in December. At a conference in Washington marking the first anniversary of the report’s release, RFA Korean’s Sooil Chun interviewed Kirby. Following is an abridged transcript of the interview.

RFA:  What is the significance of the UN Security Council's adoption of the procedural resolution?

Kirby:  First of all, it’s very unusual for the Security Council to accept any responsibility in the specific area of human rights. There’s a sort of line that’s drawn, an artificial and untenable line between human rights and peace and security. Peace and security is the basic responsibility of the Security Council. But where you have a country which has nuclear warheads, missile delivery system and very unstable domestic situation, which was demonstrated by the shooting of the uncle of the supreme leader, then you have by reason of the human rights abuses, rather uncertain predicament, you have the problem that human rights and peace and security come together.  

What was the  significance of the motion, the procedural decision?  The significance was that lifted up issues of human rights as disclosed in the COI report and brought them into the Security Council, and says that any member of the Security Council can, under the agenda item which was then accepted, raise the issue of human rights in North Korea. And that means you don’t need any special resolution to have the matter on  the agenda. It’s already there. And it will last 3 years, and even after that, if one member of the Security Council asks to be continued, it will be continued.

So it will give the Security Council an oversight of the human rights situation if the Security Council wants to use it. I think that’s a good thing. And it didn’t face the veto, didn’t face the power of the permanent members, five permanent members of the Security Council to disallow it by refusing to vote for it because it was a procedural motion.

RFA: China and Russia are two important countries who have objected to vote for the North Korean human rights resolution through the process at the UN.  Why do they object to the resolution, and what do you think of their positions?

Kirby: We and in this COI we made every endeavor to cooperate with China and Russia, both of the countries are great powers, great civilizations and they are very important in the region. Both of them have borders contiguous to North Korea. Therefore, they are very important historically and culturally and China in particular is very important economically. We tried to get the full cooperation of China, and they were perfectly polite and courteous and very diplomatic. But in the end, they would not give us permission to go to the border areas between North Korea and China. And they wouldn’t even give us permission to go to Beijing to talk with their government officials and their academics to try to understand the Chinese position. Russia was also extremely courteous, but they simply said as China said, “We don’t approve of having commissions of inquiry investigating a particular country.”  Now that’s something over which the Commission of Inquiry has no control.

We were set up by the Human Rights Council of the UN, when enough members of HRC were able to persuade the Council to establish the COI. We didn’t create ourselves. We are servants of the UN and international family of which North Korea is a member. And therefore it was a very formalistic position. Not a position that’s deeply concerned about human rights. And in today's world, we have to be concerned about human rights. That’s because the Charter of the United Nations says that we are; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 says that we are; and many of the treaties which North Korea has signed say we are deeply concerned about human rights. And it is the responsibility of all of us to uphold human rights.

RFA: North Korea’s response has not been cooperative. What do you think of their responses so far to the COI report and the passage of the North Korean human rights resolution?

Kirby: Well, very respectfully because they are member country of the UN, and I was a servant of the UN COI, I think their response is completely unsatisfactory because so far as witnesses are concerned, the witnesses were extremely impressive. And if there’s any doubt about that and if your listeners have access to the Internet, they can go online; they can search for the COI on North Korea. They can sit for hour after hour after hour listening to people telling the terrible stories of their human rights deprivations,   their lack of food, treatment of prison camps, treatment of women, and treatment of people of religion and so on. They can make up their own mind; they don’t have to accept what the COI concluded. Ordinary people everywhere if they can have access to the Internet can make up their own decision. That’s because we conducted public hearings, we filmed the public hearings, and the films are on the Internet. Now everyone virtually in the world can have this access to this except in North Korea.

RFA:  You said the testimony of the North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who partially corrected his previous testimony about his prison camp and some of his story, is a minor factor in your report.

Kirby:  I was a judge in my own country for 34 years. I had to sit through many hearings of people … giving witness testimony, and I had to sit through countless appeals conducted on the basis of testimony gathered at trial.  And you learn over 34 years in that job to be basically cautious about testimony. Some people try to tell the whole truth but they slip up, they forget things, and some of the issues are many, many years in the past. Some people deliberately tell lies. And then you have to try to find out where the truth lies.

Most people are somewhere in between those situations, they sometimes will gild the lily -- they will try to make their case a bit stronger than it actually is, but it’s still a strong case. And I think in the case of Mr. Shin, he was in the last category. I think he tried to make his case a little bit stronger than it was, but it was still a strong case.  

The questions on his variation of his testimony relate to whether he was ever in camp 14 or camp 18. That’s the main question. But in the big picture, that really is not a significant matter, and ... for us Mr. Shin was one of more than 200, nearly 300 witnesses. We saw many of them in private. We saw 80 of them in public. They can be seen by people on the Internet. It's a very small section of our testimony. I think Mr. Shin’s evidence is referred to twice in the report.

It is not a big issue in our report. One of them was talking about the great hunger he felt in the prison camp. Now that doesn’t seem to be really very much in dispute. Many people suffered hunger in North Korea during those years -- during the Arduous March it was called. And therefore it isn't all that surprising when we quote him to say that there was hunger in the camp.  

RFA:  If you are invited to visit North Korea as former COI chairman, what would you do there and how would you do it?

Kirby:  We would have to say that we would expect to have access to the community in North Korea. We’d expect to have access to the media. One of the steps that were taken last year by North Korea was to write its own human rights report.  They predicted it would be a rosy report and it sure was. It was very rosy: Nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing wrong.

Every country has human rights problem.  My own country Australia has human rights problems.  And every country has. We can learn from each other and I am not a disrespecter of North Korea.  I've never said that regime change is essential. They are a member of the United Nations. It was my duty to accept that fact. But if you are a member of the United Nations, you signed onto the charter. One of the three pillars of the charter is Universal Human Rights and you’ve got  to conform to it. They have signed human rights treaties; they have to conform to them. And bodies like the COI endeavor to help them where they are falling short, and also to render them accountable, render those persons accountable for the wrongs that have been done, which amount to crimes against humanity.

RFA:  Are there any specific ideas that you might have that you’d like to look into when you get there?

Kirby: I would take my list. We’ve got the list in our report. The list of inability to have freedom of thought and expression and the control of a media, lack of access of the Internet, the lack of access to the UN reports on North Korea, the imposition on people of religious faith, the imposition of women, especially women who escaped into China and sent back by China quite wrongly because the Convention on Refugees which China signed forbids sending people back where they have a well-founded fear and persecution, and the public executions.

The list is a long list: abductions; the prisoners of war list; keeping people who were seized from South Korea at the end of the Korean War, and taking them and keeping them away from their family; the failure to allow basic humanitarian contact between families on the Korean peninsula. How unfair, how cruel is that to refuse to allow people who are blood relatives easily to communicate with each other. They’re just down the road. Just 100 km, still they can’t telephone up and see how their uncle is going on or their cousin or their relatives by marriage. This is really a shocking situation and that’s what I would want to investigate.

RFA: You have said there are paradoxes and dilemmas raised by the COI report, namely, does the demand for accountability on the part of leaders and officials in an already isolated country such as the DPRK increase the risk of still further isolation, hostility and non-engagement?

Kirby: It is one of the dilemmas we face by demanding accountability, do we then make Kim and other people in the elite in North Korea so suspicious that they won’t engage? That's a problem. But you can't ignore crimes against humanity. We’re not talking here just about violations of good behavior. We are talking about extremely serious crimes of the kind that caused crimes against humanity to be defined after the efforts of the Nazis in Germany before the Second World War and during the Second World War. So these are very serious crimes and there has to be accountability.

But there also has to be outreach to the people of North Korea. And there has to be outreach also to the administration in North Korea to bring them to an acknowledgement of the wrongs that have happened, and then to identify the relatively small number who are individually or collectively responsible for the very great crimes that we’ve found by the International Criminal Court.  We were not a court. We were not even a prosecutor. We were an inquiry into the facts. We’ve done our job, and now it ought to go to a prosecutor, and if the case is found, to the International Criminal Court so that there can be accountability before the international community and before the people of North Korea.

Reported by Sooil Chun of RFA's Korean Service


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