The United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday established a commission to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea, adding weight to international criticism of the nuclear-armed pariah nation.
The “Commission of Inquiry” was approved by consensus at the 47-member council meeting in Geneva and will probe the country’s extensive network of labor camps believed to hold some 200,000 people, as well as the role of Pyongyang’s leaders in perpetrating abuses against their people.
The resolution, presented by Japan and the European Union and backed by the U.S., allocates significantly more resources to the commission in a bid to improve ongoing investigations into the North’s record of “grave, widespread and systematic” rights violations, the council said.
It comes after months of calls from rights groups who say that human rights abuses in North Korea have become worse since Kim Jong Un assumed control of the country after his father Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December 2011. Observers had hoped that the young leader, who was educated in Switzerland, would help to initiate reforms in the impoverished nation.
The three-member commission of inquiry will include Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea, who in a February report had urged the international community to launch an investigation to probe and further document “the grave, systematic and widespread violations of human rights and possible crimes against humanity” in the country.
The council called on Pyongyang to cooperate with the Indonesian lawyer during the one-year investigation into violations he documented related to prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of the right to food, freedom of expression, right to life, and freedom of movement.
The commission will also look into enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions and nationals of other states. Darusman’s report was based on defector testimony and by documents produced by the U.S. and South Korean governments.
U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said Thursday that the creation of the commission “sends an important message that the global community is paying close attention to the situation in [North Korea], not just on the nuclear front, but also especially on the human rights front.”
It will "help focus the spotlight of sustained international scrutiny on one of the world's darkest and most secretive regimes,” she told reporters in Geneva.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had backed the creation of a commission in January, saying an “in-depth inquiry into one of the worst—but least understood and reported—human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue.”
She also addressed the need to investigate the fate of South Koreans and Japanese abducted by North Korea “and to seek truth, justice, and redress for their long-suffering families.”
The resolution follows a U.N. Security Council move earlier this month to punish North Korea through tougher sanctions for testing a nuclear device in February and amidst increasingly inflammatory rhetoric from Pyongyang.
In recent weeks, North Korea tore up an armistice agreement that effectively ended the Korean War and on Thursday warned it would attack U.S. naval bases in Guam and Japan if threatened.
The U.S. this month announced plans to upgrade its missile defense systems in California, Alaska, and South Korea to counter any ballistic weapon attacks from North Korea, which successfully launched a satellite into orbit last December.
The U.N. Human Rights Council has been investigating North Korea since 2004, but had run into opposition against the establishment of a commission from Pyongyang’s allies China and Russia, as well as from South Korea and Japan, who feared that such a move would lead the rogue nation to act out in retaliation.
This year, the council was able to approve the resolution without North Korean sympathizers such as China and Cuba serving as members. Wording which condemned the abduction of foreign nationals by North Korea helped to bring Japan on board.
New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the resolution in a statement Thursday, calling it a “landmark step” in making North Korea accountable for its long history of rights abuses.
“This long awaited inquiry will help expose decades of abuse by the North Korean government,” said Julie de Rivero, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“The establishment of this commission sends a strong message to Pyongyang that the world is watching and its abuses must end,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said that the support for the commission shows that the international community is no longer tolerant of the violations Pyongyang has “tried so hard to hide from the world.”
“With establishment of this commission, victims can feel a real sense of achievement,” de Rivero said.
“The decision to establish this commission is a crucial first step toward ensuring accountability for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations in North Korea.”