What will a U.N. inquiry on N. Korean human rights actually mean?

The U.N. Human Rights Council is set to approve an inquiry into human rights conditions in North Korea, conditions that a U.N. investigator says “may” be crimes against humanity:

Marzuki Darusman, an investigator for the United Nations, is expected to present a report to the council urging the creation of an international commission of inquiry to follow up on the abuses recorded in the eight years that a United Nations official has monitored human rights in the North.  [N.Y. Times]

So, what exactly would that mean?

“An inquiry mechanism could produce a more complete picture, quantify and qualify the violations in terms of international law, attribute responsibility to particular actors or perpetrators of these violations and suggest effective courses of international action,” Mr. Darusman said in the report. [N.Y. Times]

It could also presage indictments in the International Criminal Court — indictments that China would have to expend cred and capital to block.

The U.N. Human Rights Council will likely consider and approve Darusman’s recommendation in March, in a resolution to be co-sponsored by the EU and Japan in March.  South Korea’s co-sponsorship is notably absent, but at least South Korea will actively support the measure, which is a change for the better.  Here’s another change for the better:

“We are in effect ramping up international political pressure on this unparalleled, systemwide failure in respect to human rights,” Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the American ambassador to the Human Rights Council, said by telephone. “We’re hoping that even if it doesn’t crack the whole system that on some of these issues we might see some opening and some change because of this pressure.”  [N.Y. Times]

Robert Joseph puts this in context nicely:

“Exposing the North’s brutality toward its own citizens has not been a priority component of U.S. policy,” Robert Joseph, the top State Department disarmament diplomat in the George W. Bush administration, told a U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday.

“In fact, concerns about how such exposure might affect the prospects for engagement with the regime have worked to place human rights atrocities in a separate box which is mostly neglected if seen as complicating higher order diplomacy,” he said, in a view widely shared by the human rights community.  [Reuters]

Reading further, it’s clear that this effort by human rights lawyer Jared Genser played an important role in getting the U.N. to finally focus on this issue.  Another factor appears to be the emerging consensus that quiet diplomacy has failed to disarm North Korea or address the human rights issue.  Policymakers no longer worry that emphasizing human rights will cause North Korea to walk away from disarmament talks.  After all, they walked away from those talks five years ago.  Since then, they’ve carried out two missile tests, two nuke tests, and two major attacks on South Korea.

I’ve been as skeptical as anyone about the capacity of the U.N. to do much of anything binding, and in fact, even the Times agrees that an inquiry would be a largely symbolic gesture. Where this will really matter is in how it shapes other, more tangible debates in committee meetings, floor votes, and in the boardrooms of companies making investment decisions.

Last week, I asked whether Dennis Rodman would have played Sun City. He wouldn’t have, because at least one responsible adult of average intelligence would have warned him that it would have been career suicide.  Maybe playing Pyongyang will be prove to be career suicide for Rodman; his career is long over anyway.  But the Rodman episode does illustrate that in most households, North Korea isn’t yet the pariah it deserves to be.  When it is, that will have severe consequences for a regime that survives on foreign currency.

For a variety of reasons, the U.N. Human Rights Council doesn’t have the moral authority to pin that label on North Korea. Ironically, one good reason may be that it has it has ignored this issue for so long.  Still, such things require a steady and determined drumbeat to work.

Update:  North Korea calls the charges “faked material … invented by the hostile forces, defectors and other rabbles.” Am I a “hostile force” or an “other rabbles?”


  1. Many people in the U.S. see North Korea as silly or outlandish, but not as evil, and that’s the whole problem. Until this perception is changed people won’t look seriously at what is happening in North Korea. It’s so different from the way we saw the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s – huge protest marches, pushes for divestiture of American firms doing business there, etc. People will say we have no leverage over NK because we don’t trade with them, but that shouldn’t limit our ability to be outraged.