Obama sanctions Burundi (but not North Korea) for human rights violations

Last week, President Obama signed a new executive order blocking the assets of four current and former officials of the government of Burundi for “killing of and violence against civilians, unrest, the incitement of imminent violence, and significant political repression.” The targets certainly seem deserving

On closer investigation, this turns out to be another case of the U.S. leading from behind; the EU designated an overlapping list of Burundian officials a month ago. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sanctions always work better when the U.S., the EU, and (hopefully) other nations cooperate to enforce them. One hopes that in return for U.S. support this time, the EU might also follow our lead on other important targets.

So while I take no issue with these designations, it’s absurd that no North Korean officials at all — not one! — have yet been designated for crimes against the people of North Korea analogous to these:

(1) actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burundi;

(2) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Burundi;

(3) human rights abuses;

(4) the targeting of women, children, or any civilians through the commission of acts of violence (including killing, maiming, torture, or rape or other sexual violence), abduction, forced displacement, or attacks on schools, hospitals, religious sites, or locations where civilians are seeking refuge, or through other conduct that may constitute a serious abuse or violation of human rights or a violation of international humanitarian law;

(5) actions or policies that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or freedom of peaceful assembly;

(6) the use or recruitment of children by armed groups or armed forces;

(7) the obstruction of the delivery or distribution of, or access to, humanitarian assistance; or

(8) attacks, attempted attacks, or threats against United Nations missions, international security presences, or other peacekeeping operations;

[Executive Order 13712]

With the possible exception of (6), North Korea has engaged in conduct analogous to every item on this list. North Korea may also be contributing to Burundi’s human rights violations. In 2011, Burundi was found to have purchased a shipment of (defective) North Korean weapons through a Ukrainian arms dealer, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. This month, Burundi was also one of just 19 nations to vote against a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity.

So what principled explanation can the Obama Administration or its Special Envoy for Human Rights offer to explain why it has imposed targeted sanctions on human rights violators in Burundi, but not in North Korea? Who supposes that the human rights violations in Burundi, as bad as they are, are the equal of this?

Michael Kirby, the Chair of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, has said, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The Commission’s report recommended that the Security Council “adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.” Given that China and Russia are complicit in supporting North Korea’s political system, and are almost certain to block any move toward accountability in the Security Council, the U.S., the EU, and other allied nations would be perfectly justified in saying, “Enough is enough,” and imposing sanctions as a coalition.

Certainly, given the many U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes and calling for accountability, the Obama Administration could find strong international support for imposing multilateral sanctions against the North Korean leaders who are responsible for crimes against humanity. And yet, inexplicably, it chooses not to.