A United Nations-mandated commission looking into the human rights situation in North Korea will begin a series of public hearings in Seoul next week aimed at gathering information from a variety of witnesses, including those who recently fled the Asian nation.
Michael Kirby, chairman of the three-member Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said the panel decided to take public testimony to help raise international awareness of conditions in the country and because of a lack of response so far by the Pyongyang government to the requests of the United Nations team to be allowed entry to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We are approaching this inquiry with impartiality and with no preconceptions,” said Mr. Kirby, a former Australian judge, jurist and academic with broad international experience. “We have asked to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and we have also taken steps to reach out to the government to seek their participation in the hearings, so far to no avail.”
The public will be able to follow the hearings through media reports and regular updates on the commission’s website at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK. The website will include video which will be posted following the public testimonies. Anyone wishing to provide information to the commission of inquiry can do so by email to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Seoul hearings will be held from August 20 to 24 on the campus of Yonsei University and are expected to involve some 30 witnesses. The members will also hold meetings with senior government officials, non-governmental organizations and research institutions. A similar round of hearings is also scheduled for Tokyo later in the month.
The commission of inquiry was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March in Geneva. It was given a one-year mandate to investigate alleged systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In May, the council announced the three members of the commission, with Mr. Kirby as chair and joined by Ms. Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights campaigner, and Mr. Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia. In addition to his appointment to the inquiry, Mr. Darusman is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a post he has held since 2010.
The creation of the commission followed important advocacy work in recent years by the Special Rapporteur and by South Korean and international non-governmental organizations. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has also been a strong supporter of the inquiry.
Possible violations to be investigated by the group include those pertaining to the right to food and those associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, freedom of expression, the right to life, freedom of movement and enforced disappearances, including abductions of nationals of other states.
Under its mandate, the commission will also investigate to what extent any violations may amount to crimes against humanity. Mr. Kirby said the inquiry will pay special attention to the issue of accountability.
“We are determined to shed light on the different aspects of various alleged human rights violations,” he said. “To the extent that we establish that such violations have occurred, we will also seek to determine whether crimes against humanity have occurred and who bears responsibility among different state institutions and officials. But it is not possible at this moment to envisage the level of detail that the commission will be able to achieve in establishing lines of responsibility, if any.”
The commission is scheduled to present an oral update to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September in Geneva, and to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in October. A final written report will be submitted to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. The council has already committed itself to refer the final document to appropriate United Nations bodies for follow-up. Mr. Kirby said it is impossible to say at this stage how any follow-up process will unfold.
“It will mostly depend on the findings of our investigation, the conclusions and the recommendations that will be reached and the decision of the competent organs of the United Nations and other international institutions in implementing — or not — our recommendations,” he said.