A United Nations commission of inquiry examining the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea moves this week to Japan, where it will hold two days of public hearings that will include testimony on the abductions of Japanese nationals to the DPRK.
The three- member UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK travels on Tuesday (Aug. 27) to Tokyo from Seoul, where it is currently holding five days of public hearings as well as other consultations on a variety of human rights issues. These have ranged from political prison camps and torture to religious persecution, discrimination and the right to food in the DPRK. Those testifying before the commission include a number of witnesses who recently fled the north and are able to provide first-hand accounts of violations of their human rights.
The chairperson of the three-member UN panel, Michael Kirby, said the Seoul and Tokyo public hearings are aimed at increasing public awareness of the human rights situation in the DPRK, which has so far failed to respond to the commission’s requests to visit the country. An invitation to the DPRK government to participate in the commission hearings also received no reply.
“Lacking direct access to the DPRK, we are still able to gather numerous first-hand accounts from people who have managed to leave the country in recent years,” Kirby said.
“We hope their brave decision to testify will raise the international profile of the human rights situation in North Korea – not just with a general global audience, but also among the member states of the United Nations.”
Kirby reiterated that the commission is conducting the inquiry with impartiality and with no preconceptions.
Japan, along with the European Union, co-sponsored a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 that led to the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK. Japan continues to be a strong supporter of the commission’s work.
Issues of particular relevance to Japan – abductions and the fate of Japanese nationals in the DPRK — are expected to be raised in the Tokyo public hearings, which begin on Thursday (Aug. 29) morning and continue through Friday (Aug. 30) at the United Nations University.
The abduction of Japanese citizens by the DPRK remains a sharp issue in Japan and a point of tension between the two states. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, a number of Japanese were abducted by suspected agents of the North Korean government. Although the number of abductions is subject to debate, there are at least 17 acknowledged cases. The likelihood is many more.
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 commission of inquiry was established by the UN 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 DPRK. In May, the council announced the three members of the commission, with 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 UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, a post he has held since 2010.
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, with special attention placed on the issue of accountability.
“We are determined to shed light all aspects of the various alleged human rights violations,” Kirby 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 in North Korea. 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 UN Human Rights Council in September in Geneva, and to the UN 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 UN bodies for follow-up.
Kirby said in Seoul that as the process unfolds, he believed that the specificity, detail and shocking character of much of the testimony would call for a response from the international community.
“In the contemporary world, it is not good enough to produce just another UN report,” he said. “Today, leaders and governments are accountable and the commission of inquiry has been created with that objective in mind.
“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 UN and other international institutions in implementing — or not — our recommendations,” he said.