By Salil Shetty, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Salil Shetty is secretary general of Amnesty International. The views expressed are his own.
The resounding victory for Kim Jong Un in North Korea’s parliamentary elections this past week reflects the “absolute support” of people in the country, according to state media.
However, it’s doubtful such support includes the hundreds of thousands of people – including children – that languish in political prison camps and other detention facilities. Or those that have been the victims of crimes against humanity as documented in a chilling U.N. report made public last month. Indeed, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report was unprecedented, stating: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations…does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
When the full horror of the atrocities committed by North Korea against its own citizens was laid bare, support for the Commission’s comprehensive findings was swift among many in the international community. But such statements of support will not bring to an end the systematic torture, executions, rape, or forced labor inflicted upon North Koreans by their own government. Nor will it ensure those responsible for these crimes against humanity are brought to justice.
With Pyongyang refusing to even acknowledge that such crimes are taking place, the international community’s tough rhetoric needs to be matched by genuine action.
The first test comes Monday in Geneva, when the Commission of Inquiry’s report is formally presented at the U.N. Human Rights Council. A strong resolution needs to be adopted sending a clear message to Kim that the Commission’s recommendations will be acted upon and not kicked into the diplomatic long-grass.
However, with China, Cuba and Russia having taken seats on the Council in January, the consensus that established the Commission of Inquiry last March is by no means guaranteed going forward. The reality is that some states are prepared to turn a blind eye to the most horrendous human rights violations on the pretext of a so-called principled position.
China and other countries’ refusal to cease the unlawful practice of forcibly returning people to a country where they face persecution, torture and death is shameful. But the Commission’s authoritative report represents the best opportunity in years to increase pressure on North Korea to address the grave violations. The international community will have failed the millions of people whose suffering is unimaginable if political wrangling once again obstructs effective action.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can also act by referring the Commission’s report to the Security Council as a matter of urgency. Human rights have been the elephant in the room at the Security Council, with the United States, China and others focused instead on North Korea’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, insufficient attention has been given to the enormity of the grave violations taking place. Human rights must now be placed center stage when the Security Council considers peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
There are other ways the U.N. system can act. Agencies that operate in North Korea, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, can play an important role by better addressing human rights concerns through their work. Such action has the potential to deliver immediate tangible results.
With North Korea having dismissed the Commission’s findings, the onus is on all other U.N. member states to ensure its recommendations are taken forward, including ensuring those responsible for crimes against humanity face justice.
It is only through such coordinated action to end the “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that the international community can demonstrate its absolute support for the people of North Korea.