With overwhelming support from member states, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the deplorable human rights conditions in North Korea. Today’s development should be considered a milestone for international justice. While an independent investigation will not yield the ultimate impact we want—the much-needed closure of the political prison camps—it represents a crucial first step in uncovering the widespread and systematic nature of the crimes, and could ultimately lead to holding the perpetrators accountable. As an immediate impact, the commission has the potential to pressure North Korean officials to end their outright denial of the existence of the camps. We heavily campaigned for this outcome over the last few months – by putting the vast network of political prison camps on the map, uncovering a new security zone next to the infamous Camp 14, and most importantly, by sharing the powerful stories of survivors of the forgotten prisons, with the world.
The human rights situation in the isolated nation has long been reported on by survivors and defectors, and long-suspected by human rights groups whose access to the country has been limited to none. The Commission will put a much needed spotlight on the country’s abysmal human rights conditions—such as forced hard labor, denying food as punishment and torture—that may amount to crimes against humanity. While a commission is unlikely to get immediate access to the country or the prison camps, numerous sources of evidence are available, including testimony from survivors who escaped, and an increasing amount of satellite imagery.
But to be clear: We should not need to rely on satellites to track developments around the country’s infamous prison camps; that the world is largely dependent on these eyes-in-the-sky to access North Korea and those who languish there only reinforces the urgent need for unfettered access for independent human rights observers, including the newly appointed members of the Commission of Inquiry. Any potential visit by the Commission should include a thorough investigation of the Ch’oma-bong area, where we recently revealed the encirclement of an entire valley and its inhabitants with a new security perimeter and guard towers.
Voices from North Korea rally the global conscience
“…the UN can establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the political prison camps to pressure the North”—Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean born in a political prison camp to have escaped.
There is another reason why today matters. By establishing the Commission of Inquiry, the 47-member UN Human Rights Council heeded the call from survivors of the political prison camps to scrutinize North Korea’s human rights record. It is their shocking stories—not satellite images or statistics—that rallied the global conscience to take action. As there is no one else to better speak about these human rights conditions than the people who were directly impacted, let me again share our Stories from North Korea’s Prison Camps playlist (put together in cooperation with WITNESS).
International Justice on the fast track
It was a good week for justice and accountability for the worst crimes under international law. Today’s news on North Korea follows the surrender on Monday of Congolese war lord and ICC fugitive Bosco Ntaganda a.k.a. “The Terminator”. However, much remains to be done. Our ultimate goal must be to set up a strong, universal system of international justice that leaves no space for impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. As we embark on our new campaign to urge U.S. President Barack Obama to reaffirm the United States Signature to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, let’s hope we can report back soon with another international justice success story.