The difficulties of bringing the human rights situation in North Korea before the UN Security Council

Published: 21 January 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 5 December 2014, 10 members of the UN Security Council wrote a letter to the Council’s President expressing their deep concern about “the scale and gravity of human rights violations” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), and requested that the situation in the DPRK be formally placed on the Council’s agenda. The matter was taken up at the 7353rd Council meeting on 22 December 2014. The 10 Council members first sought the establishment of a new agenda item, “The situation in the DPRK”, under which the Council could, as a matter of urgency and then as necessary, consider the serious and deteriorating human rights situation in that country. Second, they requested that a formal meeting under the agenda item should be held immediately. The establishment of agenda items and the adoption of the agenda at a meeting are procedural matters, decisions on which require the affirmative vote of nine Council members. China and Russia were opposed to both matters, arguing, inter alia, that human rights issues did not fall within the mandate of the Security Council, which was the maintenance of international peace and security, and warning against the politicisation of human rights issues. The agenda was adopted with 11 votes in favour, 2 against (China and Russia) and two abstentions (Chad and Nigeria).

From 2015 to 2017, the Security Council held an annual meeting on “The situation in the DPRK”, hearing briefings about and debating the human rights situation in the DPRK. In each of these years, the Council members requesting the matter to be put on the agenda mustered at least nine votes. However, China and Russia consistently opposed the Council’s involvement in the human rights situation in the DPRK. In 2018, the United States had to drop the request for a Council meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK because it could not garner the required nine votes.

In 2019, a new attempt was to be made to put the human rights situation in the DPRK on the Security Council agenda. It was envisaged to hold an open meeting on 10 December 2019 to coincide with Human Rights Day – the day the UN General Assembly had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Germany was asked to solicit the necessary nine signatures on a letter requesting the meeting. However, the letter was never sent, as the United States informed Germany on 6 December 2019 that it would not be joining eight other Council members in order not to jeopardise its talks with North Korea over denuclearisation. Two days earlier, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations had sent a letter to members of the Security Council telling them that “if the Security Council would push through the meeting on ‘human rights issue’ of the DPRK […] the situation on the Korean Peninsula would take a turn for the worse again.”

Germany, however, continued to consider the human rights situation in the DPRK a matter for the Security Council. On 10 December 2019, Germany joined 5 current and incoming EU members of the Security Council in a statement on the occasion of Human Rights Day which read as follows:

“Today is Human Rights Day, and, on this occasion, we reaffirm our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, their universality, indivisibility and interdependence. As one of the three pillars of the United Nations, human rights are at the core of the UN’s work. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a cornerstone of the rules-based international system. Human rights are inextricably linked to the maintenance of peace and security and to the achievement of sustainable development.

While celebrating the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today, we want to stress the importance of the Security Council systematically taking human rights into account in all of its work. Human rights violations and abuses are amongst the first warning signs of a looming conflict; may be part of a conflict’s root causes; and are invariably a feature of a conflict. The failure to uphold international human rights norms and standards undermines the Security Council’s efforts to sustaining peace. Holding those responsible for human rights violations and abuses to account is a vital component of combating impunity.

Therefore, we want today to recall the necessity for all States to comply with their international human rights obligations and underline the need for the Security Council to focus on advancing the protection of human rights as an integral part of its mandate to maintain international peace and security.”

The next day, when the Council discussed the agenda item “Non-proliferation/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, the Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN diverted from the subject matter under discussion and addressed the human rights situation in the DPRK, stating:

“Let me turn to the human rights situation. Yesterday we commemorated Human Rights Day. It was a very sad day for the North Koreans. They are being deprived by the regime of their basic civil and political rights – freedom of information, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Those are all things that the people in North Korea can only dream of. The regime is also depriving its people of their basic economic and social rights. Only by torturing and arbitrarily locking up of millions of people in a Gulag system can the regime quell the aspirations of its people. Those gross human rights violations, in our view, have an impact on peace and security and warrant the attention of this organ.”

While China and Russia are correct in their view that the Security Council is not the organ within the UN system tasked with the promotion and protection of human rights, the questions of human rights and international peace and security cannot be neatly separated or compartmentalized. Large-scale and systematic violations of human rights may ultimately impact on international peace and security and require the Council to act in order to fulfil its primary responsibility under the Charter. The Council’s task is not limited to the reactive or remedial removal of threats to the peace and breaches of the peace, but also extends to the proactive prevention of such threats.

By holding annual public meetings on the human rights situation in the DPRK the Security Council may raise awareness and focus international attention on the issue and send a message to the people of the DPRK that “the international community is aware of their suffering and stands in solidarity with them.” It may, however, be asked whether the Security Council as a high-profile political body is the appropriate forum for debating human rights issues. Selective attempts by individual Council Members at calling out certain States for their human rights violations may lead to a politicisation of human rights and further undermine the credibility of the Security Council. It is also questionable whether the naming and shaming of a country like the DPRK during a Security Council debate by individual members will yield any results. Unlike the question of whether the human rights situation in a certain State may be discussed by the Council, the question of whether that State has actually violated its human rights obligations and, if so, whether actions should be taken are not procedural but substantive questions requiring an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the five permanent members. Against this background and Russian and Chinese opposition it seems highly unlikely that any concrete action will follow from such discussions.

Category: United Nations

DOI: 10.17176/20220627-173044-0

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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