At U.N., West seeks to have North Koreans tried for rights violations

At U.N., West seeks to have North Koreans tried for rights violations
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks Dec. 22 at the Security Council, where North Korea's human rights record was denounced by a majority of the 15 member states. (Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Western ambassadors on the United Nations Security Council revealed gruesome details of alleged human rights violations in North Korea on Monday at an unprecedented debate and called for its leaders to be tried for crimes against humanity.

But a resolution proposing referral of senior North Korean officials to the International Criminal Court for prosecution went unheeded after China and Russia, which have the power to veto any action by the council, urged against a vote that their representatives said could only aggravate tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Although the majority of the 15-member council spoke damningly of the Pyongyang government's treatment of political prisoners, said to number about 120,000, China attempted to prevent the discussion of its ally's behavior in what Beijing considers domestic matters.

Russia, which comes in for sharp criticism of its own human rights record, was the only council member to vote with China in its failed attempt to cancel the discussion before it started. The two authoritarian powerhouses were probably opposed to the precedent set by the debate, the first by the only U.N. body empowered to censure a member state.

North Korea, which refused to cooperate with the investigation of its rights record and vowed retaliation if any U.N. action was taken, is already embroiled in a bitter confrontation with the United States over its suspected role in the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The FBI has said it has evidence of a North Korean hand in anonymous messages posted on the Internet that threatened Sept. 11-scale attacks on U.S. moviegoers if the Sony film "The Interview" was released.

The film, a low-brow comedy depicting a farcical assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has been pulled back from its planned Dec. 25 distribution in reaction to the threats — a move criticized by free speech advocates as caving in to the repressive practices of the Pyongyang government.

China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, had objected to discussing North Korea's human rights situation, arguing that the council mandate limits its responsibilities to matters of peace and international security. To involve the council in an individual country's human rights situation "can only bring harm instead of benefits," Liu said.

China and Russia are two of the council's five permanent members and as such wield veto power, preventing the U.N. council from censuring China-allied North Korea. No vote on referring the matter to the International Criminal Court was called.

U.S., Australian, French and other Western ambassadors deemed the rights abuses detailed in a March report by a U.N. Human Rights Council commission of inquiry as evidence of a brutal government that should be brought to account before the court in The Hague.

The commission report "lays bare the depraved nature of the violations" committed on an unprecedented scale in North Korea, said Australia's U.N. ambassador, Gary Quinlan. Australia, the United States, Britain, France, South Korea and five other Security Council member states had expressed concern in a Dec. 5 letter that the severity of North Korean abuses could "have a destabilizing impact" on the volatile Korean peninsula.

"Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the DPRK," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

She said the abuses detailed in the commission report provide grounds to conclude that crimes against humanity have been committed "pursuant to policies established at the highest levels of state."

The commission report, based on interviews with more than 200 defectors and others who met clandestinely with investigators, concluded that North Korea's human rights abuses were "unparalleled" in the modern world for their savagery and scale.

North Korean diplomats initially reacted to the U.N. commission's report on its human rights situation with a campaign to discredit its findings, a posture human rights advocates said showed that Pyongyang's sensitivity on the subject indicated it could be persuaded to reform.

But more recent reaction from Pyongyang has included threats to retaliate against any world body censure by conducting another forbidden nuclear weapons test.

That linkage of its human rights behavior and its pursuit of nuclear arms makes it clear that the matters are deeply intertwined as threats to international security, Power and other council representatives argued.

Power urged council members who hadn't yet viewed videotaped testimony by the Human Rights Council investigative commission to do so, saying the evidence "shows North Korea for what it is — a living nightmare."

She gave the most graphic and disturbing accounts of atrocities detailed in the commission report, including a defected political prisoner's claim that her child, born of rape committed by a prison camp guard, was killed after she gave birth and savagely disposed of.

Others who spoke during the nearly two-hour discussion were more reticent in disclosing the report's horrifying documentation.

"I would not run through the macabre lists of atrocities. This would make us all nauseated," Luxembourg Ambassador Sylvie Lucas told the council.

Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, called on the council to bring North Korean leaders to account for a litany of crimes he said included summary executions, deliberate starvation, torture, rape and sexual enslavement.

"Rarely has such an extensive charge sheet of international crimes been brought to this council's attention," he said, urging the member states to give the grave situation in North Korea their "fullest attention and action."

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