Universe Column for December 10th 2006
by David Alton
I recently met Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nation Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea.
During our discussion I pointed to the 2 million people who have starved to death in North Korea, the 200,000 who languish in its modern-day gulags, and the estimated 400,000 people who have died in its concentration camps over the past 30 years.
It is particularly perverse that at least 30% of North Korea’s national wealth is used for armaments and nuclear development while its people starve and languish in third world poverty.
North Korea is a totalitarian State which demands total obedience and which, in the manner of a cult, exerts total control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
The United Nations recently promulgated a new doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” – the duty to intervene in egregious situations. The Security Council may now be invited to consider how best to proceed where there is evidence of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity. It recently did so in an extremely welcome move in the case of Burma.
In North Korea, Professor Muntarbhorn accepted that the evidence of the regime’s involvement in crimes against humanity has been empirically documented in a report which was launched in Parliament on October 30thlast at a meeting I chaired.
That report, “Failure To Protect – A Call For the UN Security Council To Act In North Korea” was commissioned by Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and the former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik.
Not long after its publication, the General Assembly of the United Nations, on November 17th passed its second resolution on North Korea.
It called for North Korea to honour its obligations detailed in the four treaties to which it is a signatory – especially in regard to the rights of children, workers, the elderly, disabled people and women; and to reassess its refusal to recognise the mandate of Special Rapporteur.
It also condemned the morass of allegations and evidence of the use of torture, degrading treatment, public executions, prison camps, forced labour, people’s tribunals, and the absence of due process. It drew attention to “all pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association”, the terrible plight of refugees, and restrictions on travel and freedom of movement.
The General Assembly Resolution details the “continuing violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, in particular the trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution or forced marriage, forced abortion, and infanticide of children repatriated mothers” and the abduction of foreigners, and enforced disappearances.
It highlights what it calls “the precarious humanitarian situation” and “infant malnutrition”; and it requires the Secretary General to submit a comprehensive report and for the Assembly itself to return to the issue during its sixty-second session.
Given that the Republic of Korea and China are desperate that there should not be a complete collapse of the DPRK – with all the humanitarian and refugee issues that would arise – it is now vital that the UK encourages China to use its extensive leverage – not least through its control of North Korea’s petrol and electricity – to deter further nuclear proliferation and to avert these crimes against humanity in North Korea. Meanwhile, China is itself in flagrant violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in repatriating refugees to a country where they will face severe punishment, torture, and even execution.
Pope Benedict recently urged the international community not use food as a weapon against North Korea.
Caritas and countries like Ireland have continued to provide food relief but funds for the World Food Programme to North Korea are down from £6 million to £1.9 million; only 10% of the needed funds have come in, from 30 countries out of 200; and although, in the light of the current circumstances the attitude of the international community is understandable, it could lead to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people if food aid is withheld.
North Korea is the latest test of our frayed international structures. It will be among the UN’s great moral challenges in the coming years
How will history judge the effectiveness of our international institutions in facing crises in places like Burma, Darfur and North Korea?
Would it not be better not to use sententious and earnest rhetoric, such as “the duty to protect”, if we are unwilling or unable to make a reality of the high minded words?
Dag Hammarskjold, one of the great UN Secretary Generals, said the UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell. In North Korea that remains the challenge today.