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The Bush Institute Talks with Former Chair of U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea

Article by The Bush Institute November 3, 2014 //   8 minute read

The Honorable Michael Kirby is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia. In 2013, he was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to lead an inquiry on human rights abuses in North Korea. The Commission of Inquiry report, released in February 2014, details “unspeakable atrocities” within North Korea’s political prison camps, including crimes against humanity. A recent exchange on the subject between Kirby and the North Korean delegation to the U.N. can be watched here.

Kirby joined President Bush in a recent meeting with refugees and leaders to discuss ways to advance the cause of human freedom in North Korea. He sat down with the Bush Institute to talk about the Commission of Inquiry report, his experience as Chair, and the need to stay engaged on the issue. 

Why do violations in North Korea matter to the rest of the world?

They matter for the reason that Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out so long ago in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are universal because they are inherent in human beings everywhere. They are part of our humanness. And we are all born, as the UDHR says, with dignity and rights.

One of the principles which was established in the Charter of the United Nations, in 1945, was that the world would be founded, after the Second World War, on principles of the rule of law, of human rights, of democratic governance, and of international peace and security. All of these objectives are interrelated.  Unless we can protect the human rights of people everywhere, that leads to very unstable security situations. In today’s world, and with today’s technology, these situations threaten the peace and prosperity of us all.

So it’s important in principle, because we all have human rights, that we should be defensive of those of ourselves and of others. But it’s also important practically.  Where there are no human rights, or where human rights are not observed, there are dangers to peace and security and to stability.

What were some of the most alarming findings in the Commission of Inquiry report?

The findings that were most alarming were those that related to crimes against humanity. A crime against humanity is an extremely serious crime against international law. It’s a crime involving violence against a population or part of a population as a matter of state policy which shocks the conscience of humanity.

The Commission of Inquiry found that many of the facts that were established by the evidence created a case, on reasonable grounds, that required investigation by a prosecutor and possible prosecution before an international tribunal of crimes against humanity on the part of the DPRK (North Korea) and its agents and officers and leaders.

Those crimes against humanity included crimes relating to the establishment of prison camps, often under extremely arduous conditions of torture and starvation; crimes against humanity in relation to the starvation of the population; in relation to the denigration of women; in relation to discrimination against people on the grounds of their political views and of their religious convictions.  Their desire to worship God is suppressed and discouraged in North Korea. Crimes against humanity also included forced abductions of people by North Korea as a matter of state policy of that country. Those abductions have mostly involved nationals of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) but also nationals of Japan.

Those matters are all detailed in the report on the Commission of Inquiry.  They demand accountability. They demand action. And that is why the Commission of Inquiry suggested that the material should be placed before a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, with a view to rendering accountable those leaders in North Korea who are guilty of the crimes against humanity.

What are some lessons you learned as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry?

I learned the importance of methodology. That sounds like a boring subject.  But if you get the methodology of a Commission of Inquiry correct, it’s more likely that you’ll get a good outcome from the process. In the past, most United Nations Commissions of Inquiry (COI) have proceeded in a traditional way. They’ve tended to be undertaken by professors or diplomats, acting in private, and based upon testimony which is gathered in a non-public fashion.

Because this COI could not gain access to North Korea, we thought it very important that we should act with great emphasis on transparency. We advertised.  We had no difficulty getting testimony. There are 30,000 refugees from North Korea in the world and about 26,000 living in South Korea. Many started coming forward.  In the end we had to cut it off because we were under pressure of time to get our report written in about six months.

We had public hearings, which were open to members of the public and also to media. They went online and are available to this day. Members of the international community anywhere can see our hearings, view our witnesses, and reach their own conclusions about their veracity and the acceptability of their testimony.

Our methodology was very important.  And I think in the end, that may prove to be one of the most important features of the North Korea COI. We went about it in a different way.   I think not only did that get good material, good evidence and testimony, upon which we could base our report, but it also gave us very vivid illustrations of the matters in our mandate that require action on the part of the international community.

It also raises the expectation of the Korean people and the international community that something will be done. People are now engaged with the report on the Commission of Inquiry.  They feel that it should be followed up with action and accountability.

Now that’s only one of the lessons I learned. I learned many other lessons relating to the suffering of the Korean people, their quiet dignity, the loss of family members, the cruelty of the regime in North Korea, the deprivation of fundamental human rights, and the way in which the witnesses who came before us explained their grim ordeal in a very low-key, matter-of-fact way. Their testimonies were much like what you see in Holocaust museums now: just telling the most unusual stories of the most grave and serious crimes in a very understated fashion.

It was extremely powerful, and on a number of occasions, it brought tears to my eyes.  When I undertook the Inquiry, I was a person in my own country, Australia, who had been a judge for 34 years.  So I was a pretty hard nut. But the testimony was extremely upsetting.   Anyone in doubt should Google the North Korean Commission of Inquiry and have a look for themselves. People all around the world can see the testimony of the victims.  All around the world except in North Korea, where ordinary citizens have no access to the internet.