Michael Kirby calls for action on human rights in North Korea

United Nations Commission chair Michael Kirby is a man of conscience

Michael Kirby knows his own mind. Now he wants the world to focus its attention on human rights in North Korea, a task he sees as vital for the stability of the region – and for world security.

This article is from the July 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK

United Nations Commission chairman and former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby has long held society to a high standard on human rights. For the past two years, Kirby’s focus has been on North Korea, leading the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the secretive nation.

The Commission’s report details “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” by the North Korean government, whose political prison camps it says have been the scene of “unspeakable atrocities”.

Kirby says the violations constitute grave crimes against humanity and are without parallel in the contemporary world. The accounts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, starvation and persecution are unrelenting and devastating. Kirby says the violence demonstrated by leader Kim Jong-un makes North Korea an increasingly unstable and dangerous state.

The UN inquiry heard testimony from 300 witnesses, mostly North Korean exiles. The testimony was given in open sessions and the evidence is available online for the public to form its own opinion.

The Commission’s report was presented to the UN last year and, crucially, is on the agenda of the UN Security Council. But it will require the unanimous support of all five permanent Security Council members (France, the UK, US, China and Russia) to force North Korea to change its human rights record.

“My job was to secure the testimony of people who had never been listened to before.”

For Kirby, there is an intrinsic link between international peace and security, and universal human rights. He believes this will ultimately lead China and Russia, in particular, to see the imperative of taking action against North Korea.

Kirby seeks to share the North Korean story with the global community in the hope its citizens will step up and show leadership, too. He shared his experience with the former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.

North Korea's military in PyongyangAlex Malley: The report of the UN committee you chaired provides evidence of widespread human rights violations. Having heard from hundreds of exiled victims of the regime and been a judge for 34 years, can anything prepare you for what you had to listen to?

Michael Kirby: In a technical sense, yes, because the work of a judge is listening to testimony and evaluating it. My job was to secure the testimony of people who had never been listened to before. The testimony, however, was devastating, upsetting, unrelenting.

One of our witnesses told us his job in a detention camp every morning was to pick up bodies of people who had perished, usually from cold and starvation, put them in the wheelbarrow, wheel them to the vat in which they were incinerated and then scatter the ashes on the nearby fields as fertiliser.

That was so similar to my memories of childhood, seeing these post-war images of the opening up of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other concentration camps.

North Korea has declared that the witnesses who came before the inquiry were a self-selected group of traitors to their country who were deceitful, dishonest and not to be accepted by the United Nations.

However, we did something unusual: we held public hearings. We filmed the testimony. We put the testimony online. Anybody can see it, except the people in North Korea who are denied access to the internet. So people everywhere in the world can judge the truthfulness of our witnesses. I believe they will judge them to be overwhelmingly truthful and the evidence they gave was frightening.

“The number of states with access to nuclear weapons is growing and one of those states – North Korea – is unstable. This is therefore a challenge to our species.”

Malley: And is it true there are some 26,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea?

Kirby: Yes the approximate number is 26,000 who have escaped into the Republic of Korea, South Korea. The current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was sent to the border area by his father Kim Jong-il as a preparation for his ultimate succession [in 2011]. Kim Jong-un took with him memories of how porous the borders were.

So DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, under his leadership has greatly strengthened the barbed wire and the guards, and the number of people escaping from North Korea has radically reduced.

Malley: The evidence in the report is clearly begging for the world to show leadership and to act. You’ve called on the UN Security Council to show the same swift leadership on this matter that it did with MH17 [the Malaysian Airlines aircraft shot down over Ukraine]. What would that leadership look like?

Kirby: The first thing to be said is that the Security Council has already shown leadership. It has accepted the report and by a procedural resolution, to which the veto does not apply, they have put the issues of human rights in North Korea on the agenda of the Security Council.

However, under the Charter of the United Nations, any substantive resolution of the Security Council requires the affirmative participating vote of the permanent five members – France, the UK, the US, the Russian Federation and China.

Malley: What is your level of optimism that it can be turned to a unanimous vote?

“The result of the great famine is that teenage children are about nine inches [22cm] shorter than children in South Korea.”

Kirby: The latest five-yearly meeting of the UN Committee on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has just broken up without agreement. This indicates the rather dangerous position of our world at the moment, and it is relevant to the situation in North Korea. 

One of the reasons for the break-up of that committee was the realisation that for all of the noble objectives of the treaty, the number of states with access to nuclear weapons is growing and one of those states – North Korea – is unstable. This is therefore a challenge to our species and to peace and security in our world.

It’s that challenge which may ultimately lead to a decision on the part of the permanent five members [of the Security Council] that something has to be done. Already they have voted in favour of a ban on the supply of weapons material to North Korea. Therefore you can get unanimity in the Security Council.

It’s a strange feature of human behaviour that when you get people together, if there is a serious problem affecting them all, you can sometimes get a coalescence of at least a bottom line which they will agree on.

UN Commission of Inquiry 

Because human rights are connected with peace and security, I’m optimistic that, given time, there will be a unanimous view that something has to be done to confront and deal with this very dangerous situation.

Malley: Kim Jong-un is a very young leader. Has there been an effort to try to understand him as a person and where he stands himself as a leader? When confronting these issues it helps to know who you are dealing with.

Kirby: There are whole institutes and experts in many countries who are undertaking that effort, not because of the inherent fascination of a totalitarian state but because of the great danger of the state to itself and to surrounding states. 

There were a lot of hopes, with the death of Kim Jong-il, that there would be a change in North Korea. After all, Kim Jong-un is a young man, he was partly educated in Switzerland, is known to be very interested in international sports and digital technology. 

However, far from being an improvement on his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un has displayed elements of violence against members of his own family and leading military figures.

He behaves with a self-confidence and a degree of violence that his father kept under control. I don’t think we would have seen many of the violent events of the last two or three years under Kim Jong-il. 

There are some who think North Korea has been to some extent destabilised by the work of the United Nations and our shining a light on the situation inside the country. Certainly, there have been some good economic developments in that the market economy has begun to increase, largely due to the desperate poverty of the North Korean people.

Malley: What does that market economy look like? It’s obviously at a level of infancy but is there some optimism that it will bring at least some hope to the people?

Kirby: It sprung up in the aftermath of the great famine of the mid-1990s. In that famine the Commission of Inquiry estimated that about a million citizens died. That’s a million in a population of 23 million, approximately the same population as Australia. Because of the famine, women put up stalls in market squares to sell meagre goods in order to make enough money to buy food for their starving children. 

The result of the great famine is that teenage children [in North Korea] are about nine inches [22cm] shorter than children in South Korea. And about 29 per cent of all newborns are stunted. That is a very serious thing in a country that borders China, South Korea, Japan – all comparatively wealthy countries. North Korea could be a very wealthy country. 

I sometimes ask myself what do these leaders think at night as they settle their heads on their pillows? What do they think is the justification of the rule that they have brought that denies human rights to their own people? And that has resulted in such devastating wrongs to the lives of so many people, including young children.

Malley: You’ve described China as a mighty civilisation and you also mentioned in different conversations the number of times the veto power has been used by various nations [at the United Nations]. There is some interesting signage in that, isn’t there?

Kirby: China has been very prudent in the use of the veto power. The greatest use has been by the Russian Federation. China [the People’s Republic of China] has only used the veto nine times since it has held its seat in the Security Council. 

The tendency of the Chinese is not to seek a confrontational solution to problems, but to try to work their way to a consensus solution. And that, I think, is the hope – that, in the Security Council, China will realise that this state bordering its own territory is dangerous to itself.

It will conclude that strong action has to be taken to ensure that the human rights deprivations are reversed and the build-up of armaments is controlled and replaced by food and human rights for the people. 

Malley: Michael, as the chair of the Commission you came up with a list of lessons from the process to help propel it into the future. Is there one you’d like to highlight?

At night, North Korea disappears between China and South KoreaKirby: I think one lesson that is worth emphasising is the importance of the United Nations performing its inquiries in a transparent manner. I think that was a great strength of our inquiry.

Not only did it give the people who had come before us the dignity of respecting their entitlement to be listened to at the highest levels of the United Nations, it also raised expectations in the international community that something would happen, that there would be a follow-up. 

This is an occasion where we have done our job. The inquiry has been completed. The testimony is powerful and overwhelming and, I believe, believable. It is online for everyone to see. Now the question is whether the politicians and leaders and officials of the countries of the world will follow up. I hope they will, because this is a truly dangerous situation that needs to be addressed.

Read the findings of the UN commission into human rights in North Korea.

This article is from the July 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK

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