By a vote of 11 in favor, 2 against, and 2 abstentions, the Security Council voted to permanently add the issue of North Korean Human Rights to its agenda…so what have we learned?
The vote and ensuing discussion made clear the divide on the issue. The Human Rights situation in North Korea, as detailed in COI released earlier this year, was well recounted during the discussion – with ambassadors from Australia, Lithuania, France, Luxembourg, Nigeria, the United States, South Korea and others making lengthy statements decrying the situation and endorsing further substantive discussion. The two dissenting votes, needless to say, came from Russia and China – North Korea’s closest allies.
A marked difference in the discourse, however, was the rationale apparent of Russia and China in voting against adding the issue to the agenda. Russia, in its comparatively short staatement (less than one minute), simply stated that human rights was not an issue for the security council to discuss and called it a day. China, though following the same general trend, elaborated further – suggesting that not only was human rights not an issue for the Security Council to discuss, but also that continued focus on the topic of human rights would only serve to derail progress on the more critical issue of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. This sort of approach is different from approaches in the past – wherein China borderline questioned the legitimacy of the COI and the seriousness of human rights violations in North Korea. Here, instead of questioning, the Chinese and the Russians simply dismissed the issue as outside of the scope of the Security Council. This is change in tact signals perhaps one of the greatest victories of the COI.
The COI, which saw the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses – including that of countless North Korean defectors, effectively changed the focus of discussion regarding North Korea. No longer would all discussion focus on denuclearization. Now, the issue of some of the worst human rights violations on the planet would earn its fair share of attention. From the massive upsurge in diplomatic gestures and threats by North Korea, it is clear that, for whatever reason, Pyeongyang is not very comfortable with the sudden focus on human rights and it has done its best to change the focus of the discussion – this much is made apparent Pyeongyang’s recent threat to conduct a fourth nuclear test. For the most part, Russia and more so China have been quietly complicit in this strategy – that is, until recently. What we saw in the Security Council meeting was North Korea’s two closest allies refusing to make the same argument as their ally. By refusing to deny, discount, dismiss, and downplay the COI report, as Pyeongyang does, at the meeting, Russia and China have implicitly acknowledged its findings.
Though Russia and China nevertheless prefer talk on nuclear weapons over talk on human rights, this implicit acknowledgement shows that North Korea’s closest allies acknowledge the truth. If there was ever a holy grail of changing the discussion – short of Pyeongyang’s acknowledging the problems itself – this would be it. Needless to say, this is nowhere near the end of the story when it comes to human rights in North Korea – in many ways, this is just the beginning. But, with this landmark meeting, we can say that 2014, quite possibly most progressive year for North Korean Human Rights, ending on high, albeit quiet note.