Michael Kirby spoke about his experiences as chair of the UN commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea at the Lowy Institute on 28 May.
The UN Human Right Council (HRC) established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into alleged human rights violations in North Korea in March 2013. Myself and Sonja Biserko of Serbia were appointed as commissioners the following month. (Marzuki Darusman, the third commissioner, served ex officio as Special Rapporteur for the HRC on North Korea.) Our report was released to the world on 17 February 2014.
The 10 principal lessons I learned in my work as chair of the COI were:
1. The importance of establishing such a COI with a strong, talented and independent secretariat of experienced and high quality officers.
2. The importance of conducting the inquiry with transparency. This was assured in the case of the COI on North Korea by the novel step of conducting public hearings, posting filmed records and transcripts on the COI's webpage, and the use of extracts from the testimony throughout the final report to illustrate our findings and conclusions.
3. The desirability of allowing the victims of human rights abuses to speak directly to the HRC and the international community through filmed testimony and through quotations from that testimony in the COI report.
4. The engagement of the COI with international and national civil society organisations. Great assistance and support, sometimes with technical evidence, was provided by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and Korean and Japanese non-government organisations.
5. The utility of engaging with international legal and other scholars. This was demonstrated, for example, through our consideration of the definition and application of the international crime of 'genocide'.
6. Engaging with the international media: North Korea has substantially effective control of media coverage about itself, not only to its own population but to the outside world. But this strategy was shattered by COI's engagement with international media which covered closely the activities, report and follow-up to the COI report.
7. The COI report clearly demonstrated the links between North Korea's non-observance of human rights and the danger the country presents to international peace and security. The Security Council already has on its agenda the security issues presented by North Korea and its nuclear arsenal. The report of the COI demonstrates that these cannot be divorced from the conduct of the regime in respect of its own citizens, including the manner and circumstances of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, uncle of the Supreme Leader and formerly a high official in North Korea.
8. Follow-up to the COI report secured high priority both from the COI itself as well as from interested UN member states and the UN system. That follow-up is continuing, and should address the large number of specific recommendations of the COI. Most of these recommendations do not require action by the Security Council. One, the creation of a field office to continue the work of the COI in monitoring human rights allegations against North Korea, is under active review.
9. Frustrations are often experienced about operating within the UN system, and it was sometimes trying. But the UN gave the COI admirable attention and support, with UN personnel responding favourably to virtually every COI request.
10. COI demonstrates the growing internationalism of the global response to intolerable human rights conditions in particular countries. While opponents of the COI report pleaded non-interference in the 'sovereign' rights of member countries, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights create a new world order in which we are all concerned with grave human rights violations. Where member states fail to protect their citizens, a responsibility to protect devolves to the UN system. The follow-up to the report of the COI on North Korea will demonstrate the extent to which this responsibility is meaningful in practice, even where the offending state has powerful friends, including some that are permanent members of the Security Council.