On December 10, the White House blocked the planned United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting that was intended to refocus attention on North Korea’s human rights violations, making it the second year in a row that the U.S. has taken a dismissive stance on the longstanding issue. Set to coincide with Human Rights Day, the council expected to hold a debate discussing the regime’s atrocious abuses. Reuters have confirmed that eight members of the 15-nation council were in support for the meeting to follow through, but the U.S. held the final undecided vote. Instead, the council plans to focus the upcoming meeting on a comprehensive update on recent missile launches and the possibility of an escalatory provocation by North Korea.
Foreign Policy has evaluated the U.S.’ diplomatic retreat from the UN as an attempt by Trump to quell rising diplomatic frictions and to persuade Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons before next year’s U.S. presidential elections. However, North Korea’s ambassador announced in Saturday’s statement that prospects are grim for a resumption of U.S.-North Korea nuclear diplomacy—the U.S.’ key demand of nuclearization is “off the table.” In addition, North Korea has warned the council against holding such a meeting, and that any discussion of North Korea’s human rights record would “lead to undermining rather than helping reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolution of the nuclear issue.”
Human Rights Watch and various NGOs have condemned the U.S.’ inaction as a clear signal to Pyongyang and the world that human rights are a second-tier issue pushed to the back burner in favour of discussing missiles and appeasing abusers. Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch, stated that “North Korea and many other abusive governments can now rest assured that they have little to fear from the Trump administration when it comes to human rights.” While other delegations may bring up the issue in other ways, Charbonneau stressed that “there is no substitute for a meeting dedicated to human rights.”
Despite widespread documentation and repudiation of North Korea’s human rights violations, the opportunity to highlight the issue at the UNSC has been compromised for the past few years. Arguing that the SC is an inappropriate venue for human rights discussions as they do not pose a threat to international peace and security, China has blocked member states’ proposals to refer the case to the ICC in 2014-2016. The Trump administration has also blocked the supposed 2018 meeting in wake of the weapon proliferation summits.
In his October 2019 statement, Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, has urged member states to cease the sidelining of human rights concerns during negotiations and sanctions relief. “Integrating fundamental human rights into the current negotiations is crucial for the sustainability of any agreement for denuclearization and peace for the Korean Peninsula and beyond.” Highlighting the ongoing seriousness of the situation and the need to hold North Korea accountable, he also urged member states to explore new avenues of constructive dialogue.
Effectively addressing and working towards solutions to the unimaginable conditions North Koreans are put through may be a way to trigger reform in the country. Since Pyongyang has already announced its disinterest in continuing diplomatic talks for denuclearization, the international community must put their energy towards their grave issue and hold the government accountable for their crimes.
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