Michael Kirby discusses the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea

On Thursday 31 July, the Australian Human Rights Centre hosted an address by Michael Kirby, former High Court Judge and Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Twelve months after the Commission of Inquiry was established in March 2013 to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK, the Commission delivered a 400 page report detailing ‘unspeakable atrocities’, ‘a disturbing array of crimes against humanity’, and a truth, Michael Kirby revealed, was hard to hear.  Speaking to close to 400 guests at UNSW Law last week, Mr. Kirby said that to date the UN has responded well to this ‘terrible scourge’, doing everything it should do to admonish human rights abuses in the DPRK and hold those responsible to account.

With his analysis steeped in a thoughtful consideration of both nations’ development, Mr. Kirby reflected on the history of post-war nation building on the Korean Peninsular and the dramatic socio-economic and political disparity between two Koreas, once so closely linked. He remarked that when the DPRK and South Korea were admitted to the UN on the same day in 1991, neither country had a human rights record of which it could be proud. And while democracy and social revolution have driven change in South Korea, the DPRK’s totalitarian regime has perpetuated systematic and intolerable human rights abuses, the former High Court judge said are without parallel in modern history.

Speaking on the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry in March 2013, Mr. Kirby said the international community recognised the overwhelming need to act after the DPRK rejected all 282 recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review of the country in 2012. Such was the conviction of the Human Rights Council members, that no vote was called to initiate the Commission of Inquiry, a process reserved for only the most serious abuses of human rights.

Over the course of the inquiry, the Commission heard from more than 320 witnesses including 80 people who gave their evidence as part of public hearings in Seoul. Tokyo, London and Washington. Using a methodology unlike other inquiries, the public hearings were crucial to the Commission’s success given the DPRK’s refusal to participate in the inquiry process and a campaign to discredit the investigations.

The public hearings, available to access online, and the pages of the Commission’s report, written in a deliberately accessible manner, amplify the voices of “ordinary people telling extraordinary stories”. These stories give “sharp and vivid evidence” of millions of people’s experience of famine; of harsh and inhumane detention; of restrictions on freedom of movement, information, and expression; of widespread discrimination; and of the abduction of “people of use to North Korean society”.

Reflecting on the million of lives lost to famine, on the evidence of public executions, and on the systematic, cruel, and violent silencing of dissent, Mr. Kirby said if the situation were the same in Australia “it would be such a devastation, we would undoubtedly move to overcome it.” Noting the work of the UN to date, and the Human Rights Council’s strong resolution to act, Mr. Kirby remains optimistic that the perpetrators of abuse in the DPRK can be held to account.

In September this year, the Commission’s findings and recommendations will be considered by the UN General Assembly, and potentially referred to the UN Security Council for a formal hearing in October. For the Chair of the Commission, the question remains as to “whether the action that is required will be defeated by geo-political interests of the permanent five members of the Security Council, or whether a consensus for urgently needed action will be found.”

To listen to Michael Kirby's seminar through UNSW TV, click on this link.