Press Briefing: U.S. Comments on HRC Reports on North Korea, Syria, Iran and Burma
Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council
March 11, 2013
United Nations Office at Geneva
Ambassador King: It’s very good to be back in Geneva to discuss the situation of human rights in North Korea.
As you know the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in DPRK will be giving his report to the Council today. We’ll be making our comments on his report.
We’re particularly happy that he has called for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry, an inquiry mechanism. We welcome that report. We’re also very happy with the comments that were made earlier by the High Commissioner for Human Rights indicating support for a tougher inquiry mechanism to look at the situation of human rights in North Korea.
The U.S. strongly supports that call and we’re looking forward to a positive vote when the resolution comes up later.
Ambassador Donahoe: I just wanted to comment that today is a very jam-packed day at the Council. As we’ve said, it’s a little bit of an embarrassment of riches in terms of important topics to be covering in one day. We don’t want to lose the focus on DPRK because there is some very significant movement at the Council on that topic, but I thought I would comment on the other reports and the interactive dialogues we’re having today.
As you’ve just seen, the interactive dialogue with the COI on Syria has come back. They’ve essentially confirmed what we already know, which is there has been a worsening of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Assad regime and the tragedy for the Syrian people has reached really abominable proportions.
The United States wants to emphasize we agree with the COI’s assessment that the Assad regime bears overwhelming responsibility for this tragedy and the destruction of Syria. And I just want to comment that the competence and focus of the Human Rights Council is particularly on ensuring accountability, preventing impunity and laying the ground work for transitional justice for the Syrian people and that’s where our focus should be.
I want to mention that later today we will also be hearing from the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. In that report you will hear that there are indications of an intensifying crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society actors specifically because of their participation in civil society. This particularly includes women’s rights leaders, journalists, bloggers, and ethnic and religious minorities.
We also note that we see increasingly punitive measures being undertaken by Iranian authorities to intimidate civil society actors and we see this as an effort to quash remaining dissent before the Iranian presidential elections. Very ominous signs before the election in Iran.
We also will have a report from the Special Rapporteur on Burma where there has been significant progress, yet challenges remain there and those challenges warrant a renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.
We want to emphasize that assuming this positive trajectory stays on course the United States will be there as a long-term partner for the people of Burma and for their government in their very long road to democratic reform.
Last is to turn it back to DPRK. I just want to emphasize this is really an unparalleled case of system-wide failure. Aside from a basic misprioritization and failure to focus on basic human needs such as food, we also see the information blackout policies as very significant and creating a level of isolation and intellectual starvation for the people of DPRK and we consider that truly abhorrent.
With that, we’ll turn it back to you for questions primarily, hopefully, on DPRK.
Press: Mrs. Ambassador there are parts of the Commission of Inquiry today talking about a concern related to spreading violence from Syria to the neighboring countries. Do you share with the reports this opinion? And tell when the international community will wait until we see the violence in the countries neighboring Syria?
Ambassador Donahoe: Absolutely the international community and the United States in particular are very very concerned about the risk of spreading violence in the region and to neighboring countries. Also very concerned about the flow of refugees, up to a million refugees at this point, as well as the internally displaced people where the numbers have reached something like four million.
So there are many aspects of this crisis that are wreaking havoc on the international community as well as obviously the people of Syria.
Press: A question on DPRK, North Korea. I just wonder if you can tell us something about what you’d like to see or what you expect to see in terms of how the Commission of Inquiry will work. Will it be two or three people? Will it be similar to the one on Syria? Is there any chance of it actually having any impact on the North Korean leadership and any change to North Korea? As you see what’s going on in Syria, they publish these reports again and again and again and again, and as we’re hearing, it’s confirmation of what we already know. What difference is it going to make? Thanks.
Ambassador King: I think there’s hope in the case of North Korea in the creation of this Commission of Inquiry. It’s not exactly clear, the resolution creating the Commission of Inquiry is in draft form, it’s being looked at. I think the possibility is it’s likely to follow the form that other Commissions of Inquiry follow, three people. I think the intention would be to have the current Special Rapporteur on North Korea Human Rights play a key role in the commission when it’s created.
In terms of what we expect from the commission, I think it’s helpful to increase the attention and the focus on DPRK and the creation of the Commission of Inquiry does that. It gives us an opportunity to provide greater focus, greater attention, to give more legal standing to what’s being done.
It’s hard to tell what impact this will have. DPRK is already aware that the world does not particularly approve of its human rights practices, but there may be benefit in terms of continuing to up the ante to take a further step to move further up the line. So I think it’s worth doing. I think it’s important that we continue to focus on DPRK. The timing, with all the other actions that are going on in the DPRK have certainly given attention and focus to the human rights concern.
Press: I have a question concerning the tensions between North Korea and South Korea. How seriously do you take that? We read today some news reports that some South Korean generals are out playing golf and really getting worried this weekend.
The second point is concerning Syria. The report talks about an increasing sectarian violence conflict. That may mean that there are more extremists, more foreign fighters coming in, and maybe shifting the balance of power there. Are you concerned about this? Are there any figures you have that you can enlighten us on? Thank you.
Ambassador King: Let me make a comment on DPRK and I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Donahoe to comment on Syria.
Yes, we’re concerned about the circumstances in North Korea. The North Koreans have taken actions in the last couple of days that are causing considerable concern. We take seriously the problems. There has been violence in the past in terms of, particularly in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Do Island. So when the North Koreans make the kind of statements that they’ve made, we definitely take them seriously.
I think the South Koreans are taking them equally seriously, and we’re certainly keeping in close contact with our South Korean allies in terms of this issue. It’s something we do take very seriously in terms of the significance of it.
Ambassador Donahoe: There is simply — Obviously everyone is very concerned about the shifting elements of sectarianism and extremism but we are trying to keep our focus on how to end the conflict. The culpability really rests with the Assad regime and that’s where people should keep their focus. The fact that the sectarian nature of the conflict or the extremists coming in from outside are growing, makes us more concerned about the complexity. We try to keep our focus on ending the conflict and that will require that Assad leave and we have the opportunity to move onto some sort of transition.
Press: You say you support the Commission of Inquiry report. One area of significant difference is they’re calling for referral to the ICC and your statement didn’t. Does the United States support a referral to the ICC?
Ambassador Donahoe: There have been many references to the issue of ICC referral. What we are trying to say is that right now it is not practical to think that there will be an ICC referral because of the dynamics in New York. So we are trying to keep our focus on ensuring accountability and justice for the Syrian people, and keeping open the prospect that in a new Syrian future with the transitional government there, that there may be the prospect of domestic accountability mechanisms as well as being open to the possibility of international accountability.
We just are placing our emphasis on ensuring that the Syrian people have a say in this accountability process for their own people.
Press: You say that you support the resolution for the Commission of Inquiry on DPRK. Will you join Japan and the EU in handing this resolution to the Secretariat, or will you just vote positively for the resolution? Thank you.
Ambassador King: We’ve had extensive consultations with the government of Japan and with the EU on the resolution. We’ve talked with them, we’ve consulted with them, we shared our ideas. We’re very supportive of what they’ve done. We’re very supportive of their effort.
With regard to Japan, we’re very supportive of the language in the resolution that calls for attention to the abductee issue. We have been supportive of the Japanese on that issue. We continue to be supportive of our Japanese allies in terms of resolving this issue. The abductee issue is an outrage. It’s unfortunate that it hasn’t been resolved long before now and we’re very supportive in terms of dealing with that.
So yes, we’re very much in consultation with the Japanese and with the EU on the resolution and we are also talking with a number of other countries about that. Thanks.
Ambassador Donahoe: Even more specific to the Council. Yes, we will cosponsor.
Press: Do you have any facts or figures, new insights on North Korean labor camps to share with us? Thank you.
Ambassador King: North Korea is one of the most closed places on the face of the earth. It is difficult for people to get in, it’s difficult to find out what’s going on there. There are reports on what has happened and what is happening in these camps. There was a report issued by an American NGO last year, Hidden Gulag, which goes into considerable detail based on interviews with refugees who have left North Korea, who have been imprisoned in these various camps. It also uses extensively information gathered from satellites, publicly available information from satellites. It’s provided good information on what the situation of the camps is in North Korea.
While we aren’t allowed to visit those camps, and as far as we know no international visitors have gone to these camps, we have a fairly good idea of where they’re located, what goes on there.
Last year also we had the appearance of “Escape from Camp 14,” the experiences of a young man who was born in one of the North Korean prison camps, one of the prison camps where you go, you’re never expected to leave the camp. He is the only person known to have escaped from one of these camps. He and an American journalist collaborated on a book which describes his experiences.
We don’t have direct information provided by the North Koreans on the camps but based on what’s available in terms of interviews with defectors and from satellites, I think we’ve got a fairly good idea of what the North Korean camps are doing, at least as good as we can get under the circumstances. Conditions are atrocious. We’re anxious to see an end to those camps.
Press: Another question if I may on North Korea. There are obviously two issues with North Korea. One is about nuclear and testing and such; the other one’s about human rights. Recently there’s been a darkening of the mood on the nuclear issue because of the tests and saber rattling and threats of war and all the rest of it.
But what about human rights? In terms of openness, recently we’ve had Eric Schmitt go there and Dennis Rodman go there. You may not like that, but I just wonder if there’s any reason to think that it’s gotten substantially worse under Kim Jong-un and if there’s not even a possibility of some hope of not spring, but improvement in relations, especially since unlike his father he’s not petrified of getting on an airplane, so he might be open to more diplomacy. Any thoughts on that? Thanks.
Ambassador King: There’s been a change in style in North Korea and there’s been a greater willingness of the new leader to appear in public. He appears with his wife, which is a departure from past practice. He has been seen in a lot of other circumstances and he’s been willing to give speeches.
What we’re interested in is whether there’s been a change in substance and in that regard I think there hasn’t been. There’s no indication that conditions have changed or improved in terms of prison camps, in terms of access to information. In fact there are indications that people who are trying to leave North Korea are finding it much harder to get out now than they were in the past.
In 2011 there were some 2,600 North Koreans who were able to find their way to South Korea. Last year that number was 57 percent of that figure. Preliminary figures from this year indicate a further tightening.
So the change in style provides some entertainment, but there’s not a change in substance that matches it and that I think is our concern.
Press: Just to follow up on that. No change in style, but there’s nothing conspicuously new here. So why now?
Ambassador King: Do you mean in terms of a Commission of Inquiry?
This is the tenth resolution that will have been adopted by the Council on DPRK human rights since the first one was adopted almost ten years ago. There hasn’t been a lot of progress over that period of time and our feeling is that we’ve reached a point where it’s time to ratchet up. I think it makes sense in terms of doing that.
It doesn’t necessarily require a particular event, but the continuing existence of the same kind of deplorable conditions suggests that we ought to see if we can’t improve the situation.
Ambassador Donahoe: Can I just add that at least here in Geneva I think the ratcheting up also indicates that the international community is aware of the need to increase pressure to the extent that we can.
To an earlier question about what’s the point if they won’t get in anyway. We always say that when we have the opportunity to use our voices and to increase pressure with our words we should do it, and that it does matter to human rights defenders on the ground, citizens, if they get the word inside of North Korea.
But here in Geneva I think it does signal a growing frustration and a recognition in the international community that this is in fact the most severe, chronic human rights situation on the planet today. It may not appear to be a crisis in the sense of immediacy, but in terms of the devastating effects, the system-wide effects on the people with respect to all aspects of their human rights, it is clearly the worst.
Press: Today’s main issue about North Korea is establishment of independent so-called commission to discuss on this human rights issue. What would you expect this new future independent commission to have to determine, or how do they do the actions? How do they research, investigate on this issue? Do they go to Japan? They cannot go to North Korea since —
Ambassador King: So far the Special Rapporteur has not been permitted to go to North Korea. Our assumption is they will not allow the Commission of Inquiry as well to go to North Korea.
In the past the Special Rapporteur and the previous Special Rapporteur have been able to have meetings in South Korea with refugees who have let North Korea and who have found their way to South Korea. They’ve been able to gather information there. They’ve met with NGOs in South Korea, they’ve gone to Japan, they’ve met with members of the abductees’ families, they’ve been able to talk with the government officials in Japan, they have visited other countries where North Korean refugees are living. So I think their ability to gather information is not as free and open as it would be in other cases. On the other hand there is ample information that they can gather, that they can document and they can put together, and I think they will make a very strong case in terms of this. We’re hoping they’ll also provide some suggestions in terms of how the world community might move forward in terms of dealing with this.