Last updated: February 17, 2014 10:03 pm

UN panel urges justice for North Korea ‘crimes against humanity’

A North Korean woman stands by her child suffering from malnutrition in a hospital in Haeju©Reuters

A child suffering from malnutrition in a hospital in Haeju, North Korea, after 2011 floods that prompted Pyongyang to request international aid

A UN panel has called for atrocities in North Korea to be judged by the International Criminal Court, telling the country’s leader Kim Jong Un that he may be among those facing indictment.

“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by [North Korea], its institutions and officials,” the UN commission of inquiry said in a report on Monday. The panel urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. “In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity,” it concluded.

The establishment of the commission by the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council in March last year was an unprecedented assertion of international pressure on North Korea over its longstanding human rights violations.

The commission presented its findings in Geneva on Monday in a 372-page report, after hearing testimony from more than 320 witnesses, including former inmates of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps.

It estimated that hundreds of thousands of people had died in the camps over the past decades, citing “deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide”. Between 80,000 and 120,000 people were currently being held in four large camps, it added.

It accused Pyongyang’s government of using food “as a means of control”, and obstructing the delivery of food aid during the 1990s’ famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Malnutrition and starvation continued to be reported, it noted.

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In a letter to Mr Kim, Michael Kirby, the commission’s chairman, warned that it would call for a referral to the ICC “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity referred to [in the report]”.

The recommendation threatens to put Beijing in an awkward diplomatic position. China is overwhelmingly Pyongyang’s most important ally, and has succeeded in watering down UN sanctions imposed following North Korean nuclear bomb tests and rocket launches.

China indicated it would likely veto referring the report to the ICC. “I haven’t seen the report, but our relevant position is clear-cut on this: issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing,” said Hua Chunying, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman. “To submit this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in one country.”

But vetoing the referral of North Korean abuses to the ICC would strike a discordant note with China’s growing efforts to improve its own global reputation for human rights.

The report also condemned China’s policy of forcibly repatriating refugees who might face torture on their return to North Korea – a policy defended by Beijing in a letter attached to the report, in which it claimed that the people in question entered China for economic reasons.

Kim Sang-hun, chairman of the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, said he was hopeful that China might abstain from a Security Council vote on the ICC referral. “China will have to weigh which will be more profitable for them – taking sides with North Korea, or taking sides with the west,” he said.

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer

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