U.S. and other Western ambassadors on the U.N. Security Council disclosed gruesome details of alleged human rights violations by North Korea at an unprecedented debate Monday and called for its leaders to be tried for crimes against humanity.
But the calls for referring Pyongyang and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court for prosecution went unheeded after China and Russia urged against a vote their representatives said could only aggravate tension on the Korean peninsula.
Although the majority of the 15-member council spoke damningly of the Pyongyang government's treatment of political prisoners and those caught trying to escape its galling poverty and isolation, China attempted to prevent the discussion of its ally's behavior in what Beijing considers domestic matters.
Rarely has such an extensive charge sheet of international crimes been brought to this council's attention.
- U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Simonovic on North Korea's human rights record
Russia, which comes in for sharp criticism of its own human rights record, was the only council member state to vote with China in its failed attempt to cancel the discussion before it had begun. The two authoritarian powerhouses were probably motivated to prevent the only U.N. body empowered to censure a member state from delving into human rights issues and establishing a precedent that could one day bring their own internal controversies before the council.
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North Korea, which has refused to cooperate with the investigation of its rights record and has vowed retaliation if any action is taken, is already embroiled in a bitter confrontation with the United States over its suspected role in the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Anonymous messages posted on the Internet that threatened Sept. 11-scale attacks on U.S. moviegoers if the Sony film "The Interview" was released as scheduled on Dec. 25 have been tied to North Korea by the FBI.
The film, a lowbrow comedy depicting a farcical assassination of Kim, has been pulled back from its planned distribution in reaction to the threats -- a move criticized by free speech advocates as caving in to the repressive practices of the Pyongyang government.
China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, had objected to discussing North Korea's human rights situation, arguing that the council mandate limits its responsibilities to matters of peace and international security. To involve the council in an individual country's human rights situation "can only bring harm instead of benefits," Liu said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
A U.N. Security Council discussion on Dec. 22 of North Korea's human rights record adjourned without a vote on whether to refer leader Kim Jong Un, shown in a photo from last year, to the International Criminal Court for trial on crimes against humanity. (Korean Central News Agency)
China and Russia are two of the council's five permanent members and as such wield veto power, preventing the U.N. body from censuring China-allied North Korea or referring its leaders to the International Criminal Court established to try those accused of atrocities. There was no vote on referring the matter to the court.
U.S., Australian, French and other Western ambassadors called the rights abuses detailed in the March report by a U.N. Human Rights Council commission evidence of a brutal government that should be brought to account before the court in The Hague.
The commission report "lays bare the depraved nature of the violations" committed on an unprecedented scale in North Korea, said Australia's U.N. ambassador, Gary Quinlan, who was among 10 Security Council members who called for the discussion in a Dec. 5 letter.
"Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the DPRK," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, referring to North Korea's official name as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
She said the abuses detailed in the commission of inquiry report provide "reasonable grounds to determine that crimes against humanity have been committed in the DPRK pursuant to policies established at the highest levels of state."
The commission report, based on interviews with more than 200 defectors and others who met clandestinely with investigators, concluded that North Korea's human rights abuses were "unparalleled" in the modern world for their savagery and scale.
Security Council discusses North Korea
South Korea's representative to the United Nations, Oh Joon, left, called at a Security Council debate on Dec. 22 for North Korean leaders to be brought to account for human rights abuses. (Kena Betancur / Getty Images)
North Korean diplomats initially reacted to the U.N. commission's report on its human rights situation with a campaign to discredit its findings. Pyongyang's sensitivity on the subject indicated it could be persuaded to reform, human rights advocates said.
But more recent reaction from Pyongyang has included threats to retaliate against any world body censure by conducting another forbidden nuclear weapons test.
That linkage of its human rights behavior and its pursuit of nuclear arms makes clear that the matters are deeply intertwined as threats to international security, Power and other council representatives argued.
Power urged council members who hadn't yet viewed videotaped testimony by the Human Rights Council investigative commission to do so, saying the evidence "shows North Korea for what it is: a living nightmare."
She gave the most graphic and disturbing accounts of atrocities detailed in the commission report, including a defected political prisoner's claim that her baby, born of rape committed by a prison camp guard, was killed and savagely disposed of.
Others who spoke during the nearly two-hour discussion were more reticent in disclosing the report's horrifying documentation.
“I would not run through the macabre lists of atrocities. This would make us all nauseated,” Luxembourg Ambassador Sylvie Lucas told the council.
Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, called on the council to bring North Korean leaders to account for a litany of crimes he said included summary executions, deliberate starvation, torture, rape and sexual enslavement.
“Rarely has such an extensive charge sheet of international crimes been brought to this council's attention,” he said, urging the member states to give the grave situation in North Korea their "fullest attention and action."