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U.N. probe exposes N.K. rights abuses

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Published : 2013-09-22 21:13
Updated : 2013-09-22 21:13

GENEVA (AFP) ― A U.N.-mandated investigator has spotlighted “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea’s political prison camps, citing survivors who saw babies drowned, had relatives killed before their eyes, and lived on vermin.

Michael Kirby said last Tuesday he aimed to draw up a list of violators within the regime after hearing testimony from North Koreans who had escaped Pyongyang’s clutches.
Michael Kirby, chairperson of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, gestures during a press conference following a report before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last Tuesday. (AFP-Yonhap News)

“Testimony heard thus far points to widespread and serious violations in all areas,” said Kirby, who steers a landmark commission of inquiry on North Korea set up in March by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“The commission listened to political prison camp survivors who suffered through childhoods of starvation and unspeakable atrocities as a product of the ‘guilt by association’ practice, punishing other generations for a family member’s perceived political views or affiliation,” he told the council.

Kirby, a judge on Australia’s High Court from 1996 to 2009 and former U.N. Cambodia envoy, said he was reminded of the dark days of World War II when he heard the victims’ testimony.

“An image flashed across my mind of the Allied soldiers, Russian, American, British, at the end of the Second World War, and the discovery of prison camps in the countries that had been occupied by Nazi forces,” Kirby told reporters.

The secretive Stalinist regime has refused to let his team ― whose other members are Serbian human rights campaigner Sonja Biserko, an expert on war crimes, and Marzuki Darusman, Indonesia’s former attorney-general ― into the country.

But he said satellite imagery of North Korea’s camps, coupled with chilling testimony from those who managed against all the odds to flee, provided clear evidence of massive violations.

Among the stark testimony was that from a man imprisoned from birth, who lived on rodents, lizards and grass, and witnessed the public execution of his mother and brother; a woman who saw a fellow inmate forced to drown her own baby in a bucket; and a man obliged to burn the corpses of starved inmates and scatter their ashes on vegetable patches.

North Korea has long been under international sanctions over its nuclear programme, but Kirby said full accountability for rights violations was also essential.

“We will seek to determine which state institutions and officials carry responsibility for gross human rights violations proved to have been committed,” he said.

“We have, in a preliminary way, received testimony that identifies persons who are in charge of particular prison camps,” as well as the chain of command, he added.

He said the commission was “neither prosecutor nor judge,” and responsibility for action lay with the international community.

North Korea has refused to cooperate with the commission, which has gathered evidence in South Korea and Japan from North Korean exiles, and also aims to visit China. The testimony has been published on a U.N. website.

Estimates of the number of political prisoners in North Korea range from 100,000 to 200,000, in a nation of over 24 million.

Kirby also condemned torture and sexual violence, the kidnapping of South Korean and Japanese citizens and the regime’s all-powerful propaganda apparatus.

He said North Koreans had been arrested for watching foreign soap operas or having religious beliefs, and the regime had engaged in massive military spending as the population starved.

North Korean diplomat Kim Yong-ho denied the allegations, telling the council the evidence had been “fabricated” by “forces hostile” to his country, and singling out Washington, Tokyo and Brussels.

North Korea said those behind the allegations were “human scum,” but Kirby shot that down.

“An ounce of evidence is worth far more than many pounds of insults and baseless attacks. So far, however, the evidence we have heard has largely pointed in one direction ― and evidence to the contrary is lacking,” he said, challenging Pyongyang to come clean.

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