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[Signe Poulsen] Inter-Korean talks best way to commemorate 70th anniversary of UDHR

The high-level talks that have dominated the news headlines in 2018 represent a real opportunity for decreasing tensions and improving relations between states on the Korean Peninsula and in the wider region.

The successful removal of some of the most destructive weapons known to humankind would be a tangible sign that the region is emerging from an era of inter-state relations characterized by enmity, mistrust and aggression. What is currently missing from these high-level talks, involving some of the most powerful politicians on the planet, are the voices of the people within North Korea. Yet they are the ones who continue to deal with the worst consequences of this era of enmity.

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Monday offers an opportunity to turn our attention to their lives and experiences.

International relations focus on relations between states, and the United Nations Security Council’s raison d’etre is the maintenance of peace and security between states. Yet, the international community has also come to recognize that this is a hollow objective if states themselves continue to abuse the rights of their citizens and the people within their borders.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights duly sets standards for all member states of the United Nations and has become the bedrock of international human rights law. The Human Rights Council is the primary intergovernmental body within the United Nations that seeks to close the gap between the standards laid out by the Declaration, and the everyday reality for the people on the ground.

In considering the situation within North Korea, the Human Rights Council has taken steps to help shed some light on what is happening to the people within the country, which has included mandating the establishment of a field presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Seoul.

Since its establishment in 2015, the Office has been denied all access to North Korea by its authorities. Despite this, the Office has interviewed nearly 300 persons from the country who have risked life and limb to escape the regime. The Office listens to these voices and channels them into the institutions and processes of the United Nations. It is left to the member states to decide how they convey the concerns of the international community in their interactions with the North.

International human rights law does not prescribe any particular economic system. What it does prescribe is the obligation of every state to ensure that the people it governs have access to the basic economic necessities indispensable for a life of dignity. This includes ensuring access to sufficient and nutritious food, clean water, sanitation, health care, clothing and housing.

Testimonies from recent arrivals from the North continue to reveal the ongoing failure of the North Korean state to fulfil these basic obligations. People are consequently left with little choice but to find alternate ways to make ends meet, whether it be selling goods in a marketplace, growing their own food or taking the risk of attempting to leave the country. However, such actions can expose them further to the heavy hand of the state, including arbitrary arrest and detention, without access to a lawyer or a judge.

According to testimonies received, people continue to be tortured in detention to extract confessions, placed in inhumane conditions in cramped cells, without mattresses to sleep on, toilets to use in private, adequate food to eat or access to daylight and fresh air, and are then sent to camps to perform forced labor following the denial of a fair trial. Worse awaits those considered to have committed “political crimes,” which include acts protected under the UDHR such as freedom of expression and association.

While Dec. 10 presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the situation of the people within the North, this is not enough. Immediate steps need to be taken now to integrate human rights into the ongoing high-level diplomacy on peace and security in the Korean Peninsula. By integrating human rights benchmarks into high-level negotiations, progress can begin toward the profound legal and institutional reforms needed to address some of the most serious human rights violations taking place within North Korea.

Allowing the UN human rights office into the country, access to places of detention by international organizations, closure of political prison camps, amendments to the criminal code, training of law enforcement personnel including prison guards and enhanced North Korean cooperation in identifying a path for accountability; these are all benchmarks that can be feasibly integrated into an “action by action” approach towards securing a denuclearized peninsula.

Such steps would provide the most fitting commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the UDHR, signifying the continuing commitment of the international community to transform these noble aspirations into a reality.

Signe Poulsen
Signe Poulsen is head of the Seoul branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. -- Ed.