On 7 February 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released a report regarding the human rights situation in North Korea. The chief author of the report was Michael Kirby, a retired Judge of the High Court of Australia.
A Commission of Inquiry was created by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate “widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea. To accomplish this, the Commission questioned 80 witnesses and experts in public hearings held in four countries. The Commission also conducted over 240 confidential interviews of witnesses and experts who feared reprisals against them or their family from North Korea. The Commission also requested submissions, reviewed previously published findings, and worked with States and international organizations.
Throughout the entire process and despite numerous invitations from the Commission, North Korea refused to cooperate with the Commission. North Korea refused to allow the Commission into their country and did not respond to invitations to participate in the research or drafting of the report.
The report concluded by stating that human rights abuses that in many cases rise to the level of crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea. The report called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. On 17 March 2014, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) demonstrated it would continue to protect North Korea by refusing to accept the report.
The PRC justified its refusal of accept the Commission’s findings by saying, “The inability of the commission to get support and cooperation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner.”
This seemingly banal statement has chilling repercussions not only in Tibet but also for the entire human rights system. In effect, the PRC said that if a State absolutely refuses to cooperate with a human rights investigation then its findings could not be viewed as legitimate—even if the findings are based on exhaustive and comprehensive research.
There are many explanations for why the PRC took such a strong position against human rights. One is that the PRC is implementing similar tactics in Tibet. Like in North Korea, crimes against humanity are being committed in Tibet. To avoid international scrutiny the PRC has prevented diplomats, UN representatives, and foreign journalists from entering Tibet. The PRC has been so successful at blocking access to Tibet that there are less foreign journalists in Tibet than North Korea. By the PRC’s standards, their success in blocking access to Tibet guarantees impunity and deniability for crimes against humanity committed in Tibet.
The PRC’s standard of equating deniability, no matter how feeble, with impunity is an affront to the international human rights system and should be treated as such. The PRC should be forced to stand alone before the world at the Human Rights Council and United Nations Security Council and defend impunity in North Korea.
The international community should fight impunity for crimes against humanity wherever they occur, including in Tibet. The United Nations, UNHRC, and States should investigate and prosecute, when possible, PRC officials responsible for crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses in Tibet. The international community must defend the principle that human rights standards are not dependent on the cooperation of the perpetrators of human rights abuse.