Posted by: isabellaroyce | May 8, 2014

(Belated) Recap of the Human Rights Council

Well the Human Rights Council has drawn to an end, and I must say I am already feeling rather nostalgic about the whole experience (luckily I managed to stock up on some embarrassing souvenir items as I reluctantly exited through the gift shop.)

After attending the UN for the entirety of the four-week March Council session, in the end I felt quite at ease navigating my way through the hallways and conference rooms. This does not mean, however, that I became complacent spending my days at the ‘Palais des Nations,’ as the excitement and intrigue of attending the different session each day never wore thin.

In keeping with my last post, I will explain a few of the many highlights from the last three weeks of the Council:

The Hon. Michael Kirby’s Report on North Korea

Perhaps one of the most emotional discussions I attended at the Council, the Hon. Michael Kirby’s presentation of the Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report on North Korea was a surreal and chilling experience. The Chair of the Commission was scathing of the DRNK’s representatives, condemning the ambassador for failing to address the torture, prison camps, abduction, malnutrition and discrimination revealed in the report, as the delegation instead diverted to allegations of ‘hostile forces influencing the COI. ‘

The representative of North Korea condemned and categorically rejected the “confrontational report” on human rights in the DPRK, claiming it was prepared “in defiance of the just demands of the international community for genuine promotion and protection of human rights.” The delegation alleged that the US and ‘other hostile forces’ fabricated the COI as “part of their attempt to defame the dignified image of the DPRK and eventually eliminate its social system on the pretext of human rights protection.”

These accusations were not taken lightly by Chairman Kirby.

It was fascinating to see the former High Court Judge rouse in the face of allegations of corruption of the COI made by the North Korean representatives, with him reiterating “Why would I, a judge for 35 years in my own country, inject myself in to political circumstances? It is a farcical accusation.”

The Commission expressed that the closure of prison camps must have the highest priority and laid out many specific recommendations to address its concerns. Amongst these was the proposal to create a contact group of ‘friends of North Korea,’ stressing the importance of acknowledging and addressing the human rights violations whilst not isolating North Korea further.

‘Now We Know’- First-hand accounts of victims

In the evening following the explosive presentation of the North Korea report, a side event was held by the Commission of Inquiry that gave personalised, first-hand accounts of the atrocities being carried out in DRNK. It was incredibly stirring to hear the heartfelt words of Michael Kirby, who affirmed to the room full of ambassadors, diplomats, media and civil society that his message and the work of the Committee comes down to one word- “love.” He expressed that “I am a lawyer, but I am not embarrassed to say that, as the basis of human rights is to love one another.”

Listening to these first hand accounts of the atrocities suffered by the survivors in the room was one of the most chilling and emotionally powerful experiences I have had, and I couldn’t help but feel a huge sense of guilt rush over me for not having given more attention to the dire situation in North Korea sooner. The title of the side event, “Now We Know,” reiterated the fact that, given the report has been released, the first of its kind, the whole world is aware of what is going on in North Korea and can no longer take a ‘head in the sand’ approach- so now what?

I heard the story of a survivor who was born in a prison camp and lived there until he was 27, released only a few years ago. He told of how he saw his mother and father be executed in front of him, and how the cries of suffering infants born into these camps still haunts him. While the room listened in shock, the survivor explained that since his release he has told his story to the media time and time again, however no action has been taken and sooner or later people forget his story. He pleaded that this report is the final hope for the victims of North Korea and that the international community must not succumb to compassion fatigue and forget about these victims after the report leaves the media headlines.

Iizuka Shigeo, a Japanese man in his seventies, told of how his sister was abducted by North Korean authorities one night after her shift at a restaurant in Japan in 1978. The whereabouts of his sister, a single mother of two, was never known to their family until media coverage of the 1987 Korean Airlines bombing revealed that many Japanese citizens were abducted by Pyongyang in a bizarre military programme to train spies- one of these victims being his sister. Mr. Shigeo pleaded that his sister be returned to his family, and begged the UN to adopt a powerful resolution to take concrete measures for the reunion of separated parents and children.

Speaking at the plenary 

Perhaps the most surreal experience at the Council was speaking on behalf of the ICJ during the periodic review of Israel. One of the many great aspects of the ICJ is the support they give to interns and the way they have encouraged me to make the most of the opportunities available while in Geneva. This resulted in being delegated responsibility to address the entire UN plenary meeting in response to the Special Rapporteur’s report on Israel and its human rights violations committed in its prolonged occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.


Human Rights Committee periodic review of the US

While it was not part of the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Committee’s periodic review of the United States took place at the same time (it had been scheduled for October last year, but the shutdown of the US government meant they could not send government representatives to Geneva.) My ICJ colleague invited me to attend this session, which was the fourth time the US has been reviewed in regards to its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Spanning over two days, it was incredibly interesting to see the US be ‘grilled’ by the Committee’s numerous experts, who were definitely more outright in their criticism of the country than I had seen in the, more restrained, Council. After each three hour ‘question session,’ the US representatives then had around two hours to prepare responses to these queries and provide explanations on questions concerning extraterritoriality, Guantanamo Bay, racial profiling, the death penalty, gun violence, drone attacks, the NSA, and many (many) more.


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