Grand Committee Debate on UNCOI and Human Rights in North Korea

A Grand Committee debate was held on Wednesday 23 July 2014 on the UK Government’s response to the work of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

Lord Alton and Baroness Cox
Lord Alton and Baroness Cox

Securing the debate on the UNCOI, Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, begun by reiterating the findings of the Commission:

“The commission found that the freedoms of thought, expression and religion were routinely and brutally curtailed in the North Korean state. North Koreans are discriminated against on the basis of class, gender and disability. The vast majority of North Korean citizens are unable to leave their own country, choose where they live or decide where they work. The withholding of food by the North Korean state constitutes an explicit policy of enforced and prolonged starvation, which contributed to the deaths in the 1990s of at least 1 million people, with some estimating that as many as 2 million people died. Detention, torture and execution are established tools of social control. The abduction of foreign nationals has been routine. Up to 120,000 North Koreans face starvation, torture, forced labour, sexual violence and execution in the country’s political prison camps.”

Moving forward, Lord Alton commented on the many ways that the UK Government can aid ordinary North Koreans, not least through countering the Government of North Korea’s “hateful propaganda and that wall of silence”. In doing so, Lord Alton urged the BBC World Service to consider broadcasts into North Korea.

Also speaking on the UK Government’s priorities in light of recent FCO and British Council-funded cultural projects for North Korea, Lord Alton stated:

“I have no problem with cultural programmes; but if that is all we do we will be failing North Korea. Instead of telling us about photographic exhibitions or cultural exchanges, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether any human rights projects, for instance, are going to be implemented in North Korea and how we will break the information blockade.” 

“I was saddened that in a recent article a former FCO chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, Jim Hoare, questioned the place of human rights in our engagement with North Korea, claiming that, “human rights issues have proved a complication”, to the UK’s cultural projects in North Korea, and that a, “modestly-successful parliamentary linkage seems to have more or less ceased because of the preoccupation with human rights of many British parliamentarians”.”

“It is the job of parliamentarians to be preoccupied with gross human rights violations, and I would hope that it is a preoccupation that the Government and their officials might share. Engagement with North Korea is not always the same as engagement with the North Korean state. The biggest improvements to the rights of North Koreans have come in spite of the North Korean Government, not because of it. We must engage with the victims of human rights abuses as well as the perpetrators.”

In his concluding remarks, Lord Alton quoted the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds” and urged “that never be said of us”.

Lord Eames
Lord Eames

Following Lord Alton, Lord Eames spoke on two of the more under-reported findings of the UNCOI – gender-based violence and the indoctrination of children:

“It may surprise noble Lords to learn that North Korea has acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Yet the commission reported that domestic violence is still rife in North Korea and that it is quite common to see women beaten and sexually assaulted in public. North Korean officials are said to exact penalties in the form of sexual abuse and violence with no fear of punishment, while single women who seek membership of the Workers’ Party of Korea are subjected to sexual abuse. It was even testified that the rape of adults is not really considered a crime in North Korean society.”

“The former Foreign Secretary has been vocal on the role of the UK in ending sexual violence, most notably in his establishment of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Can the Minister assure us that the FCO has been vocal on this issue in its dealings with the Government of North Korea? He may wish to consider matching FCO spending on cultural programmes in North Korea, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with spending on projects designed to improve the rights of women in that country.”

On the matter of the indoctrination of children, Lord Eames asked the Government to consider how its FCO-funded teaching programmes in North Korea may “challenge the indoctrination of children, which seeks to imbue North Korean children with hatred.”

Baroness Cox, Vice-Chair of the APPG NK, also spoke at the Grand Committee debate and focused on the UNCOI’s findings of the denial of religious freedoms, radio broadcasting and the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.

Baroness Cox
Baroness Cox

Reciting an edict from Kim Il-sung, which declared that “religious people should die to cure their habit”, Baroness Cox asked the Minister to clarify the Government’s response to the Hogan Lovells report, which argued a case of possible genocide against religious groups in North Korea, and what steps the Government is taking to address the “severe violations of freedom of religion and other human rights in North Korea, including lack of accountability and widespread impunity”.

On North Korea’s humanitarian crisis, Baroness Cox recounted a past visit to the country on behalf of the APPG NK, where she and Lord Alton “were told by local people that the contents of the first aid kit in our vehicle represented more equipment than would be found than in many a rural primary healthcare clinic in North Korea”. Reaffirming the “legitimate questions to be asked about transparency and accountability of aid” in North Korea, Baroness Cox asked the Government “what assistance will Her Majesty’s Government provide, and might that increase to meet the very real humanitarian crisis?”

Watch the debate here or read a transcript here.