A United Nations General Assembly committee on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a draft resolution recommending that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The non-binding resolution passed 111-19, with 55 nations abstaining. The measure recommends not only referring Pyongyang to the ICC for crimes against humanity but also “targeted sanctions.”
Cuba, which voted against the resolution, had proposed an amendment to it which would strip the resolution of language on an ICC referral. That amendment failed in another Tuesday vote, with 77 nations rejecting it, 40 supporting and 50 abstaining.
The resolution is scheduled to come before the General Assembly in December.
Only the 15-member UN Security Council can refer a nation or its leadership to the ICC, and any such resolution can be vetoed by one of the UN’s permanent member nations. Two such permanent members, China and Russia, voted against the resolution, making Security Council passage unlikely.
Despite the non-binding nature of the resolution, Tuesday’s vote can be seen as a blow to the North, which had launched a “charm offensive” to counter claims emanating from this spring’s UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights. The North had been in engaged in lobbying other General Assembly measures to vote against Tuesday’s resolution.
North Korea’s UN ambassador, So Se Pyong, called allegations of human rights abuses fabrications by the United States and other “hostile forces.”
The resolution’s passage had been anticipated, and a number of activists for North Korean human rights spoke favorable of the measure before Tuesday’s vote.
“Even though it is not binding there are several reasons this can have long-term benefits,” said Suzanne Scholte, vice co-chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
“First, we no longer have to make the argument regarding North Korea human rights violations – i.e. there is now international acceptance of the severity of the human rights conditions and second, we can focus our attention on doing all we can to promote human rights in North Korea and getting information in and out which is critical to changing North Korea internally.”
Scholte said that the passage represents a shift in thinking since the late 1990s, when there was little consensus on North Korea’s human rights situation, and that a resolution such as this makes continued support for Pyongyang by China “embarrassing.”
“I have often believed that the human rights issue was even more important than the nuclear issue and that is now becoming a common belief,” she said.
The resolution’s passage comes after a vote in the summer by the U.S. House of Representatives to increase sanctions on the North both for its human rights offenses and its nuclear/missile proliferation. That bill must pass the U.S. Senate and be signed by President Obama to become law.
Joshua Stanton, who helped draft the congressional resolution, noted the shift since the COI report was released.
“The COI has mobilized world opinion in ways that will inevitably affect how governments write and implement laws and regulations, and where businesses decide to invest,” he said. “The panicked reaction of North Korean diplomats is unlike anything I’ve observed for years. They’ve obviously concluded that the U.N.’s actions are a real threat to their diplomatic, financial and propaganda survival strategies.”
Stanton said the reaction of the U.S. government would largely depend on what the UN does following Tuesday’s vote. If China, as expected, vetoes a Security Council resolution, Stanton predicted the U.S. Congress would move to pass a stronger sanctions bill of its own.
“The bill we’d likely see in that circumstance would be much less deferential to China’s interests,” he said.
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