North Korea should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) into the country to monitor the impact of sanctions on humanitarian work there, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK told NK News on Thursday.
Tomás Ojea Quintana’s comments come as UN and non-governmental-organization sources have in recent weeks indicated that the rapidly growing number of multilateral and unilateral sanctions on North Korea are having adverse side-effects on the provision of humanitarian assistance to the neediest people there.
“What I have said is ‘You the DPRK, you also have a responsibility to provide information and access,'” Quintana told NK News. “If you say there is a negative impact, please prove it and prove it through granting access to relevant bodies, including myself: that’s also your responsibility’.”
The Special Rapporteur spoke to NK News as part of a wide-ranging interview on DPRK human rights issues at the OHCHR office in Seoul, which he visited as part of a multi-part mission to northeastern Asia.
During the interview, Quintana also said part of his team had also been in contact with some of the 13 North Korean workers who suddenly defected to South Korea in April 2016, a case which he said in July showed signs of “inconsistencies in the narrative concerning their cases,” but did not reveal evidence of direct South Korean cooperation in his offices’ ongoing investigation.
The Special Rapporteur also addressed his focus on South Korean issues, despite being tasked primarily with human rights of the DPRK, and also elaborated on his goals for his office.
NK News: Given the side-effects sanctions are currently causing with humanitarian operations inside North Korea, what is your message to those groups and entities who don’t want anything to do with North Korea – even if transactions may be completely legitimate and for humanitarian purposes?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: The message is not to these groups, these groups are reacting to the UN Security Council decisions. So the responsibility lies with the Security Council Sanctions Committee and also the Panel of Experts in charge of supervising compliance. They need to be more vocal about what is authorized and what is not; not only vocal, but active. I call for a comprehensive assessment of this problem.
I have been very clear with the media that I will never – and I’m not allowed to – criticize the Security Council for establishing a sanctions regime: it is out of my mandate and it is under their jurisdiction to do that. Legally speaking, the Security Council is able to do that according to the UN Charter, so I will never deliberate in regards to that.
“The DPRK… have a responsibility to provide information and access”
But as a human rights rapporteur, I say two things: first, please bear in mind that this might happen – the detrimental impact – and I would like to see an effective mechanism that you implement to stop this, if it is happening, because I’m not saying it is widespread happening.
And second, it is very important, because the government of North Korea has also been getting on board on this issue of negative impacts of sanctions.
Now, what I have said is “you the DPRK, you also have a responsibility to provide information and access. If you say there is a negative impact, please prove it and prove it through granting access to relevant bodies, including myself. That’s also your responsibility.”
NK News: How can you engage the DPRK on human rights when they categorically state there are zero human rights abuses in the country?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: Countries in general, all over the world, are reluctant to accept human rights abuses, it is not a case of the DPRK only. We all, as special rapporteurs – because there are many others – we always face those kinds of denials from governments, so we try to overcome that.
The problem doesn’t lie there, the problem lies in the kind of political stance that the DPRK government has against the mandate itself, against the mechanism.
There is a huge challenge because there are some other countries in the world that support this stance of North Korea against this mandate, which is called the Specific Country Resolutions, because they believe that they are selective.
So one of the problems lies there. But that doesn’t impede it – that’s what I believe and this is the message I have been passing to the government – I don’t believe that that is an obstacle. At least have conversations, have dialogue.
NK News: Are you in conversation with DPRK in any way?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: Let me put it like this; it will not be completely accurate to say that I am in conversations with them. I had some exchange of letters on some issues, I have met some members of their Party in third countries – but in unofficial meetings. So formally speaking, I do not have this.
You see how difficult this challenge to engage or get access to information is. Let me just say one more thing, the human rights framework at the United Nations is much more than only my mandate. So what I’m trying to do is to expand the possibility of other people who belong to this human rights framework to engage with the DPRK; not only me Mr. Quintana. the human rights rapporteur.
That would not be wise. So I’m trying to do that.
NK News: In a report submitted on September 17 this year you talked about the restaurant worker defector issue. You said that you’d received conflicting accounts about the circumstance of their departure from China, some indicators that members may not have fully consented. What’s the grounds for that judgment?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: Testimonies, not directly taken by me, but testimonies from people who took those testimonies. Testimonies that, in my opinion, are reliable, so that’s why this is in my report.
Let me explain to you something which goes beyond the specific case – which, by the way, is still under review.
I included this case is because I want to be balanced and therefore I want the DPRK government to understand that I’m here to listen as an independent expert to all situations, including these kinds of situations, which, by the way, the DPRK is very concerned about this case and they have been following up on where it is going and presenting claims to the UN, et cetera.
NK News: You are investigating it further?
Special Rapporteur: Yes, I’m trying to investigate it and call some other, as I said, people from the UN human rights framework to get on board, on the investigation.
“I want the DPRK government to understand that I’m here to listen as an independent expert”
NK News: South Korea is cooperating?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: South Korea, I would say, is not closed to hear these kinds of concerns. We will see in the near future to what extent that is translated into real collaboration. But at least it is not closed to listening to these calls.
NK News: Has your team been able to meet or interview these women who moved to South Korea?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: I would say that part of my team, yes, but we need further investigation to be honest at the moment.
NK News: You’ve often criticized Seoul’s policies on defector community issues. Is there anything you think that the Moon administration should, in particular, improve upon?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: I don’t believe I ‘criticized’, I would not put it like that. I expressed some concerns in regard to how defectors might be treated – not in general – but maybe in some particular cases.
Generally, the policy of the South Korean government towards defectors, we need to commend the effort of the government – this government and the previous governments as well – to receive these who are escaping the North, to receive them and to hold them and give them support, et cetera.
Of course some cases might be controversial (and) in fact, for your information, I met, also during this mission, a woman who also wants to return to North Korea, to listen to her history, to understand what are the reasons, et cetera.
NK News: Some have questioned your impartiality, given the amount of remarks on issues related to South Korea and defectors and the way they are dealing with things here compared to the human rights issues in North Korea. How do you respond to that?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: I’ve never heard any accusations on lack of impartiality, to be honest. No one has ever said “Mr. Quintana, be careful with your lack of impartiality.” That hasn’t happened – just for the record.
But I do understand that opinions may vary in this respect. I’m developing this strategy and I think it is balanced. If you look into my reports, you’ll find strong assessments of the human rights situation in North Korea.
(And as for) human rights issues related to South Korea, you will not find any but the issue of the twelve workers or some reference to the defectors – but not even as a critique to the South Korean government.
No one has raised any issue on lack of impartiality and I’m repeating this because it is important because my credibility is based on my impartiality and my independence.
NK News: How do you see your role and mandate as Special Rapporteur?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: Well, I think it is a very important mechanism of the United Nations (UN). You should know that this mandate was created in 2004 and since then, my predecessors have been reporting to the UN, trying to let them understand the human rights situation in North Korea.
Back in 2004, the situation was not well known and access to information has evolved, so now, human rights in DPRK has become an important agenda of the Human Rights Council, in Geneva especially, but also in the New York General Assembly.
My role as a rapporteur is to try and bring first, information – reliable and recent information – which I should say is clearly a challenge because I don’t have access to the country and to the authorities. It is very important that accurate information is used to report to the United Nations. That is the first point.
The second one is to share with UN Members through my experience and expertise a possible way forward to address this issue – recommendations, possible solutions, et cetera.
So I think the role is very important. Don’t forget that I am an independent expert. What I mean by independent is that I don’t represent the interest of any state, I do not represent the interest of my country – I’m from Argentina, I’m based in Buenos Aires – I just represent the principles and goals of the United Nations Charter.
“One of the challenges… is how to gain access to the country, how to build a relationship with the authorities”
NK News: And in what ways do you think things will differ with your role as Special Rapporteur compared to under your predecessor?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: What I would say is that it seems that the mechanism is in a new stage – let me put it like this.
My most recent predecessor, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, he developed a strategy to really address what was at the time a pattern of systematic human rights abuses in North Korea, and one of those strategies was to establish an ad-hoc mechanism. Together with the mandate, it was an ad-hoc and time-framed mechanism which was the well known Commission of Inquiry in North Korea in 2014.
He was a member of that commission and at that time the two mechanisms of the United Nations were mixed; the independent mandate but on the other hand, a very specific mandate of a Commission of Inquiry.
He ended his mandate in 2016 while the repercussions of the work of the Commission of Inquiry were still there. So when I started with the mandate one and a half years ago, I understood that I was in a new stage which implied new challenges.
One of the challenges, I’m going to repeat what I said before, is how to gain access to the country, how to build a relationship with the authorities.
NK News: Any final thoughts on the current situation and the way things are going right now?
Tomás Ojea Quintana: During this mission, and I will talk about this later in the press conference, I met some people who recently escaped North Korea and these are people from the provinces, mainly, where the situation seems to be really aggravating, with people subject to periodic forced labor.
But at the same time, left to their own means of survival for everything – for food, for healthcare, and for basic economic, social and cultural rights. Plus a system of control and surveillance and punishment still in place.
So the environment is really dire in the provinces, in rural areas especially, and under these circumstances, people try to leave.
But what is going on also is the government is tightening the control in border areas. So these DPRK people which now includes men trying to leave (because the usual trend was women but now we see men also trying to leave) is that they are trapped in this situation which really compromises their livelihood.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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