Joanna Hosaniak on the International Community’s Role
on North Korean Human Rights
By Matthew McGrath
On April 30, Ms. Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director of international campaigns at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, drew upon over a decade’s experience to give a very informative lecture on the work of NGOs advocating for North Korean human rights on the international level.
Ms. Hosaniak began her lecture by briefly explaining the foundation of international human rights law. She first noted that the modern system was created by the international community’s need to react to atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Japanese Empire during World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which “was the origin of human rights conventions that appeared later,” was born out of the need regulate human rights during peacetime, said Ms. Hosaniak. Adding that the UDHR is “not a binding document, not a legal document,” she said, but rather “a kind of customary law.” This point, she said, is important to remember when trying to understand the UDHR’s purpose and utility.
Multiple covenants have been derived from the UDHR, but Ms. Hosaniak pointed to two as the “most important” for assessing human rights violations in North Korea because “they encompass everything.” They are the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). She further explained that “when you look at it [North Korea], you know that everything is violated, such as the right to life, right to liberty, right to be represented in front of a court, freedom of expression, freedom of conscious, freedom of religion…” She added that because “everything is violated in North Korea…you have a lot of ground to cover as a human rights NGO.”
Ms. Hosaniak then explained the United Nation (UN)’s committee process for assessing whether human rights violations are being committed and the role NGOs play in furthering that process. She pointed to the ICESCR and the ICCPR conventions in addition to numerous explanations from relevant committees and procedures, saying “I look through those texts, read them first and then select my questions of what I would like to ask North Koreans about, so the reports I make have some kind of grounding in the UN conventions.” Ms. Hosaniak also said the process of drafting questions about human rights for North Korean diplomats at the UN, “is the first way that informs us of the situation on the ground and then we can use it to inform other governments, the UN, or the committees that are monitoring the treaty.”
Despite the existence of international conventions to protect human rights, the UN has not always been concerned with improving the situation in North Korea, said Ms. Hosaniak. She began visiting Geneva with Citizens’ Alliance in 2004 and recalled that “many diplomats didn’t want to talk to us. They just said, ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘we don’t deal with country- specific issues.’” This apathy toward the issue may have influenced Ms. Hosaniak’s comment that she was “very disappointed with the UN until two years ago.” However, she followed up by saying that ever since the UN established the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in the DPRK in 2012, she has actually been really “excited.” Recent developments at the United Nations pertaining to the protection of human rights in North Korea “will send a warning that you will be held accountable for the crimes your regime committed and you will have to stand trial,” said Ms. Hosaniak. She also thinks “accountability will also become a huge issue in time, not only for North Korea, but for other [non-cooperative] countries as well” in light of the COI’s subsequent report and recommendations.
Understanding the limitations of enforcing human rights conventions is also vital in this situation. On this point, Ms. Hosaniak sensibly said, “we don’t really have a system of enforcement, because no one can enter with force [or] … put sanctions for human rights violations unless it goes through the Security Council.” Therefore, persuading the DPRK to adhere to the international conventions their government has signed is one of the most challenging obstacles. Ms. Hosaniak reminded the audience that since “North Korea is not a failed regime. We cannot arrest anyone.” In lieu of that option, she pointed to the importance of having a “strong voice or message being sent to North Korea, that you can be arrested for what you have done to the people in your country.” Later during the Q&A session, when asked talking about alternative means of applying pressure on the DPRK, Ms. Hosaniak pointed to Botswana’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with the DPRK following the COI’s report. She remarked that when a previously friendly nation cuts ties with the DPRK it is “very powerful.”
Ms. Hosaniak also noted that although the COI recommended referring the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), she believes the creation of an ad hoc tribunal would be “more comprehensive and fitting for North Korea.” However, the obstacle to creating a tribunal would be the expensive price tag it would generate. Ms. Hosaniak, cautioned that it is too early to tell whether other nations would be willing to front such a cost and exploring the possibility of doing so is one of the issues she is currently working on.
During her concluding remarks, Ms. Hosaniak’s expressed her personal feelings toward the release of the COI report. “It is very exciting for a person like me who has worked on this issue for a very long time, or those who have worked much longer on this issue, to see the international community picking up this issue. There is a feeling that we achieved something over the past ten years. It just kind of shows that NGOs, always underfunded and understaffed, nonetheless have a passion…when you have this passion you can achieve so much.”