Scathing report from Kirby on North Korea

Michael Kirby. (AAP)

Former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby has given North Korea's human rights record a scathing review, highlighting what he calls unspeakable atrocities committed on political prisoners.

The United Nations appointed Mr Kirby earlier this year as head a commission to examine North Korea's human rights record.

Mr Kirby has told the UN Human Rights Council that despite North Korea not co-operating with the investigation, the commission has nonetheless gathered testimony from dozens of victims and experts at public hearings.

The three-member commission, which has a one-year mandate, is tasked with investigating many alleged human rights violations in North Korea.

The allegations include torture and inhumane treatment; arbitrary detention; restrictions on freedom of expression, movement and religion - and abduction of foreign nationals.

Click on the audio tab above to hear the SBS Radio news report.

The commission has also stressed that it will investigate to what extent any violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

In briefing the UN Human Rights Council, Michael Kirby says graphic evidence from political prison camp survivors points to widespread and serious abuses.

"The individual testimonies emerging from the public hearings, of which these are just instances, do not represent isolated cases. They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross violations of human rights."

The retired Australian judge says the North Korean government has offered no evidence to contradict the allegations against it.

He says the commission invited North Korea to make representations, and to attend public hearings in South Korea, but received no reply.

Instead, the North Korean government has declined to recognise the Commission.

The country's official news agency has claimed the testimonies it heard as slander, put forward by what it calls human scum.

North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Ho told the Human Rights Council, the allegations against his country are inventions by hostile forces.

"My delegation totally rejects the oral update by the so-called Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The oral update is another copy of faked materials on the situation of human rights in my country."

Michael Kirby says the testimonies heard by the commission have been both sobering and heart-rending.

"We think of the testimony of a young man imprisoned from birth and living on rodents and lizards and grass to survive, witnessing the public execution of his mother and his brother. We think of the testimony of a young woman forcibly repatriated and imprisoned for leaving the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), describing how she witnessed a female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket."

With some of the hearings held in Japan, the commission heard testimonies from the families of young Japanese nationals who were allegedly abducted.

Japan claims North Korea took them to help train spies, steal their identities and obtain Japanese passports.

Japan's representative at the Human Rights Council, Takashi Okada, says it's time for the truth from North Korea.

"Japan strongly calls on the DPRK to take concrete action to improve its human rights situation, including the resolution of the abduction issue. As has been repeatedly conveyed to the Comission of Inquiry during its stay in Japan, Japan considers that it is possible to achieve a swift resolution to the abduction issue through negotiations and that this would be beneficial to the DPRK itself. At the same time, it is vital that the international community continue to voice its concerns."

Mr Kirby has cautioned that his commission is neither prosecutor nor judge, and responsibility for action lays with the international community.

Sophie Rigney is with the law faculty at the University of Melbourne and previously worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

She says while the allegations against North Korea may not ever get to the International Criminal Court, there are alternatives.

"There could well be a People's Tribunal established outside the country, outside North Korea but actually getting the alleged individuals to appear before that Tribunal is incredibly doubtful. When we look at other courts and tribunals that have been established, they have either been established with the express consent of the country involved, which is unlikely in this situation, or with United Nations Security Council resolutions."

And Sophie Rigney says even if it doesn't lead to prosecutions, the work of the commission headed by Michael Kirby is still important.

"It may well not result in any trial or conviction of particular individuals, but at the very least what may well come out is a documented, systematic look at the situation and indeed, those testimonies of those individuals who have given their testimony already, there is a sense in which even giving the testimony is a very important thing to be heard by a UN Commission of Inquiry."

The commission is due to deliver a full report of its findings to the Human Rights Council in March next year.

Source SBS Radio

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