The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted to add the issue of human rights in North Korea to its agenda. The council voted on the agenda item after a letter was circulated with support from 10 of the 15 council members. 11 members of the UNSC voted in favor of adding the issue to the agenda, two abstained, and two others — Russia and China — voted against the measure. Given that the vote was of a procedural nature, the Russian and Chinese “no” votes did not carry vetoes. According to Reuters, the council has not entertained a similar procedural vote in nearly a decade.
The UNSC debate on the state of human rights in North Korea could lead to a resolution calling for a formal referral of the case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. While the court’s jurisdiction normally applies only to members of the Rome Statute, a special provision allows for cases to be referred to the prosecutor with the consent of the UN Security Council. While any such resolution would be vetoed by Russia and China, having the UNSC vote on such a resolution would prove to be an international embarrassment for North Korea and its leadership. To avoid such an outcome, North Korea embarked on a diplomatic “charm offensive” temporarily during which it released two U.S. citizen prisoners and expanded talks with Russia and Japan. However, it soon squandered what little goodwill it may have generated through its actions by suggesting that a UN debate over its human rights record could lead to additional nuclear tests.
The Chinese and Russian votes against the inclusion of a human rights-related topic on the agenda was unsurprising. Representatives of both states have said that they feel that the topic was inappropriate for the UNSC. Ahead of the vote, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations told the council that “the Security Council is not the forum to get involved in human rights issues” and that it “should refrain from doing anything that might cause an escalation.” Similarly, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the press last week that “If they have the meeting, I won’t be heartbroken over it, but I think it’s improper to do it at the Security Council.”
The issue of human rights in North Korea reached the UNSC after the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee (HRC) voted in late-November 2014 to refer the case. The HRC addressed the issue following a February 2014 report by a UN Commission of Inquiry detailing the extent of human rights abuses and atrocities in North Korea.