Human Rights

Is the State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Relevant for North Korea?

At a press conference last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights. He explained its purpose: “The commission is composed of human rights experts, philosophers, and activists, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents of varied background and beliefs, who will provide me with advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The membership of the commission is a distinguished and diverse group of individuals, but the responsibility assigned to the commission seems to raise questions. Secretary Pompeo outlined what he sees as the task for the panel: “I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right; is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored?” 

One of Pompeo’s comments raised concern about exactly what he wants the commission to do: “Nation states and international institutions remain confused about the respective responsibilities concerning human rights. We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”

In summary, “the commission’s charge is to point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles.” The panel’s appointed task is to advise on what the human rights are, not identify the practical steps we ought to be taking to implement those ideals—the commission will examine principles not policy. 

Response to the Creation of the Commission

The reaction to the announcement of the commission by leading non-government human rights organizations and human rights scholars reflected great skepticism about the intention of the secretary and the administration. Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, expressed the concerns in a comment on the commission’s charter, which was published in the Federal Register several weeks before Pompeo’s formal announcement of its creation: “Although there’s a lot we don’t yet know about this commission or what it truly intends to look at, there is good reason to be concerned about how it may further undercut the State Department’s already weak support for the promotion of universal human rights.” 

The commission membership is balanced, and the individuals who have agreed to serve bring considerable experience and credibility. Some of the terms being used to describe the commission’s task, however, have raised questions about its focus. University of Notre Dame professor Daniel Philpott identified the focus on “natural law” in the statement of purpose of the commission as a question. The term natural law, he said, “reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights”—the latter term obviously a reference to same-sex marriage. 

Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA, was even more pointed in expressing serious concern about the commission: “If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments. This politicization of human rights in order to further hateful policies aimed at women and LGBTQ people is shameful.”

The same skepticism has also been expressed by members of Congress. Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), issued a critical statement:

This commission risks undermining many international human-right norms that the United States helped establish . . . Congress created an entire bureau in the State Department dedicated to defending and reporting on human rights and advising the Secretary and senior diplomats on human rights and democratic development. Now the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.

Engel and other members of Congress are considering taking action to prohibit funding for the commission.

How Might the “Unalienable Rights” Panel Affect North Korea?

Because of my own experience with North Korean human rights, I tend to see human rights issues through the lens of what is happening with regard to how rights in North Korea are being abused. My concern is that a debate, no matter how sophisticated and balanced, about whether unalienable rights include women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues is not really important in implementing international human rights, particularly in North Korea. U.S. foreign policy is not in need of a more sophisticated intellectual dissection, discussion, and definition of what constitutes unalienable rights. The real issue is why is the U.S. government currently doing so little to make progress on the human rights that everyone already agrees are universally accepted values? 

The most recent State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released just three months ago began the section on North Korea with this summary of the human rights abuses there:

Human rights issues [in North Korea] included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by authorities; arbitrary detentions by security forces; detention centers, including political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh and life threatening; political prisoners; rigid controls over many aspects of citizen’s lives, including arbitrary interference with privacy; censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; severe restrictions on worker rights, including denial of the right to organize independent unions, and domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system. DPRK overseas contract workers, working on behalf of the government, also faced conditions of forced labor. The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem.

There seems to be little need for greater definition or discussion here of what might be unalienable rights.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in its 2014 report began with this statement of the principal findings of the commission: “The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” This most extensive analysis of North Korean human rights never once mentioned the need for a better definition of international human rights standards, but it repeatedly called for international action against North Korea for its egregious violation of universally accepted rights.

What is really needed is greater focus on a U.S. foreign policy that pushes North Korea on its human rights record. This does not mean the United States should abandon efforts to make progress on denuclearization, but the United States needs a policy that can move forward on human rights and national security issues at the same time. The United States does not need a redefinition or rethinking of what are truly unalienable rights, rather a thoughtful and effective policy that can make progress in encouraging respect for human rights on which there is international agreement.

The Administration Shows Little Interest in North Korean Human Rights

The administration has abandoned trying to make progress on human rights in North Korea as it has sought to make progress in controlling nuclear weapons. Over the past year and a half, senior administration officials have abandoned concern for human rights. 

Initially after assuming office, President Trump was critical of North Korea’s human rights record, strongly criticizing Pyongyang on human rights in his first State of the Union address in January 2018. Two months later, however, he agreed to a summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and we have heard virtually nothing from the president about the continuing North Korean human rights abuses.

The United States made threats and warnings, and then within a few days of the Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the United States withdrew from participation in the UN Human Rights Council. There is no question that the Human Rights Council has not lived up to the high standards and ideals that were hoped for and expected, and it has shown a bias against Israel. The Human Rights Council, however, has been one of the most important and useful organizations in pressing North Korea to make improvements in the human rights of its people.  The Trump administration’s decision to “pick up our marbles and go home” has not solved any of the underlying problems of the Human Rights Council, but it has removed the U.S. voice in one of the most effective organizations working for international human rights. 

In the last year, the United States has not even supported action at the Human Rights Council when in agreement. For example, the United States as a non-member of the Council could still sponsor council resolutions as a way of indicating support for the document. When the Human Rights Council recently considered a resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights abuses, the United States did not even bother to cosponsor the resolution as a show of support for the human rights principles it advocated and has previously publicly affirmed.

Following the release of the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korean human rights in the spring of 2014, the United States led an effort to hold a discussion of North Korea’s rights abuses as a threat to international peace and security in the UN Security Council. That effort led to a significant debate at the Security Council in December 2014. Similar discussions were held in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the last one taking place under the Trump administration. In 2018, however, the United States failed to get that issue placed on the Security Council agenda and has made little effort since that time to raise the issue of North Korea’s human rights in the highest council in the UN.

The Trump administration has also failed to appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. The previous special envoy left office in January 2017 shortly before the inauguration of President Trump. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, sought to eliminate all special envoys, including the one for North Korean human rights. In July 2018, after Tillerson was replaced, President Trump signed legislation reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act—legislation articulating steps to be taken to bring improvements in North Korean human rights. The legislation was adopted in the House of Representatives by a vote of 415 to 0 and in the Senate by consensus. One of its provisions is the requirement for the appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights. It is now one full year since the reauthorization was adopted and signed, yet no special envoy has been named. There is no voice at senior levels of the State Department advocating for human rights in North Korea.

Unfortunately, President Trump seems more willing to embrace tyrants than to press for progress on human rights. He clearly enjoys exchanging love letters with Kim Jong-unrather than gently prodding him to improve living conditions for his people. His smirk as he “urged” Russian president Vladimir Putin not to interfere in the U.S. election spoke volumes. The president expedited a multibillion dollar arms sale to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the very time that a United Nations special rapporteur’s investigation into the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Kashoggi concluded that the Saudi crown prince bears responsibility for the killing.

The bottom line, regrettably, is that the administration seems to have little interest in the appalling state of human rights in North Korea or many other places around the world. The charter of the Commission on Unalienable Rights and the comments made by the secretary of state as he formally announced the creation of the Commission seem to offer little hope that this is changing. Secretary Pompeo and President Trump may benefit politically from creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. It may help solidify political support from conservative religious groups as the Trump reelection campaign machine moves forward, but it is unlikely that it will do anything to reverse the administration’s failure to deal with the real, serious, and egregious human rights violations taking place in North Korea and elsewhere in the world.