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North Korean perpetrators should not be above the law

16 Oct 2023 17:13:45 | Update: 16 Oct 2023 17:15:18
North Korean perpetrators should not be above the law
— Courtesy Photo

People of the globe can still remember the dictatorship of Khmer Rouge in Southeast Asian country Cambodia led by the dictator Pol Pot in late 1970s. The Cambodian dictators thought that they were above the law. Subsequently, the UN-backed Cambodia tribunal proved that perpetrators can’t be above the law. Like the Cambodian Pol Pot, the rights-respecting people are forced to see North Korean Kim Jong Un, another dictator and human rights offender, has been leading a regime since 2011. Probably, he is in the same understanding that he is above the law. What are the options left to the international community to help dictators change their behaviours, and hold them accountable?

Like the North Korean regime, Cambodian regime led by Pol Pot had failed to love and own their people, and maintain a friendly relationship with the neighboring countries. Cambodian regime had committed serious human rights abuses against their citizens establishing concentration camps where torture and inhumane treatments and brutal nature of abuses were carried out. The atrocities committed by Pol  Pot and Khmer Rouge and the warring situations with the neighboring countries ultimately had invited the invasion of the country by their neighbor Vietnam posing a threat to the peace and security/stability of the region.

It is pertinent to mention here some relevant information from the websites of the Cambodia tribunal and UN news. The Cambodian regime had taken power on 17 April 1975 and was overthrown on 7 January 1979.  It is believed that at least 1.7 million people had died from starvation, torture, execution and forced labour during that period. The new government, in 1997, had requested the United Nations to assist in establishing a trial to prosecute the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, and subsequently, the Cambodian National Assembly, in 2001, had passed a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979). And this court is informally known as Cambodia tribunal. Upon an agreement this special court was created by the Cambodian government and the United Nations. Two of the five alleged perpetrators who were put on trial died before they could face judgment, and Pol Pot, died, in 1998, before charges could even be brought.

Now I turn to the atrocities that have been committed by the North Korean regime. Perpetration is not any new in North Korea. Against the human rights abuses UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights situations in North Korea in 2013. The COI published its report in 2014 detailing the cases of perpetration; mentioning in paragraph nos 74-79 about the crimes against humanity.

Paragraph 76 of the COI provides that “These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. The commission further finds that crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”.

With regard to the gross human rights abuses one could argue, basing on the principles of jus cogens and obligation erga omnes, that these cannot be mere an internal matter limited in North Korea; those connect the international community as a whole. I would like to further mention here that North Korea has already conducted several ballistic missile launches posing a threat to the peace and security/stability of the region. And by doing so, North Korea has, one could argue, breached the UN relevant sanction resolutions imposed against them. In such situations, it was expected that UN Security Council would take necessary measures to deter North Korea’s human rights abuses and provocations. There was an open session on human rights abuses in North Korea on August 17, 2023. However, they failed to adopt a necessary resolution due to a lack of support from China and Russia.

Let me briefly discuss some options that are left to the international community to help dictators change their behaviours, and hold them accountable. Under article 5 of the Rome statute International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over four crimes, namely, the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Owing to the facts that North Korea is neither a party to the Rome statute nor has it accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, the ICC does not have jurisdiction directly on the crimes committed in the territory of North Korea unless the case is referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council under article 13 of the Rome statute.

 It would be pertinent to mention here the situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar. By a decision dated 14 November 2019, the ICC Judges granted the Office of the Prosecutor request to start the investigation into crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction in which at least one element occurred on the territory of the People's Republic of Bangladesh – a State Party to the Rome Statute.

UN Security Council has the power to establish an ad hoc international tribunal, as was done with former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And this establishment requires the relevant UN Security Council resolution. In addition, UN Security Council is mandated to impose the targeted sanctions against the perpetrators under article 41 of UN Charter. UN General Assembly can serve to set up a tribunal (Tribunal for Cambodia was established earlier). However, unlike the UN Security Council measures, this is possible only when the relevant State agrees to such establishment.

International community, through the Cambodia tribunal, has already proved that the Cambodian dictators and Khmer Rouge were not above the law. The rights-respecting people are in the hope that international community would come forward and exercise their options against the North Korean dictators including Kim Jong Un to hold them accountable.


Muhammad Muzahidul Islam is a Barrister-at-Law, Human Rights Activist and an Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.