The Next Century Foundation “side” meeting at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 37th Session addressed human rights in North Korea, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Syrian Arab Republic. The pannelists were Ms. Be Sun Lee, a research officer for the Foundation, and Dr. William Morris the NCF Secretary General.
As a national of the Republic of Korea, Be Sun Lee’s covered issues relevant to both the South and the DPRK (North Korea) and suggested that the international community has a definitive role in acting as both mediators and facilitators in addressing these problems. Lee acknowledged the widespread recognition of North Korea as a violator of human rights and cited the many missiles fired in 2017 as “threatening to undermine international security and infringing the universal fundamental human right to freedom from fear”. She also criticised the UN Human Rights Council for a distinct lack of affirmative action. She considers current legal measures established by the UNHRC to prosecute North Korean leaders for alleged crimes against humanity, to have had little effect. Furthermore, Lee believes the economic sanctions against North Korea to be detrimental rather than beneficial. She referenced the negative impact of sanctions on the welfare of the North Korean people but also stressed the provocative effect of such sanctions because they cause outrage in North Korea and contribute to the isolation of the Korean peninsula by the international community. The isolation of North Korea is something that Be Sun Lee feels the North wishes to bring to an end. She believes that the international community should encourage the DPRK by engaging in progressive dialogue. Lee regarded North Korea’s positive presence at the Winter Olympics in Pyeong-Chang as superficial in its significance stating that “underlying antagonism on the Korean peninsula persists”. However, she recognised this as an opportunity for North Korea to move away from isolationism. Lee asserted that the international community really had to reassess their responsibility for contributing to the isolation of North Korea and then think about the role they could have in bringing them out of it.
Communication was emphasised in this meeting as fundamental to a more peaceful future for all Koreans. Without dialogue and communication with North Koreans, including the Diasporas or those who have fled the nation, progress cannot be made. This involves the international community not only encouraging conversation but facilitating it. It also requires the recognition of ideological difference and careful navigation of difficult social, political and economic terrain. The idea of reconciliation and reunification was discussed extensively. Lee opined that there is a possibility of reunification but that it would require the commitment of not just those across the Korean Peninsula, but the international community and the UN. Lee highlighted the fact that there are families on either side of the Korean border who are still desperately waiting for reunification with one another and that it is ordinary civilians who are most affected by any hostile climate. Lee urged the UN and the international community to “collaborate together” to work towards the resolution of this problem.
Whilst North Korea dominated the conversation, Lee presented us with interesting food for thought concerning the welfare of South Koreans, an issue which she considered can sometimes be lost in conversations concerning human rights, and welfare of the Korean peninsula. She discussed the issues surrounding South Korea’s aging population who are growing in number but are without adequate support and care from the nation’s welfare mechanisms. As a result, the suicide rate for this elderly population is very high and, as Lee stressed, a cause for concern. She urged the audience and the UN to give the population of South Korea the attention that it is sometimes denied in light of its provocative and antagonistic neighbour.
The Kingdom of Bahrain
Following Lee’s address on the Korean peninsula, William Morris presented a passionate and engaging view of the current situations in both Bahrain and Syria. Regarding Bahrain, the assertion made was that Bahrain should commit to signing the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). Whilst Bahrain is party to the Convention, Morris shared the Next Century Foundation’s view that this was insufficient in itself and that the ratification of OPCAT would signal a definitive and clear commitment to making progress in the area of human rights violations within the nation state. Morris acknowledged that Bahrain’s history concerning human rights has been fraught with trouble. Nevertheless, he highlighted the internal moves made by Bahrain’s government to curtail the use of torture such as the appointment of an Ombudsman as well as a Special Investigations Unit to investigate any allegations. Things were far better in this regard in Bahrain, he stated. Ultimately, the emphasis was on Bahrain’s need to ratify OPCAT in order to ensure greater transparency, accountability and international credibility and emphasise their commitment to seriously address internal human rights violations.
Points raised during the panel’s debate and discussion with the audience saw one audience member asserting that Bahrain must address human rights violations, such as the revoking of citizenship. Focus, they said, must be given to judicial processes and royal decrees rather than concentrating attention on the country’s political sphere. Morris, however, was quick to assert that human rights and politics in Bahrain go hand-in-hand and it is very difficult to address one without the other and in addressing political issues, one can then work towards resolving human rights abuses. Political progress could lead the way to greater transparency. Morris emphasised the need to encourage full participation in the coming national elections in order to promote the betterment of welfare and human rights within the nation. He challenged the opposition to exercise their right to vote and show greater independence from Iran’s influence.
The Syrian Arab Republic
With regards to the situation in Syria, William Morris engaged with the very current issue of Eastern Ghouta and urged the UNHCR to validate verbal commitments to Syria through affirmative action. Whilst the UN has encouraged ceasefires in the region, he no longer considers this an adequate response and instead urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and head to the nations in the Arab World that have previously offered them support. If the UN encouraged and facilitated this, Morris believed that a credible ceasefire may have long-term viability and value. Consideration and compassion was expressed towards those in Eastern Ghouta whose suffering is incomprehensible.
Likewise, this same empathy was extended to the people of Afrin region who are also suffering as a result of the conflict in Northern Syria. Morris was greatly critical of the Turkish presence in Northwest Syria where their bombardment of the region is an attempt to eliminate the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.