Media trivialisation of North Korea masks the horrific extent of its crimes against humanity

Jack Hands 10.25am

The North Korean state is responsible for systematically carrying out some of the darkest crimes against humanity this world has ever seen. Yet media and political reaction to the latest diplomatic tensions has predictably focused very little on the regime’s horrific human rights record.

The trivialisation of the North Korean problem is characterised by the media focusing on the quasi-religious cult of Kim Jong Un, its mythical propaganda induced tales and the enormous, grandiose public gatherings and predictable rhetorical flares of staged hatred against the United States. Recently, the escalating tensions and the restoration of its nuclear weapons programme have seen the eyes of the world focus on North Korea’s potential threat to peace.

North Korea relishes this of course. If the regime has proven anything since the end of the Korean War in 1953 – a war which never officially ended, it has shown it is adept at strategically turning up the tension to help consolidate its own power.

North Korea’s shadowy elite are fully aware that with its military-first policy backed up with a nuclear threat, it would be foolish for its enemies and indeed the world’s media not to take any such threat seriously - however unlikely and self-defeating of its own interests launching an all out war would be.

It does so because it knows it is an effective tactic in diverting attention away from its domestic failings, human rights abuses and crucially in consolidating the position of the insecure leadership of the young Kim Jong Un. Therefore, North Korean aggression acts as the perfect smokescreen and diversion tactic for the regime’s real aim, self-preservation.

This is shown by the regime’s extreme sensitivity to the discussion of its horrific human rights record. In our own Parliament, as at the United Nations, any attempts to raise human rights abuses have been met with emphatic, aggressive responses. The UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have tabled several resolutions on the matter and on 21 March announced they will be setting up an official UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea Human Rights abuses, a significant move.  

It is estimated there are five political prison camps called “Kwan-Li-So” in which an estimated 200,000-300,000 prisoners are today incarcerated. That figure is growing.

While many people are aware of the political prison camps there is a lack of coverage about their extremity. These are no ordinary state-driven crimes against its people; these camps are quite possibly the worst state-led systematic abuse of human rights anywhere in the world.

A report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide tracking known prisoners show some of the horrors, these people face. Take, Keum Joo Huh, a 29-year-old female Taekwando teacher who was sent to a camp for ‘collective punishment’ over her mother’s illegal job of brokering for those searching for family members that had been separated by the war. Keum Joo died from malnutrition in May 2002.

The horrors detailed by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only ever escapee from such a camp, in his sobering book Escape from Camp 14, is living testimony to these unimaginable horrors.

Shin who was born in the camp, and like Keum Joo Huh his only crime was being born into a family seen as politically dangerous. Crime by association is an effective tool in suppressing enemies which helps to explain how the North Korean regime has lasted for so long in comparison to other authoritarian rules. Mass torture, starvation, rape, killings, slave labour are a daily experience for prisoners. Nor is there any discrimination between the old, young, healthy or sick. These are crimes against humanity, yet still coverage focuses predominantly on the trivialisation of Kim Jong Un.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, rightly said in January that the huge issue of North Korea’s nuclear program should not be allowed to completely overshadow the horrendous human rights situation, which “has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” and where “self-imposed isolation has allowed the government to mistreat it citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.”

George Orwell once observed, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance“.

In isolationist North Korea, people are forced to believe this but in the West we have the freedom to see beyond. We have the power to make the world’s people and governments to deplore these crimes and place this issue at the top of the agenda in future diplomatic talks. Put simply, we need to provide the voice for the voiceless.

Human Rights Act: Some questions for Mr Grayling and Mrs May

Craig Prescott 10.51am

Over the weekend, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, indicated that a Conservative majority government could repeal the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has suggested withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) itself.

These are two very different things, and there is some muddled thinking involved here; but if both were to be pursued the policy could be called ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’.

As Mr Grayling has admitted himself, there needs to be a lot of work put in to the detail (to put it mildly). But as work towards possible 2015 manifesto pledges starts, here are some questions and issues that need to be considered.

  1. Why? It can’t be for political advantage. At the last election, 3.1 per cent of people voted for a political party who advocated ‘Withdraw and Repeal’, namely UKIP. By contrast, a combined 52 per cent of the electorate voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who did not. Whatever Mr Grayling and Mrs May may think, the electorate has shown time and time again disinterest in tinkering with constitutional matters. This does not look like a massive vote winner to me, in face of more pressing matters such as living standards and the broader economy.
  2. Replacement? A British Bill of Rights has been suggested, but to what end? The content of such a Bill of Rights is likely to be similar, if not identical, to the content with one or two additions (such as a right to a jury trial) to make such a document ‘British’. Take a look at the Articles incorporated into English Law by the HRA, the Right to Life, Prohibition of Torture, Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour and the Right to a Fair Trial and so on. Would you like to live in a country that does not provide in law for these  protections? As one of the finest judges of recent times, Lord Bingham stated in his book the Rule of Law, countries that do not make such protection in law tend not to the best of places to live. Belarus or North Korea? Another issue is how are the courts going to interpret any such legislation. Experience before the HRA suggests that on the whole, the courts will take notice of the ECHR, as they do of other international treaties and case-law for interpretative guidance.
  3. Leave it to Parliament? If ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’ is pursued, then the position will be more akin to the days before the HRA, but without a route of appeal to Strasbourg. This is a dangerous option, as it risks pitting the courts and Parliament in direct opposition. It is easy to think that human rights began with the HRA, but that neglects the strong - if imperfect - vein in the common law that protected people’s rights before the HRA. One could go back to the 17th century, but during the 1990s the courts began to recognise at common law certain rights as being of ‘fundamental’ status, such as access to justice. This fundamental status means that the courts require strong signals from Parliament before the courts hold that they can be interfered with. This is an open-ended category of right, creating a clear risk of an ongoing conflict between the courts and Parliament, potentially giving more scope to the courts, the exact opposite of what the Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, wants. Such an approach would be destined not to end well.

There are other issues to consider. The devolved institutions are required under the devolution framework to comply with the ECHR at all times. Any amendment of this requirement is likely to require their approval, which the Commission on the Bill of Rights indicates will not necessarily be forthcoming as approval of the ECHR is generally seems to be higher outside of England than within it. (This raises concerns that the Conservative Party becoming ever more an English, and not British Party). Further, the EU is engaged in an ongoing process to become a signatory to the ECHR, meaning that even if ‘Withdraw and Repeal’ is pursued, the ECHR will still be a highly relevant to UK law as long as Britain remains a member.

All of the above is not to say that the human rights architecture of the UK and Europe is perfect. Far from it. There are issues over the length of time it takes to hear cases, and the number of appeals possible in human rights litigation are both issues about which courts themselves have voiced concerns. A close look at the process shows that the vast majority of the time, it is these problems which lie at the root of problems with human rights. After all Abu Hamza still got deported to America. Is it really necessary to embark on such a hazardous journey, jeopardising a central tenet of the unwritten constitution that Parliament and the courts respond to each other in a dialogue and understanding, to solve a problem which for the vast majority of the electorate is simply not there?

Ultimately, the problem that Mr Grayling as Lord Chancellor (who has a duty to uphold the rule of law) needs to grapple with is that some human rights are innate in the liberal democracy to which he wishes to belong and to strengthen. Any human rights apparatus constructed does not create rights but merely recognises them.

Craig Prescott is a member of the School of Law at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @craigprescott

No Cabinet minister deserves to stay in post more than Theresa May

Giles Marshall 10.24am

John Reid, now Lord Reid, used to be Tony Blair’s ‘man for all seasons’. Regularly shuffled around key ministerial posts, the ebullient Scot was Mr Blair’s blunt, aggressive point man.

Yet even Reid was aghast on arrival to the Home Office, memorably describing it as “not fit for purpose”.

Great office of state it might be, but this ministry has long been seen as the graveyard of greater and lesser political careers. Of those lesser, it buried one of Gordon Brown’s more bizarre appointees and the first woman to hold the office, Jacqui Smith.

However another woman, Theresa May, could now be gradually revising a role that is supposed to lead to failure and frustration.

One of David Cameron’s strengths as Prime Minister has been his willingness to maintain a stable Cabinet team. For all the angst this can cause lower down the political greasy pole, the undoubted benefit is seen in a maturing grip on their departments by a number of reform-minded ministers. Amid the mire of local elections, polls and poor Budgets, it is easy to forget just how radical this Government actually is.

Education and health are prominent briefs where reform - of the effective, root and branch sort - genuinely is taking hold, thanks largely to their Secretaries of State, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley.

But it is Theresa May who has been the quiet toughie, and is beginning to show her true quality, tenaciously pressing for reforms on many levels at the catastrophic Home Office.

Granted, it does not always feel like that. The Abu Hamza extradition case looked badly handled; it was followed by one of the frostiest receptions ever afforded a Home Secretary at the Police Federation conference.

Nonetheless, consider this. First, Mrs May acted upon the collective wisdom of the Home Office’s lawyers when pursuing Hamza’s extradition. And whatever ire she felt for it, she calmly took responsibility for the decision, refusing to pass blame, and doggedly continued to pursue the result that most Britons wanted to see. It was a textbook case of ministerial responsibility that has become so sadly rare in recent years.

Second, in facing down the Police Federation, Mrs May was taking on one of the most powerful vested interests in Britain, believing correctly that policing has to change. The Police Federation is a union in all but name and acts in the way that all public services unions act. They seek to preserve inefficient working methods for the good of the lowest calibre of members, rather than seeking to create a bridge between professional delivery and public expectation. The country’s police forces remain highly regarded, but not uniformly so. I joked to one non-political friend that Theresa May had better hope she didn’t suffer a burglary or suchlike, as she might not be able to rely on police support. “Just like the rest of us then,” my friend replied, not entirely cynically.

Theresa May continues to challenge Home Office shibboleths in her demands for changes to judgements on deportation made against foreign criminals living in Britain. The weight of the human legal establishment is set to come down on her, but does anyone seriously doubt either the necessity for such changes, or their popularity?

Theresa May proved that she is a politician with iron in her soul when she challenged the Conservative party, as its chairman, not to relish its role as the ‘nasty party’. She spends her time mastering her brief rather than pursuing it for personal PR - and sometimes this can rebound on her. However, she is a formidable and capable operator, unafraid of challenging vested interests in pursuit of reform.

For all his dislike of unnecessary changes to his Cabinet, Mr Cameron shall soon find himself having to organise a reshuffle. Let us hope it is limited. Whoever is shuffled, the Prime Minister should keep his maturing reformers in place. And no one seems to be earning the right to carry on more than the dogged, flak-carrying Home Secretary.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The story of Shin Dong-hyuk: hope springs from North Korea’s gulag

Nik Darlington 2.22pm

"Hope travels through, nor quits us when we die." Alexander Pope.

How many people will have to die, needlessly and sadistically, in North Korea before hope is fulfilled?

Few stories permeate the confines of the grotesquely named Democratic People’s Republic, and few that do are as powerful as that of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to have escaped to the West from a North Korean concentration camp.

Shin’s story, Escape from Camp 14, has been described as a harrowing and extraordinary account of the grim semi-existence endured in the country’s gulags.

And a wonderful interview of Shin is out today on the Spectator's Coffee House blog, by books editor David Blackburn, which I wholeheartedly urge you to read in full. Here is but a short extract:

Shin is nearly 30. He is short, maybe 5 and a half feet tall. He is immaculate in a well cut suit and sharp black shoes. His hair is neat and he carries himself with dignity. He is slim but there is evident strength in the line of his shoulders and the set of his hips. This is not the protein-shake variety of physique, the kind that takes up too much space on the Tube and develops diabetes. It is the lean, wiry type that can withstand 10 degrees below zero without a coat.

There is something about Shin, probably the knowledge of his past, that, I am ashamed to admit, makes me shift uncomfortably in my very comfortable seat. There is nothing quite like being confronted by one’s own indifference.

Justice for Sierra Leone but a failure for human rights?

Alexander Pannett 1.00 pm

On Thursday, Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.

The verdict will come as a great relief to the millions of West Africans who were victims of his oppressive machinations and the grotesque abuses in Sierra Leone that were perpetuated by his proxy RUF militia.

Whilst this is a landmark case for the development of international human rights, behind the celebrations lies a faltering legal path whose successes may be due more to the dictates of the powerful rather than of the law.

Ever since the Nuremberg Trials of the Second World War and the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, the concept of human rights has grown in stature in international law.

Its genesis lies in the Enlightenment with the increased recognition of the rights of man (though not yet equal rights for women) as set out in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789.

As the Enlightenment developed into Modernity, the rule of international law and protection of individual rights was seen as the best way to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust and World War from happening again. This led in 2002 to the International Criminal Court being finally created in the Hague; a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

The ICC may be a useful tool in bringing war criminals to justice but it is doubtful about how effective it really is at increasing the recognition of human rights around the world.

America, China and Russia have not ratified the Rome Statute, therefore not allowing their citizens to come under the jurisdiction of the ICC, and most of the accused brought before the ICC have so far come from impoverished, developing countries.  Consequently, the ICC has received criticism that the court is a tool of powerful countries, used to legitimate their dispensation of justice as framed by the values of the strongest not of the weak.

Justice should be the language of a community not of the powerful. By removing the mechanisms for justice away from communities where crimes have been committed to courts run along different values, customs and procedures, the development of the ICC unfortunately raises the specter of judicial colonialism.

Much as former British colonies rightfully ended their reliance on the British Privy Council as their final court of appeal, independent nations should ensure that judicial procedures are developed and grown by their own societies, strengthening the local rule of law rather than out-sourcing such an important foundation of society to those who know little of their culture.

This is why the new National Transitional Council of Libya is reluctant to hand over Seif al-Islam Gadhafi to the ICC, seeking instead to try him locally. Whilst the ICC and UN Security Council will likely protest, it is a hypocritical position born from Great Powers wishing that their dictates be obeyed rather than from a strong desire to see the Libyan justice system grow and develop. 

Such hypocrisy is apparent when Great Powers demand that former dictators of impoverished states who are no longer of any use to them are brought to justice, whilst Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, President of Sudan and an ally of China, and Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan and a strategic friend of the West, are protected from prosecution despite allegations of serious human rights abuses.

I am not suggesting that Charles Taylor, one of the most callous tyrants in recent history, should escape justice. Only that the $50 million cost and time of the five year trial could have been better spent developing the justice system and human rights in Sierra Leone, where 70 per cent. remain in poverty, by basing the trial there and relying on the local judiciary and the local law’s approach to human rights as much as possible to ensure a fair trial. 

Whilst the development of a notion of human rights is an important development towards the peaceful co-existence of humans, we should be wary of subscribing to a paean of universalism that is in reality a mask of the dictates of the powerful.

Law is a language born from compromises between differing beliefs and ambitions. An international law that promotes human rights must be applied locally and allow for dialogue between all cultures to set its values if it will be a true protection for the weakest amongst humanity. It should not be an abstract and Euro-centric ivory tower that hurls its commandments down the mountain.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Demonstrate for human rights in Syria

Alexander Pannett 6.45am

What can you do without freedom? When the world seems silent to your prevails?

The people of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, are currently suffering the seventh day of a brutal and criminal assault from President Assad’s un-repentant thugs.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire.  This is on top of the 11-month crackdown against protestors who are campaigning for democracy and human rights in Syria that has left thousands dead.

The UN Security Council has shown itself to be impotent in the face of Russia’s machiavellian veto of any resolution condemning the Syrian violence.  The Arab League has so far been unable to pressure the regime into stopping the atrocities.

Whilst many observers believe that Assad’s support is melting away it is clear he will not go until he has trailed his bloody claws across the Syrian people.  Unlike in Libya, the Syrian people cannot expect Western intervention without backing from the international community.  The disaster of Iraq is too fresh in everyone’s memories to countenance unilateral Western action. For now.

The best peaceful alternative to direct intervention is to apply increasing diplomatic and economic coercion on Syria until the regime breaks.

The European Union has just declared that it will impose harsher sanctions against Assad to encourage his fall.  The Arab League ministers are also meeting this weekend to discuss what further actions they can take against Assad.  It will be a further opportunity to build international pressure on the Syrian government and other governments who are supporting it.

In the UK, human rights organisations have been mobilising to raise awareness. Amnesty International are urging authorities across the Middle East and North Africa to:

“Uphold the right to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression, association, assembly and information.

Investigate deaths, injuries, and detentions ensuring those responsible are brought to account.

Immediately begin human rights reforms including giving people the right to participate fully in the political process.”

You too can play your part this weekend in expressing your support for the voiceless.  Amnesty International are holding a demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Saturday from 12 noon until 2pm to raise awareness of the human rights abuses. See here for further details.

Attend and show your anger at those who would suppress the fight against injustice and the human rights revolution.

Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, once said that “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.”

Well. It is time to make up our minds. And shout about it.

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Theresa May’s shrill and misleading attack on the Human Rights Act

Daniel Cowdrill 6.10am

As Sir John Major pointed out on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, the European Union has to change. There is a need for greater fiscal union, and this invokes important questions about our own future in Britain.

However, the debate over our relationship with the rest of the EU must not be conflated with the debate over human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is a separate treaty enforced by a separate institution.

In May 1949, Britain became a founding signatory of the Treaty of London, which established the Council of Europe. Membership is open to all European nations that are committed to fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention articles. The Council of Europe is an achievement that Britain should be proud of.

Sixty years on, it is disappointing to hear a Conservative Home Secretary demand that the Human Rights Act “must go”, as Theresa May has done. The Act gives a legal basis to the Convention within the UK. When put on the stop, David Cameorn has supported Mrs May, reaffirming the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to repeal the Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

This is the kind of populist pledge that parties are prone to make in opposition. It is not something for responsible governments. One suspects that despite the Prime Minister’s support for his Home Secretary’s comments, ultimately he is not prepared to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Mr Cameron, conveniently enough, blames the Lib Dems for making him go slowly on the issue. The truth is that any replacement of the Human Rights Act would be along broadly similar lines and likely to allow for the same judgements that so offend the likes of the Daily Mail. It is a waste of government time and effort and certainly not worth the internal coalition fight it would create.

Certainly, there has been what one might call ‘human rights inflation’ since the Convention articles were introduced into domestic law but scrapping the Act entirely would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is the judiciary’s interpretation of those rights - sometimes going far beyond the rulings passed down from Strasbourg - that is at fault.

The main example of this ‘inflation’ is the extension of deportation restrictions on the grounds of the Article 8 ‘right to family life’. These judgements are the product of English courts. They are not stipulated by European courts. The only restriction that Strasbourg case law places on the deportation of foreign criminals is on the grounds of the Article 3 right to freedom from torture.

The Home Secretary is tasked with the maintenance of public safety. However, she would be better advised to aim her fire at the judiciary, who have perhaps been to deferent to their own assumptions about how Strasbour would rule on the same case.

A good argument can be made that the judiciary has failed to use the margin of appreciation permitted under the Convention to apply human rights with the correct sense of proportion.

Instead, the Home Secretary has opted for a shrill and misleading attack on the Human Rights Act itself, so sweeping over all the good work done in resolving miscarriages of justice.

This wrong-headed assault on the Human Rights Act is an unfortunate hangover from opposition politics and the Government should take the first possible opportunity to abandon it.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @danielcowdrill

Grieve digs claws into May in catty row over Human Rights Act

Nik Darlington 7.24pm

The TRG, by its own admission, did not expect their fringe debate on the Human Rights Act to be a big draw.

Much fun was had at the Home Secretary’s expense and cat jokes came thick and fast. Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is in favour of a British Bill of Rights, said, “We need to have a rational debate. We must be more productive than just going for the ‘meow’ factor.” Grieve indeed has a cat and a happy family life, we discovered.

Grieve went on: “The judicial interpretation and case workload of the European Court ought to be a concern for the UK and other European countries.” “If Britain wants a Bill of Rights we can have one, but we have to accept that the Coalition circumscribes what we can do.”

Eleanor Laing, the MP for Epping Forest chairing the debate, said “in contrast to all the cat talk, I’m delighted that we can discuss this in a constructive way.”