New U.S. Ambassador to the UN Should Press for Security Council Discussion of North Korean Human Rights

On July 31, two days before adjourning for its five-week August recess, the United States Senate voted 56 to 34 to confirm Ambassador Kelly Craft as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. The post has been vacant for the past seven months, since previous UN Ambassador Nikki Haley resigned effective December 31, 2018. Her departure was not sudden or unexpected; the resignation was announced in early October 2018. Ten months passed from the announcement of the resignation until confirmation of a successor.

Such a long-term vacancy would be unusual by traditional White House standards, although in the Trump administration this has been routine. An online tracker in the Washington Post shows that of 731 key U.S. government positions requiring presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, only 481 have a confirmed appointee in place, less than 66 percent.

Haley did a very credible job representing the United States and received positive media attention. She also had the confidence of President Trump, who said positive things about her when the resignation was announced: “She’s done a fantastic job,” “she’s a fantastic person,” and “she also is somebody that gets it.” This is in stark contrast to the relationship between the president and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. After being dumped by Trump, the former secretary said some of the president’s ideas violated the law. Trump responded that Tillerson was “dumb as a rock,” “didn’t have the mental capacity needed,” and was “lazy as hell.”

Ambassador Craft, the new envoy to the United Nations has been U.S. ambassador to Canada for the past two years. She is the wife of Kentucky-born coal and fossil fuel energy magnate Joseph William Craft III, and the two have been heavily involved in financially supporting Republican political efforts in Kentucky and elsewhere. Ambassador Craft was introduced at her recent confirmation hearing by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was effusive in his praise. Democratic Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee were critical of her, citing a “lack of relevant experience,” “excessive absences” from Ottawa (57 percent of her time as ambassador to Canada was spent out of the country), and a “lack of diligence” in avoiding conflicts of interest involving family business interests.

The UN representative is the second most senior foreign policy position in the U.S. government, and in most cases recently, the appointment also involved cabinet status. The designation of Ambassador Craft as UN representative apparently did not include cabinet rank.

Now that Ambassador Craft has been confirmed as the U.S. permanent representative to the UN, the Security Council will be one of her top priorities. Discussing North Korea’s human rights record in the Security Council has been one issue the last two UN ambassadors have given high priority—Nikki Haley (2017-2018), appointed by President Trump, and Samantha Power (2013-2017), appointed by President Barack Obama. Discussions of that topic in the Security Council was one of their significant contributions.

North Korean Human Rights at the Security Council in December 2014

In 2013 the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to examine and report on human rights conditions in North Korea. The COI report was a groundbreaking and widely heralded assessment of gross human rights abuses. Among the recommendations in the report was that the UN Security Council should refer North Korea’s human rights violations to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that the council should consider sanctions against those officials in North Korea responsible for the crimes against humanity which the COI documented. (See paragraph 94 of the COI Report.)

The ICC was established with a mandate to hold legally responsible those guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The COI concluded that some of the egregious human rights violations it documented in North Korea were crimes against humanity and thus that referral to the ICC was appropriate. Adopting a Security Council resolution to refer North Korean human rights abusers to the court was unlikely because of the Security Council veto held by the five permanent members would face the strong opposition and a veto by China and Russia. The United States has not ratified the ICC statute, and this creates difficulties for Washington as well.

Broad consensus exists in the Human Rights Council and among many UN member countries, including the United States, that even though referral to the ICC was not possible, the UN Security Council should discuss the North Korean violations because they are a threat to international peace and security. In the late 2014, 9 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council called for a meeting to discuss the issue because of “the scale and gravity of human rights violations detailed in the comprehensive report undertaken by the Human Rights Council commission of inquiry.” The nine countries said these violations “threaten to have a destabilizing impact on the region and the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The Security Council met on December 22, 2014, for this discussion. The meeting included presentations by the assistant UN secretary general for political affairs and by the assistant UN high commissioner for human rights. Both UN officials gave strong statements critical of North Korea and supportive of the COI findings regarding Pyongyang’s egregious human rights record. Statements made by council member countries during the debate showed little support for North Korea. Only China and Russia voted against placing the issue on the Security Council agenda, and they were the only two countries who did not speak critically of North Korea.

North Korea, as the country of concern, could have spoken at the Security Council session but chose to boycott the meeting. The North Korean permanent representative to the UN sent a scathing letter to the president of the Security Council, denounced the council for discussing North Korea’s human rights, and attached a statement of the country’s foreign minister. The foreign minister called the effort “hostile action taken by the U.S. and its followers against the DPRK.” The North Koreans denounced “recently revealed CIA torture crimes committed by the United States, which have been conducted worldwide in the most brutal medieval forms.” These, he said, “are the gravest human rights violations in the world.”

Human rights organizations were enthusiastic that the issue of North Korea’s human rights had reached the most important body of the United Nations. The New York Times reported, “Human Rights activists who have long pressed for North Korean accountability said the meeting itself was an important advance.” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “Today, the Security Council signaled that Pyongyang’s decades-long regime of massive cruelty against its own people must end.”

One point worth noting is that China and Russia, which have been most consistently and adamantly opposed to discussing the human rights situation in North Korea in the Security Council, as well as in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, have never attempted to defend the record of Pyongyang. Instead, they have argued that the Security Council is not the place to discuss these issues. In 2014, the Chinese representative declared, “China has consistently opposed the politicization of human rights issues and pressuring of countries under the pretext of human rights issues.” He said, “the situation in the Korean peninsula remains complex and sensitive,” and therefore human rights should not be raised. The Russian delegate was more explicit: “We opposed the initiative to hold this meeting. We believe that it could well have negative consequences in terms of maintaining the effectiveness of the work of the Security Council and other United Nations bodies.” He said that the Security Council “is increasingly involved in matters that do not pertain to its mandate” and concluded that human rights should not be discussed in the council.

After the initial discussion of North Korea’s human rights in the Security Council, a session of the council was devoted to that issue for each of the following three years— 2015 , 2016 , and 2017. The United States worked closely on these issues with France and the United Kingdom, as well as other non-permanent members of the Security Council.

The Failure to Put DPRK Human Rights on the Agenda in 2018

The membership of the Security Council includes the five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and 10 rotating members. The rotating countries or the non-permanent members of the council serve a two-year term, with five new member countries added each year. These members are elected by the UN General Assembly with a specific understanding on including UN member states from five regional groupings. The changing membership of the council makes it a challenge because at least nine council members must support putting an issue on the agenda in order to call a meeting, and the variation in membership from year to year requires continuous effort to make sure at least nine council members will sign a request to discuss the North Korea human rights issue.

In the fall of 2018, the annual effort to get North Korean human rights on the council agenda failed after successful attempts in the four previous years. The failure was probably the result of several factors. First, the changes of membership that year left a membership with less than the required nine council members strongly supporting a discussion of the North Korea human rights question. Other than China and Russia, only a few other countries are steadfastly opposed to raising the North Korea human rights issue in the Security Council. Hence, persuasion and logrolling always must be a part of the process of getting issues placed on the agenda. Usually, there are enough countries who are open to taking up North Korea or that can be persuaded. In 2018, it was a steeper climb than in the previous four years.

The second factor that undermined the effort was the imminent departure of U.S. Permanent Representative Nikki Haley. She announced her departure in early October, and with her leaving, her political clout was weakened with other member states on the Security Council. The key role of the United States in the effort to raise an issue like North Korea human rights should not be underestimated. At least in the past, U.S. influence has been greater and more important than other countries, and strong U.S. support has always been a critical requirement. In 2018, U.S. influence was weakened by the imminent departure of Ambassador Haley and probably also by the erratic reputation of the U.S. president.

A third factor that weakened the resolve to press for the North Korea human rights discussion was the change that had taken place in the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. The first summit between President Trump and Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea occurred six months earlier in June 2018. Though the results of the Singapore Summit were meager, the fact that a meeting took place did change the political climate. The White House and State Department were anxious to maintain economic sanctions on North Korea in order to press for denuclearization, and for that reason, the U.S. human rights sanctions were maintained to send the message to the international community that sanctions would not be lifted until denuclearization. Nevertheless, there was a desire not to press human rights issues in order to make progress on the nuclear issues. That was clearly the message that President Trump gave in his own treatment of North Korean human rights issues in his State of the Union Address in January 2019, as compared to his speech in January 2018.

The North Korean government was again outspoken in opposing the effort to hold a fifth Security Council session to discuss its human rights and referred to this as an effort to undermine peace and promote confrontation. The North Korean ambassador at the UN accused the United States by name and other countries (not by name) of “trying to employ all possible wicked and sinister methods” to hold a Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights and to have the UN high commissioner for human rights speak to the council.

The DPRK’s UN Ambassador Kim Song made a clear connection between the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore, and he demanded in a letter to UN member countries (all countries except the United States) that a Security Council discussion of his country’s human rights record be avoided: “Until last year, the Korean peninsula was a region where possibility of an armed conflict and a nuclear war ran higher than any other region in the world. . . . But thanks to the peace-living efforts of the DPRK [Note: no mention of President Trump] the atmosphere of peace and stability has recently settled down in the Korean peninsula.” Ambassador Kim then expressed “deep surprise and regret” that the Security Council “is about to swim against the current trend by way of seeking to initiate a dialogue and stoke confrontation, instead of encouraging and promoting the ongoing positive developments.”

In early December 2018, the United States Mission to the UN informed the press that the United States had failed to get the support for a Security Council discussion of North Korea’s human rights. A U.S. diplomat said, “If we are unable to hold this important discussion this month, we hope to revisit holding this meeting in the new year.” Diplomats at the UN suggested in December that the United States could try again after January 2019 when five new members rotate onto the Security Council, and these diplomats suggested that there would be “a better chance” then to secure the minimum nine votes needed to hold the council meeting. However, there were no signs of any U.S. effort to raise the issue in the Security Council in 2019.

Human rights organizations were quick to criticize abandonment of the effort to hold the Security Council meeting last December. Human Rights Watch said, “It is a bitter irony that on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Security Council will give North Korea’s atrocious human rights record a free pass.”

The UN General Assembly, however, did adopt a strong resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights and expressed support for the UN special rapporteur’s work in identifying and publicizing rights violations. The General Assembly resolution, approved in December 2018, criticized “systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in the DPRK, as well as its diversion of resources into nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles over the welfare of its own people.

The new U.S. ambassador to the UN has a full plate, but now is the time to put North Korea’s human rights atrocities on the agenda of the Security Council. It will not happen before December because of the High-Level Meetings of the General Assembly in September, but December has been the traditional time for this discussion. The Security Council clearly is the UN body which receives the highest attention and holds the greatest clout, and it is also quite apparent that the North Koreans pay particular attention to its actions. North Korea has been attentive and outspoken in defending its policies when the Security Council is involved, and the modest improvements in its human rights record (for example, in treatment of people with disabilities) indicates the importance of pressing North Korea for progress.

Ambassador Craft has the perfect opportunity, now that she is confirmed to serve, to demonstrate her diplomatic skill by getting this issue on the Security Council agenda this December. The human rights abuses are horrific, and this is the opportunity to reaffirm United States leadership.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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