Yeas and Nays on North Korea

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There have been several notable developments in the wake of Tuesday’s vote at the UN General Assembly to condemn North Korea for its atrocious record of human repression and urge that its leaders be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

On Wednesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin called for deeper ties with North Korea in order to enhance security in the region. His statement came after a meeting with a high-level North Korean envoy.

On Thursday, Pyongyang denounced the UN vote as a “political provocation” and said it would have no option but to start another round of nuclear weapons tests. The official statement accused the United States of hiring “rubber stamps” to secure passage of the resolution and using human rights as a weapon to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong-un.

There were, in fact, quite a few “rubber stamps.” The vote was 111–19, with 55 abstentions. Certainly this was a banner moment for the United Nations. In recent times its responses to human rights abuse, violations of democratic norms, terrorism, and acts of military aggression have ranged from totally impotent to depressingly poor. On North Korea, however, the organization has distinguished itself. The vote followed the release of a powerful report adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, which painstakingly detailed widespread killing, torture, and starvation in the country’s penal system, and described North Korea’s abuses as “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

The countries behind the 19 No votes fall into several categories. First there are the world’s leading authoritarian powers: Russia, China, Iran.

Second, there were Latin American countries from the Bolivarian coalition known as ALBA: Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Cuba. Despite its recent record of modest domestic reforms, Cuba ranked as North Korea’s most outspoken ally during the debate on the resolution.

Two highly repressive Eurasian countries—Belarus and Uzbekistan—also voted No. On the other hand, a number of Eurasian countries with antidemocratic profiles supported the resolution, abstained, or were absent for the vote. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan actually voted with the majority.

Only three Middle Eastern countries voted No: Egypt, most shamefully; Oman; and Syria. Tunisia supported the resolution, as did Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Two Asian states with communist political systems—Vietnam and Laos—voted No. Joining them were Sri Lanka, whose government is under pressure from the Human Rights Council for its abuse of the Tamil population during and after its civil war, and Myanmar, a former military dictatorship that has enacted only partial reforms. Sudan, whose leader, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the ICC, also voted No, as did Zimbabwe.

While most developing democracies voted in favor of the resolution, there were some major exceptions: India, Indonesia, and South Africa abstained. All three have placed a respect for sovereignty at the center of their foreign policies and have generally refrained from “naming and shaming” human rights abusers. Yet invoking the sovereignty principle to justify silence on North Korea’s crimes, in the face of broad consensus among their fellow democracies, is deeply disappointing, especially given that these three countries exercise considerable moral and political influence among the new democracies of the global south. There are no elegant rationales for turning a blind eye to deliberate, massive, and long-term cruelty.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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