North Korea extends ‘groundbreaking’ invitation to U.N. human rights rapporteur

A U.N. expert on the rights of people with disabilities has gained rare access to North Korea, the United Nations announced today.

From May 3 to 8, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar will conduct her official visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – the “first ever to the country by an independent expert designated by the U.N. Human Rights Council,” according to a press release. Devandas-Aguilar is the Human Rights Council’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities appointed in 2014.

“My upcoming visit to DPRK represents a key opportunity to learn firsthand about national realities, laws, policies and programs concerning people with disabilities, as well as the challenges and opportunities the government faces in implementing the convention,” Devandas-Aguilar said in the press release.

The convention Devandas-Aguilar referred to is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratified by North Korea in December 2016. It’s the most recent of North Korea’s incremental concessions after years of condemnation for its human rights abuses by not only the Human Rights Council but also the U.N. Security Council.

For years, the U.N. has spoken out against human rights abuses in North Korea as a part of its nuclear nonproliferation resolutions. In 2014, a Commission of Inquiry published a landmark report that accused the North Korean government of committing crimes against humanity on its own people, comparable to those committed by the Nazis.

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The situation was never referred to the International Criminal Court as the report recommended, and the country’s rapid acceleration of its nuclear and missile program have “deepened its international isolation, halting international dialogue on key human rights issues and hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, wrote in a report to the Human Rights Council in February. North Korean diplomats last month boycotted a council session on their country’s abuses.

However, the U.N. human rights community has also hailed its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as its submission of long-delayed compliance reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as important steps last year toward fulfilling international human rights obligations.

“However small these concessions are, some theorists of human rights change would suggest that they’re a vital early phase of deeper, broader reform,” Ben Willis, a researcher at the University of Leeds School of Politics and International Studies, wrote in a January piece for The Conversation. “The argument is that if North Korea takes small steps away from outright denial and towards limited engagement, space for domestic opposition groups will perhaps begin to open up.”

No doubt, the U.N. sees North Korea opening the door to Devandas-Aguilar as another step in the right direction. Meanwhile, other advocates, like Human Rights Watch, say the “groundbreaking invitation” appears to be part of Pyongyang’s “human rights charm offensive.”

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“They appear to be seeking for a handhold for an argument that they are willing to discuss human rights, but only in the correct, multilateral U.N. forum,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “To date, human rights treaty bodies have been one of the few human rights-related reviews that North Korea has agreed to take part in, but this goes beyond that, since it is the first substantive engagement with a thematic rights rapporteur.”

Devandas-Aguilar will focus particularly on children with disabilities during her visit Pyongyang and the South Hwanghae province. However, Robertson said North Korea also needs to grant Devandas-Aguilar “full and unfettered access” to investigate the unconfirmed reports of abuses against persons with disabilities levied against the regime over the years.

“The Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar will need to be tough and prepared to fight for access to do a proper investigation and not let the North Korean government ‘manage’ her visit in a way that impedes her ability to ascertain what is really happening to disabled persons in the country,” Robertson said.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.