Updated on 1 February 2019
Chapter 4: THE COUNCIL CONVENES
Section 1: Convening a meeting
For first time in five years, Security Council in 2018 failed to meet on DPRK human rights situation
For the first year since 2014, the Security Council in 2018 failed to convene a meeting on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Each year from 2014 to 2017, nine or ten Council members signed a letter requesting such a meeting pursuant to Rule 2 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure. The number of signatories signaled that the requestors had the required support to override any objections to convening the meeting, should a procedural vote be held. The delegations making the requests explained informally that they timed their initiatives so that the annual meetings could be held on Human Rights Day, which is observed on or around 10 December.
According to the first letter of request, the concern which prompted calling for the meeting was “the scale and gravity of human rights violations detailed in the comprehensive report undertaken by the Human Rights Council commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. These violations, the signatories of the letter contended, “threaten to have a destabilizing impact on the region and the maintenance of international peace and security.”
As described in a related article on this website, the December 2014 Council President (Chad) did not convene the requested meeting right away. In fact, eleven working days lapsed before
the Security Council met on 22 December to take up the request. In the interim, on 18 December, the General Assembly adopted resolution 69/188, by which it decided to submit the Commission of Inquiry report to the Security Council. Specifically, the resolution encouraged the Council “to consider the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the commission and take appropriate action to ensure accountability”. This resolution, adopted by a vote of 116 in favour, 20 against, and 53 abstentions, appeared to undercut arguments being made by some Council members that to take up the DPRK human rights situation would exceed the Security Council’s mandate by encroaching on the purview of other principal UN organs.
Nonetheless, when the Security Council convened on 22 December 2014, a challenge to the appropriateness of the meeting was immediately raised by the representative of China, after which the matter was put to a procedural vote. The ten signatories of the letter, joined by Argentina, voted in favour of holding the meeting. China and the Russian Federation voted against, while Chad and Nigeria abstained (S/PV.7353).
In the following years – 2015, 2016 and 2017 – opposition to meeting on the DPRK human rights situation had not abated. In December of each of those years, nine Council members signed a letter requesting the meeting, and each time, objections raised when the meetings opened led to procedural votes which were narrowly won: by nine votes in favour in 2015 and 2016, and by ten votes in favour in 2017.
In December 2018, according to the representative of Côte d’Ivoire (Council president for that month), a draft letter to request a meeting on “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was being circulated among Council members to gather signatures. It is believed that France, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States were ready to sign the letter.
However, this potentially would have left the Council members which supported convening the meeting short by one vote. It was assumed that Bolivia, China and the Russian Federation would repeat their positions of 2017 by voting against holding the meeting, and that Ethiopia would again abstain. Equatorial Guinea, new to the Council in 2018, was thought likely either to vote against the meeting or abstain.
For 2018, this left Kazakhstan and Côte d’Ivoire as the two Council members whose respective positions in a procedural vote might be decisive. In 2017, Kazakhstan did not sign the letter requesting the meeting on the DPRK human rights situation. However, in the procedural vote which took place when the meeting convened, it voted in favour. In explaining his vote, the Kazakh representative expressed his belief that the Human Rights Council was the “more appropriate platform to discuss country-specific human rights issues”. He had nonetheless voted for convening the meeting “based on the understanding and vision that all issues – even those that are the most sensitive, difficult and complex – should be addressed through constructive dialogue in a balanced and equitable manner with all Member States.” (S/PV.8130)
Given Kazakhstan’s expressed view that the Human Rights Council was the “more appropriate platform to discuss country-specific human rights issues”, it was unclear what might be Kazakhstan’s position should a procedural vote occur in 2018 on taking up the DPRK human rights situation. Adding to this uncertainty was the position Kazakhstan had taken when a procedural vote was held in March 2018 on receiving a briefing on the human rights situation in Syria from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After the Russian and Chinese representatives expressed their opposition to holding the meeting, Kazakhstan joined those two Council members, and Bolivia, in voting against it, while the three African members of the Council – Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia – abstained. Had any one of the latter members, Kazakhstan among them, cast a positive vote, the meeting would have gone forward.
For its part, Côte d’Ivoire was new to the Security Council in 2018, and so it had no procedural vote on record either for or against the Council convening to take up the human rights situation in the DPRK. However, its abstention in the March 2018 procedural vote on convening to consider the Syrian human rights situation suggested that it might be reluctant to take sides on another human rights issue which also deeply divided the Council. This impression was reinforced by a second instance which occurred later, when the Security Council convened on 26 January 2019 on the situation in Venezuela and Côte d’Ivoire abstained in the procedural vote on holding that meeting (S/PV.8542).
During his press conference at the start of Côte d’Ivoire’s Council presidency for December 2018, the Ivorian representative was asked whether he would sign the letter requesting a meeting on the DPRK human rights situation. He declined to give a definite answer, saying rather that his country did “not think strategically it would be wise from the very outset to point in what direction we will go.” In this connection, he stressed that it was important to keep in mind that Côte d’Ivoire was presiding over the Security Council that month. He stated that after taking time to digest the contents of the letter, “we might sign it, we might not sign it.” He then added that “If there is a procedural vote, we will also decide how to vote then . . .”
One factor believed to contribute to Côte d’Ivoire’s reluctance to engage on the divisive DPRK issue was that it did not wish to undercut the priority being given by its presidency to achieving adoption of a draft resolution circulated by the three African Council members. By that resolution, the Security Council would decide on the use of UN assessed contributions, on a case-by-case basis, to finance African Union peace support operations authorized by the Council.
It is possible, therefore, that the Council members supporting the convening of a meeting in December 2018 on the DPRK situation did not press the matter because they were uncertain of having sufficient support should there be a procedural vote. Reportedly, at least some of these Council members thought that a positive vote might be more attainable if the proponents of the meeting waited until the composition of the Security Council changed in 2019.
There might also have been political reasons for not formally requesting the meeting in December 2018. It was known that the United States administration was interested in setting up a second summit early in 2019 between President Trump and Kim Jong-un of the DPRK, and there may have been concern that convening a meeting on the DPRK human rights situation some two months before the summit would be counterproductive. In addition, the engagement policy being pursued by the government of the Republic of Korea with the DPRK perhaps also influenced the question of timing. Although the post of United States Permanent Representative to the UN was vacant in December 2018, this is not thought to have been a major factor in the decision not to pursue convening the Council meeting that month.
In any event, the fact that a meeting on the DPRK human rights situation was not held in 2018 leaves open the question as to whether such a meeting will be requested during 2019.
As mentioned above, already in the first month of the Council’s new composition, a procedural vote was held about meeting on the situation in Venezuela. The necessary nine Council members voted in favour, with three new members – Belgium, the Dominican Republic and Germany – being among them. The other votes in favour were cast by France, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Four members voted against (China, Equatorial Guinea, the Russian Federation and South Africa[]), while two members abstained (Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia). This vote may or may not be indicative of the chances for convening a meeting on the DPRK human rights situation in 2019.
The elected members which participated in the December 2017 procedural vote on meeting on the situation in the DPRK have by now all rotated off the Security Council. Therefore, the record of that meeting does not provide insights into the positions of any of the current elected Council members.
However, it is likely that the stances of the permanent members (P5) have remained unchanged since the 2017 meeting (S/PV.8130). On that occasion, the representative of China underscored that his country “has consistently opposed the Council’s involvement in the human rights issues of other countries”. In this connection, he noted that the UN Charter “has clear provisions with regard to the functions and division of labour of the main organs of the Organization.” Moreover, he contended that a discussion by the Council of human rights in the DPRK would run counter to the objectives of avoiding mutual provocation and words or actions that might further escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. The representative of the Russian Federation raised similar objections, and also contended that in taking up the human rights situation in the DPRK, the Council was following a double standard or “selective approach”.
At the 2017 meeting, taking a contrary position, the United States representative the argued that although some “continue to think that there is a separation between peace and security and human rights,” in fact “there is not”. While expressing understanding for “the concerns of some Council members”, she affirmed that “if we are to stay true to our word on prevention, then we must stay true to our word that prevention also includes human rights and the ability to call out countries when they commit abuses like the ones we are seeing.” The representative of the United Kingdom drew a connection between the DPRK’s advancing nuclear weapons programme and the deteriorating well-being of its population. He asserted that, “We must maintain international focus on the human rights situation in North Korea”, and added that the DPRK’s “treatment of its own people is yet another example of its unashamed contempt for the international rules-based system”. The French representative stated that it was “essential to maintain strong pressure on the North Korean authorities so as to bring them to assume their responsibility to protect and promote the human rights of their citizens … and find their way back to the rule of law”.
In the debate over whether or not the Security Council should convene these annual meetings, one aspect of interest is that every year since 2014, the General Assembly has continued to adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in the DPRK. The most recent of these, resolution 73/180, was adopted on 17 December 2018 “without a vote”, that is, by consensus. This adoption by consensus is somewhat surprising, given the voiced opposition of some Security Council members to having the issue considered by the Council. The resolution’s preamble states:
“Welcoming the decision of the Security Council to add the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the list of issues of which the Council is seized and the holding of an open meeting of the Council on 11 December 2017, subsequent to the ones held in 2014, 2015 and 2016, during which the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was discussed . . .”
In addition, two operative paragraphs of the resolution encourage the Council to continue its consideration. They read as follows:
“12. Encourages the Security Council to continue its consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the commission of inquiry and take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through consideration of referral of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court and consideration of the further development of sanctions in order to target effectively those who appear to be most responsible for human rights violations that the commission has said may constitute crimes against humanity;
13. Also encourages the Security Council to continue to discuss the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the country’s human rights situation, in the light of the serious concerns expressed in the present resolution, and looks forward to its continued and more active engagement on this matter;”
If the supporters of holding a Security Council meeting on the DPRK human rights situation determine that in 2019 they will have sufficient votes to counter any opposition, then it remains to be seen what timing will be decided upon. It is possible that these Council members will choose to wait until December 2019, so as to maintain the connection between the meeting and Human Rights Day. Alternatively, they may wish not to leave too long a gap between the previous meeting in 2017, and therefore decide to request the meeting earlier in the year. In such case, however, they are likely to wait at least until after the holding of the Trump-Kim summit and any immediate follow-on steps resulting from the summit.
(This update supplements pages 220-222 of the book.)
 Rule 2 provides that “The President shall call a meeting of the Security Council at the request of any member of the Security Council.”
 S/2014/872, signed by Australia, Chile, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, United Kingdom and United States.
 A/HRC/25/63, also published as S/2014/276.
 See related article on this website.
 See related article on this website.
 See related article on this website.
 See his press conference of 3 December 2018.
 “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is the Security Council agenda item for the human rights situation in that country, as distinct from the DPRK’s nuclear programme, which the Council has had under consideration since 2006 under the agenda item, “Non-proliferation/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
 See related article on this website.
 The draft resolution ultimately was not brought to a vote in December 2018.
 S/PV.8542 of 26 January 2019.
 Its present term on the Security Council began on 1 January 2019.