Updated on 26 December 2017
Chapter 4: THE COUNCIL CONVENES
Section 3: Agenda and Summary statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized
Fourth procedural vote on DPRK human rights agenda item
In a letter to the Security Council President dated 1 December 2017 (S/2017/1006), nine Council members requested, pursuant to Rule 2 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure, that the Council convene to consider the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The letter was signed by the representatives of France, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay. Of the signatories who began elected terms the previous year, Japan, Ukraine and Uruguay signed a similar letter in 2016, whereas Senegal did not.
The agenda item “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” relates to the human rights situation in that country, as distinct from the issue of 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”. Prior to 2017, the Council had met on the DPRK human rights situation three times before: on 22 December 2014 (S/PV.7353); 10 December 2015 (S/PV.7575); and 9 December 2016 (S/PV.7830). In each of these instances, the Council members requesting the meeting intended for it to be convened on or close to 10 December, which is Human Rights Day.
At the 2014, 2015 and 2016 meetings, objections to taking up the item led to a procedural vote. In each case, sufficient votes were cast for the meeting to proceed.
After the 2014 meeting, the new agenda item was automatically added to the Summary statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized. This was in keeping with Rule 11 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure. It also aligned with the series of “507” Notes by the President on procedure, which state: “The practice of including an agenda item in the summary statement once it has been adopted at a formal meeting of the Security Council will remain unchanged” (see para. 14 of S/2017/507).
Nonetheless, inclusion of an item in the Summary Statement – which is sometimes called “the Council’s agenda” – does not mean that Council members are thereafter obligated to agree to meet again under the same item. That is because under Rule 9, at each of its meetings the Council must, as the first order of business, adopt the agenda for that meeting. Thus at any subsequent meeting on an agenda item added to the Summary Statement as the result of a procedural vote, any Council member can again object to meeting under that item, necessitating another procedural vote. And this in fact had happened in 2015 and 2016 (see related articles on this website).
On 11 December 2017, when the Council President (Japan) convened a meeting in response to the nine-member request, opposition to taking up the human rights situation in the DPRK had not abated. As had been the case in 2014, 2015 and 2016, before placing the agenda before the Council, the President gave the floor to those who wished to make statements. The representative of China repeated 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.
Taking a contrary position, the representative of the United States 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.”
In light of the formal request for a meeting, and the opposition expressed by China, the President then put the agenda to a vote. This time, the agenda received ten affirmative votes, one more than the previous year, when the same agenda received the minimum nine votes necessary for the meeting to proceed. Voting in favour were the nine countries which had signed the letter requesting the meeting, as well as Kazakhstan. Voting against were Bolivia, China, and the Russian Federation. Egypt and Ethiopia abstained.
After the procedural vote, the representatives of the Russian Federation, Egypt, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Ethiopia explained their position on convening the meeting. Then, as had been the case the three previous years, the President briefly suspended the meeting.
When the meeting resumed, briefings were given by a UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These briefings were followed by statements by Council members, after which the representative of the Republic of Korea, a non-member of the Council, was given the floor.
In addition to China, of those members opposed to meeting, the Russian representative contended that human rights “are not within the Council’s remit” and that “politicized, country-specific resolutions and discussions have never yielded positive results”. In addition, he charged that if the Council were to “regularly pad the agenda with non-core issues”, this would “dissipate the Council’s attention and strength, reduce its effectiveness and encourage future accusations that it has exceeded its mandate”. The representative of Bolivia made similar arguments, and also underscored that addressing the human rights situation in the DPRK “takes us further away from the main goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and safeguarding international peace and security in the region.”
Of the two members abstaining on the procedural vote, the representative of Egypt warned that
“a continued determination to place internal affairs on the agenda of the Security Council, in spite of reservations on the part of a great number of Member States and contrary to the very mandate of the
Council, undermines the Council’s cohesion and augments polarization among its members.”
The representative of Ethiopia, which also abstained, noted that his country’s “solidarity with Japan in connection with the abduction of its nationals” was an issue which “made it very difficult for us to abstain in the procedural vote”. However, given the grave implications for international peace and security of the situation on the Korean peninsula, “any slight miscalculation, perhaps even if totally unintended, could land us into a major nuclear catastrophe”. That being the case, his country believed that the Council “should devote all its time and energy to finding a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the situation on the Korean peninsula”.
In addition to the United States, the representatives of France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom set out their reasons for supporting the Council’s consideration of the DPRK human rights situation. A significant number of these members drew the connection between the DPRK’s advancing nuclear weapons programme and the deteriorating well-being of its population. The representative of Uruguay, for example, stated that the DPRK’s “diversion of resources for nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes has a direct negative impact on the humanitarian and human rights situation” of its citizens, “who suffer major material deprivation and hunger”. The representative of Sweden noted that the DPRK’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is built on the back of an unparalleled system of repression directed against ordinary North Koreans.” The representative of Ukraine, rejecting the argument that human rights are not within the Council’s mandate, affirmed that “systematic and consistent gross human rights violations are a clear early-warning sign and indication of a credible threat to international peace and security”. The French representative contended 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”.
Of interest were the statements made by the representatives of Kazakhstan and Senegal: Kazakhstan was the only country which did not sign the letter requesting the meeting but voted affirmatively for its being convened; Senegal did not sign the prior year’s letter and abstained in the 2016 procedural vote, whereas in 2017 it both was a signatory and voted in favour of holding the meeting. The representative of Kazakhstan expressed his belief that the Human Rights Council was the “more appropriate platform to discuss country-specific human rights issues”. Nonetheless, he 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.” The Senegalese representative affirmed that “as independent and sovereign States, we must engage in solidarity on all issues, including human rights, on the basis of mutual respect and constructive dialogue.” He added, however, that the information made available, particularly the briefing by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, made clear that the human rights situation in the DPRK, including foreigners held in detention, “constitutes a threat to international peace and security”. Moreover, in his view, the “denuclearization and stabilization of the Korean peninsula require, inter alia, an improvement of the human rights situation”.
One other criticism, raised by the Russian Federation and Egypt, was that the Council was following a double standard or “selective approach” in taking up the human rights situation in the DPRK. This point was addressed by the American representative. But rather than seeing it as an argument for not meeting on the situation in the DPRK, she asserted that “not only should we do this today, but we should be doing it more often with other countries when we see such things coming up”, and she gave the examples of Venezuela and Syria. The representative of Uruguay also spoke to this concern when he stated that “Unfortunately, there are many other Governments that commit constant violations and abuses to the human rights of their populations and are not on the Security Council’s agenda.” He contended, however, that the situation in the DPRK “occurs against a particular backdrop that not only threatens to destabilize the Korean peninsula but also threatens international peace and security”.
(This update supplements pages 220-222 of the book.)