While I’ve written about Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers before, it’s hard to avoid the temptation of coming back to it. It’s the thing that frustrates me the most about my passport country, and it taps into a nasty undercurrent of xenophobia in Australian society. This policy of exclusion towards asylum seekers seems to be personified at the moment by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott – a man who seems to be an endless cycle of gaffes and plain awful comments. So just how bad is his record on this issue? Continue reading
This week Amnesty International released its report on the year 2014. As anyone who’s followed the news (or this blog at least) knows, it wasn’t a great year, with terrible human rights abuses in West Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. They also accuse world powers of failing to act to help refugees and victims of conflict. But as well as accusations, they make an interesting suggestion – that the UN Security Council members agree not to use their veto except in the case of national interest. Amnesty believes this would allow the UN to step up to tackle global crises. But how realistic is this proposal? And come to think of it, why do the Security Council powers have vetoes, and why those specific five countries? To answer this, let’s look back to 1945. Continue reading
On Wednesday I wrote about the terrible crimes against humanity taking place in North Korea. The Supreme Leader and his father and grandfather have turned the country into a hell on earth where children are brainwashed from day one to believe in the North Korean system. No outside information is allowed in, and any independent thought is punished by time in a prison camp. Prisoners here are subjected to brutal torture, and many are worked to death.
The world knows all this. It isn’t up for debate, or just propaganda. The UN’s knowledgeable, neutral and respected investigators conducted a well-researched report. So what can be done?
What’s been done in the past?
There has been action taken in the past to try to convince the North Korean government to join the international community, as well as stopping their abuses and their nuclear program. This can be seen as two policies, sometimes pursued at the same time, ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’. Good cop in this case is for example the giving of foreign aid to the country, or South Korean participation in joint industrial projects along the border. The problem with this approach is that it seems to have zero effect on the North Korean leadership. When the US and South Korea gave food aid to North Korea during the famine in the 90s, the rice was put in new sacks and in unmarked trucks, to disguise where it was coming from. The population never knew the US was helping them. Even today the UN continues to give aid to North Korea, while the government brutalises its citizens. There is no ‘gratitude’ on the part of the Supreme Leader.
The ‘bad cop’ policy is sanctions. The problem with this approach is that North Korea is already buried in sanctions. The UN (with China’s vote) has already banned the import of weapons and certain types of technology, as well has freezing North Korean funds overseas. It’s hard to see how much more sanctions you can put on the country.
So what now?
The most productive step would probably be for the UN to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court. This does send a very powerful message to the leaders of North Korea, that they are being held personally responsible for the deaths of their people. Whether they will listen is another matter. Something else the UN could authorise would be the stepping up of other methods such as information warfare. One commenter suggested on Wednesday that smuggling in DVDs with information about the outside world would be effective. This would certainly help to break through some of the brainwashing, though people caught with any such DVDs would most likely be shot immediately. It would however keep up the pressure on North Korea to engage in some way with the outside world.
The major problem with all of this is China, and their veto in the UN. China is North Korea’s only ally, even if they have voted for sanctions on them. However they are inclined to vote against more far-reaching measures against North Korea. Firstly they’re afraid of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans flooding the border if the country suddenly collapses. Secondly, if North Korea joined the South it would be mean the almost 30000 US soldiers in South Korea would be on the Chinese border. The last time that happened was in the Korean War, and it didn’t end well. Thirdly, China always worries that if the UN goes after countries for their human rights, China itself will be next. Their record on the matter is not good, especially when it comes to Tibet.
However, I believe it’s possible to make a deal with China. North Korea is an embarrassment to them, and China has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t have unlimited patience with its ally. Firstly the US would need to assure China that it would not have any troops in a unified Korea. Another possibility would be secret agreements with China on other matters. For example, the US could agree to stop supporting Taiwanese and Tibetan efforts and organisations. However the most important thing that can be done is publicly putting pressure on China to stop returning North Korean refugees. This is one of the most important things this report has done – it puts pressure on China.
The other thing to consider is what will happen if the North Korean regime collapses. 25 million people who are living in a dystopian, brainwashed world will suddenly be confronted with the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine how South Korea and the international community will deal with this. The integration of Eastern Germany was hard enough, and North Korea is far, far worse off.
A third problem is that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Relatively small ones to be sure, but Seoul is barely 50 km from the border. The North Korean army could practically throw a missile and still cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. These nukes are a factor in every discussion on North Korea.
Thanks to these problems, for all the great powers it is simply easier if the situation stays as it is. But at some point the international community needs to take a stand on this moral issue. This is one of the most clear-cut cases of large-scale human rights abuses the world has ever seen. We cannot stand aside and wait while people suffer. We know what is happening. Hopefully, this will finally be the time the international community acts.
“In the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs.”
So reads the main conclusion of the UN’s report into human rights in North Korea. The 372 page long report was compiled through months of research and interviews with North Korean defectors, and is a horrific insight into the nature of a state built on utter domination of its citizens. So what does the report say about North Korea? How can such a system survive? And what will happen next?
(For a simple and interesting overview of the Korean War, and why there are two Koreas, please see this video!)
While we often make fun of the delusions and eccentricities of North Korea’s leaders, reading this report makes it hard to keep laughing. It’s hard to sum up in any sort of way how monstrous the North Korean state is. It is the closest anyone has ever come to the Big Brother state of Orwell’s 1984. From birth children are raised in complete loyalty to the state, and near worship of the Supreme Leader. Every single aspect of education has to show the wisdom of the system. Children and students are taught that their life is to serve. This extends to taking part in the “Mass Games”. Foreigners watching don’t realise the people forced to take part are work 10 hours a day for 6 months, and mistakes are ruthlessly punished.
No sources of knowledge are allowed except what comes from the state. Religion, especially Christianity, is punished with torture and death. Even watching a South Korean soap opera can be punished with 5 years in a labour camp; anyone caught selling foreign DVDs is shot. North Korea has created a bubble where people are told they are living in a workers’ paradise. For the majority of people who don’t have access to an illegal radio, mobile or TV, truth becomes whatever the state says it is.
This system of lies and brainwashing is forced on the North Korean people by almost unbelievable brutality. Trying to flee the country, being Christian, or any manner of tiny mistakes such as “accidently breaking the glass on a portrait of Kim Il-sung” can get someone dragged into the massive prison system. There mistreatment is the norm. Prisoners are forced to work as slaves, as well as being starved, beaten, and subjected to obscene torture. Women are especially brutalised. Pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions; one was even forced to drown her newborn baby. Children, some of whom were born and grew up in the camps, are also forced to work. One man described dropping a sewing machine in a prison factory when he was 14, and having his middle finger cut off by a guard as punishment. He was grateful at the time it wasn’t his hand he lost. This callousness shows the complete disregard the government has towards its citizens.
This mistreatment of citizens by the government extends beyond prison camps. In the 90s North Korea suffered terrible famines due to flooding and mismanagement of agriculture. The government took no real steps to help victims of the famine. Food rations were cut, and people were reduced to eating grass. Most likely somewhere between 500 000 and 3 million people starved to death. As this was going on the government was taking food away from the peasants to feed the military, their guarantee against foreign invasion. North Korea even accepted food aid from its enemies, the US and South Korea. They then relabelled the aid so that no one would know it was from outside Korea. To disguise what was going on, the state called this famine the “Arduous March”, and said that even the Supreme Leader was suffering lack of food. The only ‘lack’ he was suffering was that some of his imported whiskey was confiscated by Italian customs.
The conclusion the report draws is that North Korea is a country unlike any other. It has committed almost every crime against humanity there is, and its entire system is based around committing these crimes. The world has known about what is going on for many years, but this is still an important report. The BBC called it the “most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations”. It is very unusual for the UN to criticise one country in such a way.
The recommendations of the report are also interesting. Obviously they call for North Korea to stop its abuses, but acknowledge that this is unlikely. They recommend that the situation be sent to the International Criminal Court for investigation, or that a separate tribunal be set up to try anyone accused of crimes against humanity, including the leaders of the country. They also say that the international community is responsible for seeing this take place.
The question now is what will the international community do? And what can we really do? On Sunday in Part 2 of my post about North Korea I will discuss different actions the world could take, as well as the problems involved. Hint: China is one of them.
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Today the first peace talks of the Syrian Civil War began in Geneva. These talks look pretty good on paper. The Syrian government will be talking with a number of Western governments, the UN, Russia, China, Arab League countries, Iran and most importantly, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the ‘official’ rebel group. In reality however, there are a huge number of problems. There are divisions between the UN, the West and Russia, arguments over the role of Iran and the issue of the myriad other rebel groups in Syria, not to mention the huge gap between the Syrian government and the SNC. So what issues will these problems cause? And why is this actually “Geneva II”?
Geneva I was held 18 months ago, and wasn’t really peace talks. Instead it was a conference between the US, UK, Russia, China and the UN over what peace in Syria should look like. The “Geneva Communique” that was released was vague and filled with diplomatic language, but the two key points were the establishment of a transitional government to lead the country until free and democratic elections. After agreement on this, the consensus immediately broke down, with the US saying President Assad could not remain in power through the transitional government, and Russia saying this was entirely possible. This is the first of the problems with Geneva II.
The three main outside parties to the Syrian crisis, the US, Russia and the UN can’t really agree on what they want to see in Syria. The US and UN both want Assad out, but Russia would prefer him to stay, as he is their biggest ally in the Middle-East. The UN and Russia both want Iran to take part in the talks, as they are supporting the Syrian government and heavily involved in the conflict, whereas the US would prefer to deny one of their biggest enemies a place at the table. On Monday the UN invited Syria to the first round of talks taking place on Wednesday, taking the US by surprise. However a day later the UN withdrew the invitation, saying that Iran had not accepted the conditions for talks. If the outside parties not fighting and dying in the conflict can’t agree, how can the Syrians?
Another huge obstacle for Geneva II is that the fact that not only is the Syrian National Coalition not the only rebel group, but it is not even the strongest. Firstly, the SNC is only political, mainly made up of exiled politicians. While they support the Free Syrian Army, they aren’t the same organisation, and the FSA decided not to take part in peace talks. Secondly, the most effective rebel forces in Syria are Islamic. The most ‘moderate’ of the Islamist groups, the Islamic Front, called the talks “treason”. That doesn’t even take in to account groups like the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, two powerful rebel groups who carry out suicide bombings, are part of al-Qaeda, and are also the most effective groups on the ground. Finally, there are the Kurdish rebels, who aren’t represented at Geneva II, and won’t accept any peace without some autonomy for themselves. Even in the unlikely event of an agreement between the SNC and Assad, what will be done about these groups?
Lastly, this is the main problem of Geneva II: that it will be almost impossible to get Assad and the SNC to agree on anything. The three year civil war has created enormous hatred, and made compromise almost impossible. After so much blood it is understandable that rebel groups can’t stand the thought of compromising with the dictator causing much of it. And the further the conflict goes on, the closer some rebel groups move to being the ‘terrorists’ Assad called them at the start of the conflict. Al-Nusra and ISIS are already acknowledged by everyone to be terrorist groups. The most that can be hoped for in terms of agreement between the two sides is for a compromise over the delivery of humanitarian aid.
So what would be needed for future peace talks to succeed? The main thing would be for the rebels to unite into a single group that could negotiate with Assad. This would increase their military strength, which would in turn benefit their bargaining position. At the moment Assad holds all the cards, and as long as he is backed by Russia and Iran, it’s hard to see him losing. This is the second thing that needs to happen, the US and UN need to negotiate behind the scenes with Iran but especially Russia. Any pressure Russia puts on Syria will be taken extremely seriously, and the US needs to attempt to find some common ground with the Russians. Finally, the government and rebels need to accept that total victory on their terms is impossible. Without any of these things taking place, it looks like these peace talks are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun.