North Korea: Stories From The Forgotten Prisons

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

This is the first of several postings of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

I was born in North Korea in 1982. I was born in a political prison camp (…) and lived there until I escaped in 2005 (…) I was born to an imprisoned mother and father. —Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean born in a political prison camp to have escaped.

Shin’s shocking story personifies the horrors of North Korea’s vast network of political prison camps, believed to house over a hundred thousand prisoners. His story is emblematic for the daily forced hard labor, calculated starvation and torture that prisoners have to endure. It also reflects the system of collective punishment that results in the incarceration of several generations of one family, often for life. You can hear more from Shin on a new video playlist, together with testimonies of other escapees and exiles. Their voices urge immediate action to stop the horrors of the prison camps. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

A Diminished Force for Good

president obama sri lanka speech

Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday the United States sponsored a resolution at United Nations Human Rights Council calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights abuses that occurred in the final days of the country’s struggle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A United Nations Panel of Experts has estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the conflict as the Sri Lankan Army overran the last few pockets of LTTE opposition.

As Amnesty’s recent report Locked Away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees makes clear, there are good reasons to believe that human rights abuses still continue to this day. Instances of arbitrary and illegal detention have been widely reported, as have acts of torture and extrajudicial execution.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

UN: Investigate Sri Lanka War Crimes

This past Monday, the U.N. finally released the report of its advisory panel on accountability in Sri Lanka.  Thanks go to everyone who sent an online letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking him to release this report.

The report found credible allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in early 2009, and that both the government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers violated international law, including committing war crimes.  The panel recommended, among other things, that the U.N. establish an international investigation into these allegations.

Sri Lanka's military held many of those who escaped the conflict in miserable conditions © Private

Today, Ban’s spokesperson explained that Ban would not initiate an international investigation into these allegations unless the Sri Lankan government consented or he was asked to do so by a U.N body such as the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

Well, the Sri Lankan government isn’t likely to consent.  They’ve rejected the panel’s report, calling it “flawed” and “biased.”  President Rajapaksa has called for mass protests against the report on May 1.

We’ll need action by U.N. member states to establish an international   investigation.  The U.S. government could play a vital role in this effort.  Please write to Secretary Hillary Clinton and ask her to support the establishment of an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.

Israel's Campaign to Avoid Accountability for War Crimes Must be Rejected

Justice Richard Goldstone’s opinion piece (April 1, 2011) in the Washington Post ‘Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and War Crimes’ does not ‘vindicate’ the State of Israel as the government of Israel would have us believe, nor was the Op-Ed piece a ‘retraction’ of the report in its entirety as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal would have had us believe.

Goldstone’s opinion piece simply stated that in light of evidence presented by Israel through military investigations, he does not believe Israeli forces intentionally targeted civilians “as a matter of policy” during Operation ‘Cast Lead,’ Dec. 27, 2008 – Jan. 18, 2009.  The original report initially asserted that in certain cases, Israeli forces carried out “direct intentional strikes against civilians.”

Assessing whether specific Israeli attacks on civilians during the conflict were deliberate is extremely difficult because the Israeli military has not released the evidence that would allow independent parties to evaluate its conclusions.  Amnesty has not argued that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) targeted Palestinian civilians “as a matter of policy”, but that IDF rules of engagement and actions during the conflict failed to take sufficient precautions to minimize civilian casualties.  Justice Goldstone’s recent comments do not dispute this assessment.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

March 21st KEY Date in Human Rights Council for Gaza Conflict Victims

UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:35pm: The UN appointed Committee of Independent Experts released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations into violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict.  It is this assessment which is going to be reviewed and debated by members of the Human Rights Council Monday, March 21st.  (See below).

UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:25pm: Amnesty Int’l just released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations.

Original Post: Next Monday, March 21st, the Human Rights Council (HRC) will consider a critical report.  The report assesses the Israeli and Palestinian investigations into serious violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict.

This report is expected to match a similar assessment submitted to the HRC last September that concluded that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian side have failed to carry out investigations that are credible, independent and in conformity with international law.They have also failed to demonstrate a commitment to prosecuting perpetrators.  AI’s assessment concurs with these findings.

Despite clear documentation last September that both Israel and Hamas, the de facto administration in Gaza, were falling short of their obligations, Amnesty was shocked and dismayed to see the Human Rights Council fail to outline a clear plan for accountability and instead opt for delay.

AI wants HRC members to know that AI members worldwide are expecting real results this time.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

ACT Now: Why the U.S. must listen to Goldstone

The United States is fast losing their credibility in the region and among Human Rights organizations and activists over our reluctance to support the recommendations contained in Justice Richard Goldstone’s report (pdf).

Justice Richard Goldstone, who gained respect internationally for his work in the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and his human rights work in Argentina, South Africa and Kosovo led an investigation into violations of international law committed by all parties involved in the fighting last winter in Gaza and southern Israel.  The UN mandated investigation found that both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups committed grave violations of international law, including war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, during the conflict.  The report supports Amnesty International’s own findings of war crimes committed by both sides.

US made Hellfire missile manufactured in Orlando, FL used in incident where two Palestinian medics and a child were killed.

US made Hellfire missile manufactured in Orlando, FL used in incident where two Palestinian medics and a child were killed.

See prior blog post for more details.

Remarks from the State Department and specifically Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice do not bode well for the report’s reception in the Human Rights Council and the recommendation that the HR Council take concrete steps to move the process of accountability forward.  Ambassador Rice has said she has ‘serious concerns’ about the mission’s mandate and that it is imperative to not get distracted and look forward to resolve the conflict.

Amnesty International believes that justice and accountability can never be an impediment to peace, but are the foundation to an enduring peace in the region.  And that the recommendations contained in the Goldstone report are the best hope for achieving justice for the victims and to end the atmosphere of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators from both sides and help end the cycle of violence.

Justice Richard Goldstone is scheduled to present the findings of his team’s investigation Tuesday, September 29th to the Human Rights Council.  The HR Council will then discuss the findings and has the ability to refer the report and its recommendations for consideration by the UN Security Council.  The United States recently joined the HR Council and has the ability to sway the council one way or the other.

Send a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice urging them to support the recommendations contained in Justice Richard Goldstone’s report.

Were 20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lankan offensive?

Take a look at this article in The Times of London newspaper and tell me why we shouldn’t demand an immediate international investigation into the war crimes and human rights violations that occurred during the recent fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The U.S. and other governments should press for one at the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council as soon as possible.

Sri Lanka: what the UN council should have addressed; possible help from Rep. Shuler

Yesterday, I wrote on this blog about how the UN Human Rights Council failed to protect human rights with its recent resolution on Sri Lanka.  If you want to learn about the violations that the Council should have addressed, read the Sri Lanka entry from the Amnesty International 2009 Report, which has just been released.  It details the abuses committed during 2008 by the Sri Lankan security forces as well as the opposition Tamil Tigers.

On a separate note, if you’re a constituent of U.S. Representative Heath Shuler (11th District, North Carolina) or know someone who is, you should know that the Congressman has just concluded a visit to Sri Lanka (at least, according to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry).  It’d be great if his constituents could write to him and get him to press the Sri Lankan government to give journalists and aid agencies full, unimpeded access to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.  I’d also appreciate it if his constituents could get him to come out publicly in favor of an international investigation into the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict in Sri Lanka.  If the Congressman adds his voice to those of Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and The New York Times (all of whom have called for such an international investigation), maybe we can get the U.S. and other governments to establish one during next week’s regular session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Sri Lanka: effective action needed from UN Human Rights Council

The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session on Sri Lanka in Geneva on Tuesday, May 26 (and not May 25 as I reported earlier).  Today, the Sri Lankan government tried to head off any serious review by the Council of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka by tabling a self-congratulatory resolution to be adopted by the Council.  For the sake of all the victims of the recent violence in Sri Lanka, the Council should reject Sri Lanka’s proposed resolution.

Even now, after the fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers appears to have mostly ended, Amnesty International continues to receive credible reports of widespread human rights violations by the security forces and their paramilitary allies, including enforced disappearances, torture and political killings.  More than 250,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting, including some 80,000 children, are being held in internment camps without adequate security, food, water and medical care.  The Sri Lankan government has recently restricted access to the camps by international aid agencies, including the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Human Rights Council should note that the human rights issues in Sri Lanka go beyond the current humanitarian crisis.  They stem from a breakdown in the rule of law and a pervasive climate of impunity which has seen human rights violations by the security forces go unpunished for decades.  I should also mention that the Tamil Tigers have over the years been responsible for gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture of prisoners, and the forced recruitment and use of child soldiers. 

Switzerland also tabled a draft resolution today for the Council’s special session.  While it’s much stronger than Sri Lanka’s own resolution, it doesn’t go far enough.  It calls for Sri Lanka to undertake investigations into human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice.  Given the Sri Lankan government’s weak institutional mechanisms for human rights and repeated failures to hold violators accountable, we need international involvement.  The Council should set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate abuses of human rights and humanitarian law by both the security forces and the Tigers.  It should also establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, to help the Sri Lankan government to implement reforms to provide effective safeguards for human rights.

Finally, I don’t want to omit the immediate crisis.  The Council must persuade the Sri Lankan government to open up the internment camps so that aid agencies can provide the necessary assistance and reporters can find out the truth of what’s been happening.  International monitors should be placed at all registration and screening points, internment camps and detention places, so that human rights violations are prevented.  The displaced civilians should be allowed to leave the camps if they wish - they’re not prisoners of war, they’re people who were trapped in the crossfire against their will and have already suffered too much.  They desperately need the Council’s assistance now.  We’ll be watching Geneva next week.  I hope we’re not disappointed.