How to Successfully Engage North Korea On Human Rights

UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas Aguilar on a site visit in the DPRK in May 2017 (Uriminzokkiri)

North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country in the world, except perhaps Eritrea and Syria. There is, however, a curious exception to this record: disability rights. This case offers a powerful counter-example of successful engagement in an arena where the country normally experiences nothing but universal condemnation.

For nearly two decades, outside NGOs have been working with Pyongyang to improve conditions for the nearly two million people with disabilities in the country. Over the course of this engagement, North Korea has altered its conduct in three important ways: It has cooperated with the United Nations to bring its disability policies more in line with international standards,  has permitted the growth of the very first shoots of civil society focused on the rights of the disabled,  and has allowed more contact between its citizens with disabilities and the outside world.

At a time when tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased dramatically and the United States in particular has pushed to isolate the regime even further, can this kind of engagement become the new normal?

Dealing with the UN System

It’s not easy to visit North Korea if you work on human rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly rejected the requests of UN human rights officials to tour the country. Even the three people who have served as the special rapporteur for human rights in the DRPK over the last 13 years have had to write their reports without ever setting foot in the country.

This past May, Catalina Devandas Aguilar became the first independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council to visit North Korea. Devandas Aguilar is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Not only did she meet with a wide range of North Koreans during her trip, but she received virtual celebrity coverage in the country’s media.

“Just the fact that a woman with a disability from Costa Rica is seen on national television in the DPRK running around on a scooter and being very modern and talking brings a different perspective and even hope to persons with disabilities in a country that has been in such isolation,” Devandas Aguilar said.

The United States has generally viewed the UN human rights system as another stick with which to beat North Korea. The Obama administration, for instance, supported the UN-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the conclusion, in its 2014 report, was that the leadership of the country committed crimes against humanity (among other transgressions). In the wake of the report, the Obama administration also imposed its first human-rights-related sanctions against the DPRK.

North Korea has signed the UN convention on the rights of the disabled. The otherwise scathing COI report barely mentions disability rights, other than to urge ratification of the convention, which North Korea did this last December. It also notes that “there are signs that the State may have begun to address this particular issue” of discrimination against the disabled—one of the few signs of progress in the report.

By signing the convention on the rights of the disabled—as well as those on women and on children—the DPRK has committed to submitting regular reports and interacting with various UN human rights personnel. In this way, it learns both the language and the substance of human rights practice. Whether it translates that knowledge into practice is another matter.

“While we welcome the engagement, writing reports is not progress on the ground and we haven’t seen any real improvement in women or children rights yet from this renewed willingness to deal with the UN treaty bodies,” cautions Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert who was one of the three experts on the commission, believes that the DPRK’s divergent approaches to the UN human rights system are actually related. “The release of the COI report had an enormous impact worldwide, and the DPRK was aware of that,” she says. “For the first time the human rights situation was revealed to the world in a very comprehensive way, and it was shocking. Because of that, they invested effort in improving their image by signing the convention on disabilities.”

But even before the COI report, North Korea was moving in the direction of engagement on disability rights and, arguably, showing “progress on the ground.”

Signs of a Civil Society?

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world without any significant civil society. It lacks public dissidents, opposition parties, even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When President Obama made a commitment to meet with civil society representatives around the world, even in places like Cuba, North Korea was not on the list. There was no one in North Korea with whom he could meet.

Engagement on disability rights, however, has produced some perhaps unexpected results. Foreign organizations working on disability issues inside the DPRK cooperate with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), an organization that bills itself as an NGO though it functions more like a government agency. However, the Federation, which started up in the late 1990s, has encouraged the creation of groups run by the disabled to advocate for themselves.

The Federation, Devandas-Aguilar points out, “promotes the creation of groups of women with disabilities, also deaf people and blind people, which they call associations. Those associations seem to be more independent from the Federation and from the government. These groups deal with income-generation activities. They are dealing with sports, with arts.”

The US government, through its funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, has devoted considerable resources to supporting operations that beam information into North Korea via radio broadcasts and other means—to expose North Koreans to news of the outside world.

Yet, without any US government assistance, organizing around disability rights has brought quite a few North Koreans in contact with foreigners. Handicapped International has been working in the country since 2001, collaborating with the KFPD in the field of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation. The World Federation of the Deaf maintains an office in Pyongyang staffed by a fourth-generation deaf German, Robert Grund, who has helped popularize sign language services and greater educational opportunities for the deaf.

Kathi Zellweger has been traveling back and forth to North Korea since 1995, first with the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and now with her own NGO based in Hong Kong. In December 2016, her organization brought four North Korean women to Hong Kong for 10 days “to expose them to a wide variety of services for intellectually challenged children.” The key task was to provide training in assessment. “Once you have assessed children properly,” she continues, “then you can design for each child the needs for health, education, and how you work with parents and caregivers.”

Over her more than 20 years of work in the DPRK, Zellweger has witnessed a change in attitudes inside the country. “Up to a few years ago, you would see very few people with disabilities in the streets,” she observes. “Now that has changed. You see more people in wheelchairs, on crutches, parents with special needs children.” She credits the KFPD with helping to transform public attitudes, but it’s also a function of relationships established with outsiders.

“Every year, the country celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a lot of local officials attending,” Zellweger notes. “It’s a big thing. We suggested that they should include special needs children. When I was there the next year, they had a small group of special needs children performing. Sometimes you just need to give them some ideas of what to do.”

That some of the people affiliated with the nascent civil society around disability rights have travelled outside North Korea is unusual for a country that rarely grants permission to travel abroad for anyone other than a government official, an athlete, or a guest worker. More unusual still, some North Korean teenagers with disabilities have even made the trip. In 2015, a youth ensemble of two blind musicians, two amputee vocalists, and eight dancers with hearing impairment traveled to the United Kingdom and France at the invitation of the UK-based organization DULA International. This Para-Ensemble returned for another tour this year.

It wasn’t easy to make the visit happen. “With disability welfare and awareness still in its developmental stages, many North Koreans at first felt that this young, disabled group of performers were not the country’s best representatives,” explains DULA International’s director, Lee Seok-Hee. After considerable persuading, the DPRK government agreed and cooperated.

The exchange, in turn, had a transformative impact. “Whereas the DPRK public—and even the Para-Ensemble performers—largely misunderstood issues of disability before the tour, awareness of disability grew following it,” Lee continues. “Performances of the first tour, and the reception of international audience, were aired on national TV in the DPRK. This led an increasing number of people contacting the KFPD and inquiring about how they could get involved.”

Moving Forward

Although North Korea has had laws on the books related to people with disabilities going back to the 1990s, it has stepped up its activities in the last few years. The first North Korean Paralympic athlete, for instance, participated in the 2012 games in London. The KFPD has been releasing periodic disability surveys. And the government has allowed disability organizations from around the world to partner with the KFPD.

Given the opacity of the North Korean government, it’s not easy to figure out definitively why it treats disability rights differently than it does many other human rights issues. But observers can make some educated guesses.

“First of all, progress on the disability issue is not a threat to the regime,” points out Robert King, former US special envoy for the issue of North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017. “It’s not like freedom of speech or access to television from South Korea. It’s not going to undermine the claims of legitimacy of the government.”

King also suspects that people high up in the regime have children or siblings with disabilities. In China, for instance, the disability issue acquired a much higher profile when Deng Pufang, the son of former premier Deng Xiaoping, actively promoted it. A paraplegic thanks to an assault by militant Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled in 1984 and won a UN human rights award for his work in 2003. “A few people like that could make an appeal to the leadership and have some effect in getting some programs to benefit the disabled,” King says.

The overall human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire. Some North Korean defectors dispute that the government has changed its policies at all, and rumors abound of horrific treatment. Some experts on human rights in North Korea also argue that advocacy of disability rights is largely cosmetic.

“I’ve spoken with many UN officials, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion of a dramatic sea change in North Korean human rights,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country has ignored other issues, he points out, such as “the terrible things done to political prisoners in the camps, the utter lack of freedom of expression, freedom of association, any conceivable human right. But in this case, they selected [disability rights] as a point of contact where they can make some cosmetic changes and get away with it—or who knows, perhaps go a little deeper and make some serious changes and see where it takes them.”

However, organizing international support for human rights in North Korea around disability rights demonstrates that engagement can yield positive benefits for North Koreans and still advance certain US goals. It’s also a good example of how human rights work can promote more connections with the international community rather than fewer. “Especially in the current context of escalating tensions, the human rights system needs to put its energy into promoting dialog and discussion,” says the UN’s Devandas Aguilar. “That is the only way forward to avoid armed conflict or confrontation.”


Briefing: Scholars and Organizers on Cameroon’s State-Sponsored Human Rights Abuses


Media Contacts:
Domenica Ghanem,, 202-787-5205
Netfa Freeman,, 202-787-5229

(Washington, DC) — The Institute for Policy Studies, Global Partnership for African Development (GPAD), and Pan-African Community Action (PACA) will host a briefing featuring Cameroon experts on March 21 at 12PM at the Institute for Policy Studies office. The panel will discuss how Cameroon telecommunications companies have cut off Internet communication to southern Cameroon — creating Internet refugees. If you cannot attend in person, please join our online live stream here.

Little media attention has been paid to the government policy in south Cameroon that is effectively stranding people from outside communications. In addition to the Internet cut-off, the government has also stopped transactions of companies like MoneyGram and Western Union from operating in the region, endangering the livelihoods of families who depend on remittances. These escalating actions are implicated within a series of massacres that Cameroonians view as the build-up to genocide.

WHO:  Dr. Denis Foretia MD, co-chair of Denis and Lenora Foretia Foundation and senior fellow at the Nkafu Policy Institute
             Harmony Bobga Mbuton, political exile and former president of the Lawyers Association
             Dr. Ikome Sako, founder/president emeritus of the Community Humanitarian Emergency Board
            Adryan Wallace, organizer with Pan-African Community Action
            Netfa Freeman, Institute for Policy Studies Pan-African issue expert will moderate

WHAT: Briefing and panel discussion on the conditions that have created Cameroon’s Internet refugees and other state-sponsored human rights abuses.

WHERE: 1301 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 600 Washington, DC 20036
                 Join us online

WHEN: March 21, 2017, 12:00-1:30 PM



Human Rights Must Be Integrated Into International Investment Agreements

We, the undersigned human rights, environmental and development organizations, urge all governments to place human rights at the core of international economic agreements, by integrating human rights protections into international investment and trade agreements and to ensure that these agreements do not impair governments’ abilities to respect, protect and fulfill their human rights obligations. Most urgently, we call on decision-makers considering entry into bilateral or multilateral trade and investment agreements to reject agreements that do not have human rights at their centre.

International investment can be a powerful engine for economic development and, potentially, to help fulfill a wide range of economic and social rights. But the current international investment system gives rights to multinational corporations while doing nothing to protect the rights of people affected by foreign investment to access effective remedy. It does not sufficiently protect governments’ space to pursue sustainable development policies from investors’ challenges.

The current system creates rights for foreign companies to challenge legal and policy actions by the host governments where the companies invest, even when those state actions are taken to protect and fulfill human rights, meet vital social needs, and pursue sustainable development objectives such as reducing inequality (e.g.: environmental and health regulations; protections of land and labour rights; access to water). This system has allowed companies to oppose, seek exemptions from, or be compensated for the cost of compliance with a range of human rights protections through multilateral and bilateral treaties, and agreements that host governments have entered into directly with foreign firms. Entering into agreements that constrain their ability to protect and fulfil human rights can create pressure on governments to ignore their obligations to protect human rights under international treaties.

Since States are bound by these pre-existing treaty obligations, they are prohibited from concluding any agreements that would impose on them inconsistent obligations constraining their ability to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also make clear that governments must not enter into trade and investment agreements that constrain their ability to meet human rights duties. The EU in particular is required to respect its Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union obliges the EU to define and pursue policies and actions that consolidate and support the rule of law and human rights in its external relations. In negotiating investment agreements, the EU must therefore respect human rights and design these agreements in a way that consolidates human rights, and does not make their realization more difficult in the EU and partner countries.

A number of recent cases (OceanaGold and El Salvador; Philip Morris and Uruguay) have rejected the foreign investors’ claims. Yet even defending cases that are ultimately found meritless wrongly diverts significant state funds from public goods and services to pay for legal and arbitration costs. The threat of these challenges has had a chilling effect on governments considering new actions to pursue legitimate policy goals. Although some recently proposed agreements include language acknowledging the need to safeguard governments’ ability to pursue these core policy aims, these new provisions have, at best, weak implementation measures, compared to the protections provided to investors. To avoid entering into agreements that would compromise governments’ human rights obligations with regard to international investment:

  1. Independent human rights impact and/or risk assessments should be carried out and published, with public participation, on all prospective international investment agreements, to identify, understand, assess, and address their full effects on human rights, with a particular focus on vulnerable and marginalized groups.
  2. Any protections that are provided for investors should not impede governments’ policy space to legislate, regulate and reach court decisions to protect and fulfill human rights, including:
  • right to health including access to essential medicines
  • right to health including access to essential medicines
  • right to a safe and healthy environment
  • rights to development and to an adequate standard of living
  • rights to water, sanitation and food
  • indigenous peoples’ rights
  • core labour rights

3. Investment agreements should include effective protections for human rights, the environment and labour rights. These protections should include effective remedies for people whose rights are harmed by investors or their investments, including the ability of victims to bring claims for these harms in the courts of the home States of the investors

These three points are not exhaustive of the human rights concerns raised by existing or proposed investment agreements, but these are essential initial requirements for such agreements to respect human rights.

The analyses of experts, such as Alfred de Zayas, the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, lead to the conclusion that the following proposed international trade agreements, in their current forms, do not meet these three core requirements:

  • Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (EU-Canada)
  • Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (ASEAN & other Asia and Pacific countries)
  • Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (EU-USA)
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership (12 signatories in Pacific Rim region)
  • EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement

They raise serious concerns about how they might enable companies to undermine human rights, and they create no enforceable human rights standards for foreign investments. We therefore urge decision-makers in the EU and in the countries concerned to oppose these proposed agreements in their current form.

We likewise will urge rejection of other proposed agreements, such as the proposed “upgrade” to the Free Trade Agreement between Mexico and EU and the proposed EU-Myanmar investment protection agreement, if these agreements do not respect and protect human rights, including by meeting the three criteria above.

Signed by (in alphabetical order):

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Center for International Environmental Law Centre for Human Rights in Practice,

University of Warwick (UK)

European Coalition for Corporate Justice

FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)

International Corporate Accountability Roundtable

Institute for Policy Studies, Global Economy Project


SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations)

UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order Alfred de Zayas

The post Human Rights Must Be Integrated Into International Investment Agreements appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.


Palm Oil’s Human Cost Alleged in New Report – National Geographic

National Geographic
Palm Oil's Human Cost Alleged in New Report
National Geographic
The report, "The Human Cost of Conflict Palm Oil," details the results of an on-the-ground investigation into the conditions of workers on two representative palm oil plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia. The plantations are owned by Indofood, Indonesia's


Before Orlando, Omar Mateen Worked for Human Rights Abusers


(Photo: Flickr / Vertigogen)

How do we even talk about the horrific killings in Orlando, which left at least 50 LGBTQ revelers dead and more than 50 more injured in the middle of pride month? First we mourn. Then we rage. Then we hug our loved ones, especially our LGBTQ friends, comrades, and family members.

Then we look again, and we see the horror — that this murderer was licensed to carry guns and had no trouble buying incredibly powerful military-style weapons. So casually. So legally. So common, across our country. That’s when we start to rage again.

More troubling still, Omar Mateen worked for a company that was perpetrating systemic violence against vulnerable people long before he took up arms against his LGBTQ neighbors. For nine years Mateen worked for G4S Security, a British-based corporation that contracts with the U.S. and Israeli governments for work that often violates human rights on a massive scale.

G4S, which brags about having 600 staffers on the southern border, has contracts with U.S. immigration authorities to detain and deport people back to Mexico, as well as to run private juvenile detention facilities. In Israel, meanwhile, G4S profits from providing equipment and services in Israeli prisons and interrogation centers where Palestinians are routinely tortured. It’s also involved in running Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Incidentally, G4S is the company that trained Mateen to work as an armed security guard, which licensed him to carry and use weapons. And although his coworkers told supervisors that Mateen “frequently made homophobic and racial comments,” the company did nothing. Itkept him on board — and kept him armed. 

Should this company continue to profit from multi-million-dollar contracts with the U.S. government?

Since 2012, there’s been a major campaign against G4S, resulting in decisions by major mainstream institutions — like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Methodist Church, numerous European universities, important charities in South Africa and the Netherlands, UN agencies in the Middle East, and more — to divest from G4S holdings, or to cancel or not renew service contracts. G4S is profiting from exactly the kind of anti-Arab and anti-Latino racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that are all on the rise in the U.S. right now.  

If the early reports are accurate, G4S’s long-serving employee is responsible for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. 

And here let’s continue to be careful with our numbers. As my IPS colleague Karen Dolan and others have been pointing out, our nation’s origins are grounded in genocide and slavery. Earlier history has to take into account things like the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, when between 150 and 300 children, women, and men were gunned down. That mass shooting is part of our history, too.

But our nation’s history also includes the great movements that have risen against war, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. The party at Orlando’s Pulse club was part of a month-long Gay Pride celebration rooted in the extraordinary movement that grew out of the 1969 Stonewall revolt, when bar patrons fought back against police brutality toward gay men and lesbians.

June 12, the night of the massacre, happened to be Latin Night at the Pulse. Reverend William Barber, a leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, reminded me that June 12 is also the anniversary of the 1963 Mississippi assassination of the great civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

One more link between our movements — from Stonewall to Orlando, and Mississippi to Palestine.

The post Before Orlando, Omar Mateen Worked for Human Rights Abusers appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Palm Oil’s Human Cost Alleged in New Report – National Geographic

National Geographic
Palm Oil's Human Cost Alleged in New Report
National Geographic
The report, "The Human Cost of Conflict Palm Oil," details the results of an on-the-ground investigation into the conditions of workers on two representative palm oil plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia. The plantations are owned by Indofood, Indonesia's


Suspected human trafficking kingpin extradited from Sudan to Italy – Reuters

Suspected human trafficking kingpin extradited from Sudan to Italy
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Human rights reporting vital to ending injustices in global supply chains

During the ‘EU Roadmap to Business and Human Rights Conference’ on 11 May 2016, Maddalena Neglia – Fairfood International’s Business and Human Rights specialist – gave a presentation on Human Rights Reporting. Fairfood wanted to remind the audience that human rights reporting should not only be a ‘fashionable’ topic discussed among and by companies, but a way to concretely improve the situation of people working in the global supply chain and to integrate respect for human rights into corporate culture and behaviour.

Human rights abuses in Morocco’s booming tomato sector

Fairfood shared its experiences in Morocco for this occasion. Morocco, and in particular the Sous Massa Region in the west rural part of the country, is a major exporter of tomatoes (the country’s largest agricultural export), which are sold in main EU supermarkets, including the biggest Dutch supermarkets.

We looked more closely at the production of this commodity and we found that the freedom of association is not always respected, wages are low (a worker earns 5 euros per day for 12 hours of work) and working conditions are sometimes unsafe (especially unsafe transport to work). Moreover, 92% of the workers in the Moroccan agricultural sector are women and they do not receive any childcare support from the employers and are left to their own devices if they get pregnant. You can find more details about the Tomato project on our website.

The need for a collaborative approach to creating fairer supply chains

We tried to find a shared solution to those issues by initiating a dialogue among the different stakeholders involved: local unions in the agricultural sector, local authorities, workers, local NGOs, academia and industries, as well as European companies and consumers. After the first challenging months, the response of local stakeholders to this initiative was enthusiastic and very promising: a major agricultural union, local producers and local authorities agreed to sit together and to enter into a dialogue in order to find shared solutions for the future. Wages increased and working conditions were improved by local producers, which was also due to the increased negotiating capacity of the union.

However, little information was available on the sourcing practices of global companies and, unfortunately they were reluctant to participate in this process.

This example demonstrates the importance of the collaborative approach among stakeholders as the only way to achieved shared and sustainable solutions on the ground. However, it also tells us how difficult it is to fully achieve it in practice.

Action not box ticking

For this reason, Fairfood argued that the issue of Human Rights reporting should be used as an opportunity to start a genuine process that helps global companies to understand complex problems in their supply chain and that facilitates the dialogue among different stakeholders already at an early stage. Only if reporting is realized through such a process, and does not end in a mere box ticking exercise, can social value be created at local level.

Given this direction, we are aware that lots of questions are still open. For example, to what extent could and should both national and European legislations foster this type of reporting as a process, and how can we do this without creating counterproductive multiplication of reporting requirements?

The session partially contributed to addressing those issues.

We hope that this is the first step towards shared future engagement among companies, policy makers and civil society organisations, ultimately leading to the endorsement of human rights reporting as a way of changing and improving workers’ lives.


Dispatches: Obama Bans E-Cigarettes for Kids, but Not Child Labor in Tobacco Fields – Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch
Dispatches: Obama Bans E-Cigarettes for Kids, but Not Child Labor in Tobacco Fields
Human Rights Watch
Kids under age 18 soon will no longer be able to buy e-cigarettes in the United States, according to new regulations announced last week by the Obama administration. Yet it remains legal for kids as young as 12 to be exposed to nicotine working on US …

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Danger, Keep Out! Children’s Exposure to Toxic Substances – Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch
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Human Rights Watch
According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 85 million children are engaged in hazardous child labor that puts their health or safety directly at risk, for example through “exposure to hazardous substances, agents and processes