UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Two-thirds of the United Nations Security Council on Friday requested that North Korea's human rights situation be placed on the council agenda for debate— the first step toward a possible referral to the International Criminal Court.
The letter, submitted Friday morning to the current council president, says North Korea's human rights violations "threaten to have a destabilizing impact on the region." The U.N.'s most powerful body rarely considers a country's human rights situation alone, and the letter is a strong statement that the signers see the issue as one affecting international peace and security.
The letter, which was shown to The Associated Press, is signed by 10 of the 15 council members, including the United States. North Korea's allies China and Russia did not sign.
Placing this issue on the council's agenda is the latest step in growing international pressure this year on North Korea over an issue it has long disdained. A U.N. commission of inquiry report early this year detailed widespread human rights abuses in the impoverished but nuclear-armed country and warned that leader Kim Jong Un could be held accountable. And last month, the General Assembly's human rights committee approved a resolution calling on the Security Council to refer North Korea's human rights situation to the ICC.
"We are opposed to the agenda discussion in the U.N. Security Council," a North Korean diplomat told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Japanese Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa, whose country co-sponsored the recent resolution, told the AP that putting the issue on the council's agenda is the first step toward an ICC referral. "It's very much welcome," he said.
Even though permanent council member China is likely to use its veto power against an ICC referral, regular Security Council debate of North Korea's human rights will elevate the issue.
The letter requests "consideration of this agenda item as early as possible in December."
Council members have hurried to make this request before end of the year, when five of the current members are replaced.
Australia, one of the countries whose term on the council is due to expire, has energetically pursued getting this issue onto the council's agenda before it leaves its council seat. The other countries signing the letter are Chile, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, South Korea, Rwanda, Britain and the United States.
Longtime observers of the issue cheered.
"The growing international concern - including that expressed by the U.N. General Assembly - around the commission of inquiry's shocking findings has propelled the council to discuss the human rights situation in North Korea, a development that is long overdue," said Param-Preet Singh, a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch.