The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, has become the first UN Human Rights Council independent expert to conduct a country visit to North Korea. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement] The visit, which took place from May 3–8 at the invitation of the North Korean government, served as an opportunity for the Special Rapporteur to assess the nation’s compliance with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICRPD), which North Korea ratified in December 2016. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement] On the final day of the six-day mission, while praising certain initiatives already undertaken, Devandas Aguilar called upon the nation, which has expressed its commitment to “faithfully implement” international human rights treaties, to work towards full implementation of the ICRPD, particularly in eradicating stigma, ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community, providing services for all persons with disabilities including those with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, and recognizing the full legal capacity of persons with disabilities. [Washington Post; NK News: Visit; OHCHR Press Release: Statement] In particular she noted with concern the stigma that persons with disabilities face in the country, which is reinforced by the use of certain language such as “normal” and “sane” and by the lack of accessibility in infrastructure and in the educational, healthcare, and social protection systems. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement]
The Special Rapporteur’s Visit
During the official visit, the Special Rapporteur traveled to Pyongyang and the South Hwanghae Province to meet with various humanitarian actors, persons with disabilities, and relevant government officials to identify gaps in North Korea’s current implementation of the Convention and begin developing practical solutions. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement] She was unable to visit a mental health facility and did not receive information on deprivation of liberty and access to justice. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement]
In a statement released at the conclusion of her visit, the Special Rapporteur praised North Korea’s recent work toward improving the lives of persons with disabilities, which includes the adoption in 2013 of a law specifically designed to ensure the proper collection of relevant data, increase public awareness, and improve the accessibility of the public infrastructure for persons with disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] She also commended the nation’s development of a strategic action plan pertaining to the rights of persons with disabilities and encouraged its timely finalization, emphasizing the need to ensure proper coordination among all relevant ministries in its implementation. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement]
During her visit, the Special Rapporteur observed that much of the nation’s infrastructure is inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities; that the right to education is hindered by the limited availability of assistive devices and accessible infrastructure in education programs; and that certain healthcare and social protection mechanisms are lacking for people with certain disabilities, including those with intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disabilities. Devandas Aguilar additionally acknowledged the strong stigma still associated with disabilities, which can discourage persons with disabilities from participating in community activities. Generally, she noted that all of these barriers lead to an inability of persons with disabilities to integrate fully into the community, contributing to the stigma that persons with disabilities face in the country. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement; NK News: Visit]
The Special Rapporteur made several recommendations to the country in her final statement. To combat discrimination and stigma, Devandas Aguilar recommended using correct terminology, avoiding certain terms such as “sane” and “normal,” and raise awareness of people with disabilities. Further, she recommended that the country include a broader range of diversity of persons with disabilities in government and in consultations. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] The Special Rapporteur also made recommendations to progressively improve equal access to education, ensure that all persons with disabilities have access to health and social protection benefits, provide community-based care for orphans with disabilities, and engage in supported decision-making models. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement; OHCHR Press Release: Dialogue]
She urged entities within the United Nations working on North Korea to “make all of their projects inclusive of persons with disabilities and to mainstream disability in all of their humanitarian strategies and programmes in the country.” She also recommended that the government of North Korea establish an independent mechanism to monitor the nation’s compliance with the ICRPD. In particular, she expressed concern over noncompliance with articles 4 and 12 of the ICRPD, which require the full realization of the rights of persons with disabilities and the recognition of full legal capacity of persons with disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] The Special Rapporteur will submit a comprehensive report of her findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in March 2018. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement]
Background on the Decision to Visit
The Special Rapporteur’s visit was conducted at the invitation of North Korea. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement] The country has not issued a standing invitation to receive visits from other thematic special procedures. See OHCHR, Standing Invitations. In recent years, the nation has attempted to improve its work with persons with disabilities – for instance, by airing television programs featuring persons with disabilities and offering specialized education for those with vision or hearing impairments. [New York Times; Diplomat] These efforts come alongside widespread criticism of North Korea’s overall human rights record and its development of a nuclear weapons program. [New York Times; Business Insider] Devandas Aguilar viewed the mission as an opportunity to become educated about North Korea’s programs and policies regarding persons with disabilities and the challenges the nation faces in complying with the Convention. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement]
North Korea’s Human Rights Record and Obligations
While North Korea has ratified six universal human rights treaties, civil society reports that the State does not guarantee the realization of the rights contained in those treaties. See HRW, World Report 2017: North Korea. In 2004, the UN Commission on Human Rights – the predecessor to the Human Rights Council – established the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to investigate and report on the situation of human rights in North Korea. The North Korean government has refused to acknowledge this Special Rapporteur, and none of the individuals serving in this position have ever been permitted to visit the country. [NK News: Visit; Telegraph]
In March 2013, in response to widespread concern about North Korea’s compliance with its human rights obligations, the Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Commission was tasked with investigating the “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in [North Korea], with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity.” See OHCHR, Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Commission’s investigation culminated in the submission of a detailed report to the UN General Assembly in 2014 describing the vulnerability of women, children, and persons with disabilities within North Korea’s human rights regime, among other violations. [Diplomat]
In December 2016, North Korea became the 172nd State to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which currently has 173 States parties. [NK News: Ratify] Under the Convention, States are required to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities and ensure their full enjoyment of equality under the law.
North Korea is also a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. North Korea attempted to withdraw from the ICCPR in 1997, but as the treaty does not contain a withdrawal provision, the UN Secretary General determined that only with the agreement of all the other States parties to the ICCPR may the State withdraw from it. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] North Korea is still a State party to the ICCPR.
While North Korea is not subject to any individual complaints mechanisms, the State is subject to the monitoring system of each treaty’s corresponding treaty body, under which it must submit reports on its progress in implementing the relevant treaty. See OHCHR, Ratification Status for Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea; IJRC, UN Treaty Bodies. Last year, the State submitted reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement]
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities is one of the thematic special procedures overseen by the UN Human Rights Council. The mandate was established in 2014. The Special Rapporteur promotes and monitors the rights of persons with disabilities by conducting country visits, engaging in dialogue with States, consulting with persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, supporting national efforts to realize the rights of persons with disabilities with technical assistance, making recommendations, issuing reports to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, and offering recommendations on how to promote and enforce the relevant standards. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur lasts for a period of three years. See OHCHR, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.
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