Why North Korea Can Get Away With Crimes Against Humanity, And Africa Can’t

North Korean flag, African continent, and ICC logo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

The U.N. has found Kim Jong-un guilty of crimes against humanity. Even so, the International Criminal Court, which only has cases open in Africa, is unlikely to try North Korea. Why?

After a year of investigation, the U.N. released a report in February of 2014 detailing the state of human rights in North Korea. A panel then notified leader Kim Jong-un that he may personally be held liable for “crimes against humanity” – which we’ve detailed extensively here, if you’re curious enough to stomach it.

The extensive investigative report drew up data pertaining to the North Korean government, inferring that many of the heinous actions (including public executions, torture, slavery, sexual abuse, and prolonged starvation) were directly under the control or influence of the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

The U.N. panel wrote to the leader that the case would be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), noting that he himself could be held accountable. But, as the NY Times reports, it’s unlikely that the case will ever get there. Why?

The ICC: Who is involved, and what do they do?

The ICC is  an international criminal court which handles crimes against humanity and other perpetrations considered globally serious.

While the need for a permanent international court was recognized both in 1948 and after the end of the Cold War, the ICC was not founded until 1998. Established in Rome and located in the Netherlands, the ICC’s Roman Statute Treaty currently includes 122 countries.


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Map and legend courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ICC tries individuals for only the most serious crimes such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression, when the individual’s state will not hold them accountable.

Cases come before the court when a State member of the Roman Statute requests an investigation, or when the U.N. Security Council refers it to court.

The trouble is, members of the Security Council can veto these referrals, meaning China will almost definitely veto the motion in order to protect their neighbor, North Korea, which is not a member of the court.

Who does the ICC have cases against, if not Kim Jong-un?

Thus far, the ICC has eight open cases, all in Africa. The court’s first verdict was in 2012, when Democratic Republic of Congo’s militia leader Thomas Lubanga was convicted of war crimes was sentenced to 14 years, the BBC says.

Open cases include the indictment of the Ivory Coast’s former President Laurent Gbagbo for murder, rape, persecution, and other “inhuman crimes,” along with other grave situations in Mali, Libya, Kenya, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Uganda.

Why has Africa been targeted while North Korea get a pass?

Is it fair that the only cases brought to trial are that of undeveloped African nations, when other countries like North Korea are getting away with murder, literally? According to the Observer, some African leaders believe that the ICC is a tool of Western imperialism and condemn their selective racial punishments.

According to Human Rights Watch, the focus on Africa is reflective of the ICC’s limitations, as countries such as North Korea, Uzbekistan, Israel, Syria, or Iraq have never joined the court, and are shielded from punishment by protective members that share their interests.

It is this protection, and North Korea’s position outside the ICC’s membership, that will likely keep Kim Jong-un from trial. Still, U.N. Human Rights hope the report will shed light onto these serious human rights issues, and the injustice that is their lack of consequence.

Jennifer Markert