U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power recently presented the Leo Nevas Human Rights Award to Former Australian high court judge Michael Kirby.
Justice Kirby won the prize for promoting human rights in North Korea through his work on the U.N.'s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea. Created in March 2013, the Commission was charged with conducting an in-depth investigation of the human rights situation in North Korea.
Upon being refused permission to enter North Korea to investigate abuses first-hand, Justice Kirby and the two other Commissioners sought the next best alternative: they made it a priority to hear directly from North Koreans who had personally experienced the regime's repression. More than 200 victims, eyewitnesses, and former officials provided testimony to the Commission, and 80 witnesses participated in its public hearings.
The first witness to speak publicly before the Commission was Shin Dong-hyuk, who had been born into a detention camp. He recounted how, as a small child in the camp, he saw a seven-year-old girl stopped for a random inspection. A guard found a few grains of food in the young girls’ pocket and proceeded to beat her with a wooden stick until she was unconscious. That little girl died the next day.
A former guard from another camp named Ahn Myong Chul told the Commission that guards routinely raped prisoners. On one occasion, he said, when superiors learned that a guard had raped an inmate, the victim was taken to a detention house and tortured using fire. Then she was sent to perform punishing labor in a mine -- all for the “crime” of having been raped.
Under Justice Kirby’s leadership, the Commission assembled clear evidence that the abuses constituted a “systematic, widespread, and grave” pattern of crimes against humanity. The Commission concluded these crimes were driven by “policies established at the highest level of State.” That finding, said Ambassador Power, "will be essential to eventually holding the perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes accountable."
By revealing the horrors the North Koreans have endured at the hands of their government, Justice Kirby has done a great service to the North Korean people. He has made a tremendous contribution to the cause of global justice by tirelessly pressing the international community to stop these atrocities and to bring those responsible to account.