The experts were alarmed that hundreds of escapees – the vast majority of whom are women – have been sent back, despite repeated appeals by multiple international human rights bodies. Hundreds more reportedly are in detention awaiting the same fate.
There are long-standing and credible reports that people returned to the DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea, would face serious human rights violations such as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, they said in a statement on Tuesday.
‘Criminals’ and ‘traitors’
The DPRK authorities label citizens “criminals” if they commit “illegal border-crossing”, and “traitors” if any link is found suggesting an “intention to escape to the Republic of Korea”, the official name for South Korea.
“Traitors” receive harsh punishments, including imprisonment without due process, and they may be subjected to enforced disappearance and even execution, the experts warned.
“No one should be returned to a country where they would face the risk of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm, including the use of the death penalty, and enforced disappearance,” they said.
Respect international law
The rights experts urged China to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.
They stressed that the principle is guaranteed under international law and must be applied to all individuals at all times, regardless of their migratory status.
They recalled that it also forms an essential protection under international human rights, refugee, humanitarian and customary law, and is “explicitly included” in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as well as the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its Protocol to which China is a party.
They called on China to abide by its international legal obligations and not forcibly repatriate remaining North Korean escapees.
“We welcome the reopening of the border and urge the DPRK to allow UN agencies, other humanitarian organisations and diplomatic missions to return to the country as soon as possible and engage the relevant Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council to review its human rights,” they said.
They also called on the DPRK “to comply with its international legal obligations in respect to all citizens returning to the country, including the absolute prohibition on torture and enforced disappearance, the prohibition of arbitrary detention, and fair trial guarantees.”
About UN experts
The 18 experts who issued the statement were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and include Elizabeth Salmón, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.
They are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Council, which is the general name of its independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
These experts work on a voluntary basis, are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.