Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

3:00 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Question 13: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the dramatic increase in political prisoners in North Korea's political prison camps, which, according to Amnesty International, now hold 200,000 persons; and his intentions to address this crisis. [20088/11]

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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The human rights situation in North Korea has been described by the UN special rapporteur for North Korea as "abysmal". The general population of North Korea faces violent political and religious persecution, collective punishment, torture and arbitrary execution perpetrated by the North Korean authorities. In addition, citizens of North Korea are victims of chronic food shortages and grossly inadequate public services. In his most recent report, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea addressed the use of political correction camps, collection centres and labour camps to imprison political critics of the government. The special rapporteur believes that gross and systemic human rights violations take place regularly in these facilities and cites evidence of poor living standards and a lack of medical care for those imprisoned.

The promotion of respect for human rights is a cornerstone of foreign policy for Ireland and the European Union. Ireland played an active role in the drafting of the UN General Assembly resolution on North Korea last year which called on the North Korean authorities to meet their obligations as a member state of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to fulfil their obligations under the international agreements to which they are a signatory. Ireland also contributed to the drafting of the recent resolution at the Human Rights Council concerning the situation in North Korea and the European Union used its introductory statement to reiterate its concern at the authorities poor human rights record and the lack of any reform.

Senior officials from my Department had the opportunity to express our concerns about human rights and other matters, such as nuclear non-proliferation, directly to the North Korean ambassador when he visited Dublin last November. We will continue to communicate our concerns to the North Korean Government regarding the human rights situation in North Korea in our bilateral contacts and through the European Union and United Nations. I take this opportunity to call upon the North Korean authorities to co-operate fully with the United Nations special rapporteur and wider international community in their efforts to assist the people of North Korea.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Tánaiste for his response. The information emerging from North Korea is horrific. Respected international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea are starting to report the stories of former prisoners and, in some cases, prison wardens who have managed to escape the country. I propose to cite an article published in The Guardian in which a lady who was imprisoned in one of these terrible places recounted her experiences. She states:

There were about 1,000 women in our cabin and we were so squashed together we had to sleep with our legs interlocking. We had rice husks to eat and had to work cutting down trees and dragging the timber back with chains. When it got really cold in winter, five or six women would die every day and the other prisoners would have to carry the bodies out. I still dream about that.

This is an appalling case. The North Korean Government refuses access to such camps, whose existence its denies despite aerial photographs showing they are growing in number. North Korea poses a dilemma in that international organisations are repeatedly obliged to provide food assistance directly to the regime because they cannot abandon the poor people of the country. What action can Ireland take at United Nations and European Union level? What interventions can we make with the North Korean Government to end the abominations and crimes against humanity taking place in that country?

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I concur with the sentiments expressed by Deputy Mac Lochlainn. North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. It denies even the most basic of human rights to its citizens. Services such as health care and education appear to be allocated according to loyalty to the regime, there is no freedom of press or religion and the judiciary is neither impartial nor independent. One also has the issue of punishment camps and the treatment of prisoners in these camps.

As Deputy Mac Lochlainn noted, there is a dilemma regarding the provision of aid. Ireland provides aid through non-governmental organisations which are working in North Korea because of the appalling food shortages in the country. At the same time, we continue, through the United Nations and bilaterally, to communicate our abhorrence at what is happening under the North Korean regime and to work for an improvement in human rights. As the Deputy will be aware, Ireland will seek election to the Human Rights Council next year. This is one of the areas of human rights to which we intend to give priority.