GENEVA -- The chief human rights official at the United Nations, Navi Pillay, called on Monday for an international inquiry into human rights offenses committed by the North Korean government over many decades.
Ms. Pillay, the Geneva-based high commissioner for human rights, pointed to North Korea's "elaborate network of political prison camps," believed by human rights organizations to hold 200,000 prisoners. The camps not only punish people for legitimate and peaceful activities, but also employ "torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity," Ms. Pillay said.
When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as the leader of North Korea in December 2011, there was some hope that the change would lead to a relaxation of harsh policies, Ms. Pillay said, but "we see almost no sign of improvement." Instead, she said, North Korea's self-imposed isolation had "allowed the government to mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century."
Human rights groups have been lobbying for an international investigation over the past year, and hope to persuade Japan to sponsor a resolution at the next session of the Human Rights Council in March that would create a commission of inquiry. Both the council and the United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions condemning North Korea in 2012 by consensus, unopposed even by China, the North's closest ally.
Ms. Pillay expressed concern that international preoccupation with North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs had diverted attention from human rights abuses that have "no parallel anywhere in the world."
"What we are trying to do is put human rights as a priority in the international debate on North Korea," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, one of more than 40 organizations in the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea that are backing the inquiry. "Right now it's nearly invisible."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.