Muzzling the maverick - pressure on China mounts regarding N. Korean defectors

By Daniele Pestilli on February 29, 2012
Photo credits: @potomacgang

On Monday, South Korea's deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs Kim Bong-hyun asked the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to put an end to China's repatriation of North Korean defectors, and urged China to abide to international human rights. On the same day, South Korea's parliament passed a resolution granting citizenship to defectors and criticizing China's repatriation policy.

China does not recognize the defectors as refugees, but as illegal border-crossers who leave their country for economic reasons. However, it is a known fact that if the defectors are sent back to their homeland they will face torture and execution.

The Chusun Ilbo writes, “Beijing is increasingly irked“ by Seoul's attempts to have North Koreans sent to South Korea. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated, “the dignity of the Chinese laws should be duly respected and protected”. In other words, he would like South Korea to stop interfering in Chinese affairs.

China's policy of returning refugees contradicts its obligations under the UNHCR's 1951 Refugees Convention and the 1967 Protocol. The document defines the term “refugee“ as someone who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear,
is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
...“the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.

Article 32 underlines:

1. The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.

3. The Contracting States shall allow such a refugee a reasonable period within which to seek legal admission into another country. The Contracting States reserve the right to apply during that period such internal measures as they may deem necessary.

By returning North Korean defectors, China is violating the non-refoulement principle, which states that “no refugee should be returned in any manner whatsoever to any country where he or she would be at risk of persecution (see also article 3, 1984 Convention against Torture, which extends the same protection where there are substantial grounds for believing that a person to be returned would be in danger of being tortured).”

As of today, more than 158,000 people have signed the petition on SaveMyFriend to call for international intervention against China's refoulement practices.

We at the East Asia Gazette have also urged Avaaz.org, a popular civic organization that promotes activism on many issues including human rights, to intervene in helping netizens take action in saving North Korean refugees in China.

In the meanwhile, South Korean lawmakers from the Saenuri Party have decided to stage a relay protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, Yonhap News reports. This is to demonstrate solidarity with Rep. Park Sun-young of the conservative minor Liberty Forward Party, who has been staging a hunger strike for nine days now. Actor Cha In-pyo has also stepped forward along with 20 other celebrities to save North Korean defectors from being repatriated. He urged the international community to help stop China from being an accomplice in this crime.

In the port city of Busan, South Korea's second largest city, about 200 activists also held a rally to protest against China's policy of repatriation.

According to the Korea Herald, the European Union will probably join South Korea in the protection of North Korean defectors by “turn[ing] up the heat on China". However, this stance has not been confirmed yet.

For the international community, it is looking increasingly harder to muzzle the maverick that is China.