UN in heated debate over North Korea war crimes probe

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - Cuba on Tuesday came to North Korea's defence as the United Nations launched a heated debate over a key resolution that could see Pyongyang answer to crimes against humanity.

Havana's ambassador took the floor at the General Assembly's third committee to appeal for an amendment scrapping provisions on asking the Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court.

Ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez said UN resolutions focused on a single country such as the one targeting North Korea had become a "tool to attack others" and argued it should be amended to call for a "cooperative approach" with Pyongyang.

Belarus, Ecuador, Iran, China, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela spoke out in support of the Cuban move to weaken the resolution, with many arguing that the text lacked balance.

But the amendment was defeated by a vote of 77 to 40, with 50 countries abstaining.

Diplomats said they expected the resolution to be approved by a strong vote of between 100 and 120. All 193 countries of the United Nations are represented on the third committee, which deals with human rights issues.

INQUIRY FINDS CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

Co-sponsored by more than 60 countries, the resolution draws heavily on the work of a UN inquiry which concluded in a 400-page report released in February that North Korea was committing human rights abuses "without parallel in the contemporary world."

The year-long inquiry heard testimony from North Korean exiles and documented a vast network of harsh prison camps holding up to 120,000 people along with cases of torture, summary executions and rape.

Responsibility for these violations lies at the highest level of the secretive state, according to the inquiry led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, who concluded that the atrocities amounted to crimes against humanity.

"The international community cannot ignore the suffering of the ordinary people of the Democratic Republic of Korea," said Italy's representative.

"It must take action."

The landmark report infuriated North Korea, which launched a diplomatic offensive to ensure the key provisions urging the Security Council to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court were scrapped.

North Korean Ambassador Sin So Ho told the UN the resolution drafted by the European Union and Japan reflected "extreme mistrust, distrust and confrontation that have no relevance whatsoever with genuine human rights."

Fellow communist Cuba last week presented its amendment binning references to the ICC and instead encouraging cooperation with Pyongyang through fact-finding visits and talks with the UN rights office.

Once adopted, the resolution will go to the full assembly for a vote next month.

But it remains an open question whether the Security Council would follow up on the resolution and seek to refer North Korea to the ICC, with China - Pyongyang's main ally - and Russia widely expected to oppose such a move.

On the eve of the vote, three leading human rights groups - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights - called on member states to back the resolution.