February 22, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

The Real Refugee Scandal

So prolific in scandal has the United Nations become that it's getting hard to keep tabs. You can surf the channels, from rape by peacekeepers in the Congo, to theft at the World Meteorological Organization, to a Human Rights Commission crammed with despots; from inadequate auditing to botched management to wasted money to running the biggest heist in the history of humanitarian work–the Oil for Food program in Saddam's Iraq.

An aggrieved Secretary-General Kofi Annan has chosen to describe the reporting of such outrages as “attacks on the United Nations”–as if the problem lay in the reporting, rather than the scandalous behavior that is the real threat to the U.N.'s peace-and-human-dignity mandate. But at least a little daylight has prompted some acknowledgement from the U.N. Secretariat itself that there is a need, as Mr. Annan's new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, just wrote in London's Sunday Times, for reform at the U.N. “through deeds, not words.”

Fine, let's look to the deeds. One test of that promised reform will be the next move at the U.N.'s refugee office, where High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers resigned Monday over allegations that he had sexually harassed a woman who worked for him. The allegations were not new. The U.N.'s internal auditors concluded last June, in a secret report, that Mr. Lubbers had engaged in “misconduct and abuse of authority” by way of “unwanted physical contact with the complainant.” This report was submitted months ago to Mr. Annan, who ignored the findings, and kept Mr. Lubbers on, until the press last week got hold of the document. In the ensuing flap, Mr. Lubbers resigned.

But that's hardly the worst outrage that's been bubbling at the UNHCR. If you believe in the U.N. charter's promise to promote “justice and respect for obligations arising from treaties,” along with “the dignity and worth of the human person,” then the real scandal–less racy, but colossally more devastating in human cost–has been the UNHCR's failure in recent years to stand up for refugees fleeing North Korea. The problem here is not, as far as I am aware, one of embezzlement or fraud. Nor is it on a par with any amount of sexual harassment in the comfortable Geneva headquarters of the UNHCR–however upsetting that might be. The true horror is the way in which the well-mannered nuances of U.N. bureaucracy, structure and management have combined to dismiss demurely the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of human beings fleeing famine and repression in the world's worst totalitarian state.

The situation, by U.N. lights, is of course complex. For more than a decade, North Koreans have been fleeing their country by the only avenue even partly open to them–past the northern border patrols, into China. An estimated 300,000 North Koreans are in hiding in China today. They have a well-founded fear of persecution, should they be sent back. Testimony has stacked up high and wide–much of it over the past four years, on Mr. Lubbers's watch– that if returned these refugees would likely end up starved or worked to death in the labor camps of Kim Jong Il. Some are murdered outright. One recent dispatch from a South Korean private aid group, the Headquarters for the Protection of North Korean Defectors, reports that according to sources inside North Korea the regime there just last month executed some 60 North Korean would-be defectors sent back by China, killing at least eight in public, in the northern city of Chongjin–to deter others from making a run for it.

Such would-be refugees have been dying faceless, nameless and scarcely even remarked upon by the world community. But these were human beings. They had faces and names. From what we know of conditions in North Korean detention centers, it's a good bet they were freezing, famished and quite possibly tortured in the hours before they were then murdered in public due to the combined and systematic state policies of China and North Korea.

Where is the U.N. in all this? Under the U.N. Refugee Convention–which Beijing has signed and the UNHCR, with its $1.1 billion budget, is supposed to administer–these North Koreans refugees had rights. The convention promised them not a return to their deaths, but at least safe transit through China to a place of asylum.

The UNHCR keeps an office in Beijing, with a budget this year totaling $4.4 million, to which asylum seekers have no access. Four years ago, a family of North Korean refugees actually stormed the premises and gained asylum after threatening to eat rat poison from their pockets if forced back out onto the street. Since then, the UNHCR has allowed China's security agents to better defend the compound against further visits by the people the UNHCR is supposedly in China to protect.

For years now, the U.N. policy in dealing with North Korean refugees in China has been one of what its spokesmen call “quiet diplomacy.” The hushed implication is that behind the scenes, the UNHCR is in deep and earnest discussion with the Chinese authorities. No doubt. And there has been some help for a small number, mainly by way of easing them quietly out of the country once they have risked their lives by storming foreign compounds other than the UNHCR's. But the broad picture, for the hundreds of thousands, is a quiet but dire absence of any help whatsoever.

Ask the U.N. to explain its procedure for processing North Korean refugees in China. There is none. The UNHCR's Beijing representative referred me to the organization's Geneva headquarters. There, a spokeswoman in the midst of dealing with the Lubbers sex scandal wondered why it would be of interest at this moment of crisis to discuss North Korean refugees. “Why today?”

Why? Because after more than a decade of what this spokeswoman described as “low profile” diplomacy, the UNHCR, has failed these refugees, and done abysmally little to alert the world. Two years ago, Mr. Lubbers finally designated them a population “of concern,” and there the matter sits, as people quietly die. With the UNHCR's top job now open for new management, it is less the new office etiquette in Geneva that should serve as a yardstick of reform, but whether or not there will now be deeds to save the refugees of North Korea.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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