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'Essential' to refer N.Korea to ICC: UN rights chief

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North Korea must be referred to the International Criminal Court over the "scale and extreme gravity" of its human rights violations, said Thursday the UN rights chief, who could visit the secretive country.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein made the remarks during the second consecutive annual meeting at the UN Security Council dedicated to human rights violations perpetrated by the Pyongyang regime.

He said he believed referring the country to the ICC was "essential, given the scale and extreme gravity of the allegations."

The UN General Assembly has recommended the same course of action several times, but China -- North Korea's only major world ally -- would likely block any such a move with its veto power.

Millions of people are denied basic rights and freedoms, and up to 120,000 are being held in prison camps in a situation that "does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," Hussein said.

He said a wide range of crimes against humanity had been committed. Detainees in prison camps have no access to independent lawyers, are held inhumanely and tortured during interrogation, he said.

Food insecurity is an ongoing concern, women are subject to gender-based violence and discrimination, and abductions of foreigners was also of "very grave concern," he said.

He welcomed signs that Pyongyang had made "some tentative efforts" to engage internationally and welcomed an invitation for him to visit.

"My office is now engaged to explore modalities for a possible future visit," he told the council.

Amnesty International called on the council to send an "unequivocal message to the North Korean authorities to end the systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that continue to be committed."

"The UN Security Council has a chance to show that the world has not forgotten about the victims of crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in North Korea, and that those responsible will face justice," said Nicole Bjerler from Amnesty's UN office in New York.

Thursday's meeting was chaired by the United States, rotating president of the council, after nine members including Britain and France called for the talks on Pyongyang's dismal rights record.

Russia and China opposed the meeting saying the council was not the appropriate forum.

The meeting falls deliberately on international human rights day.

In late November, North Korea rejected a UN resolution on its human rights violations as a product of US hostility seeking to topple its regime.

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