Red Handed

China is also complicit in North Korea's crimes against humanity. 

On Feb. 17, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report documenting atrocities that the North Korean government has been committing against its own people. For years, governments have largely ignored Pyongyang's domestic repressions -- at least when compared with the intense focus on its nuclear capabilities. That may have been politically tenable in the feigned ignorance of earlier times, but it is unconscionable now that a UN body has formally documented these crimes. The report got widespread publicity in the West, but Beijing is where it should receive the most attention.

Because their country provides substantial military and economic support to Pyongyang as it commits ongoing atrocities, senior Beijing officials could be found liable for aiding and abetting those crimes if the matter comes to court. The report, which explicitly fingered Beijing for its practice of forcibly repatriating North Korea refugees, is a rare case of a UN body implying that officials of a permanent member of the UN Security Council are complicit in crimes against humanity. (The Chinese foreign ministry rejected this charge as "unreasonable criticism.")

But Beijing's culpability is actually greater than the report states. No country has more influence over North Korea than China, which has long provided a lifeline of economic aid and political cover to the Kim dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and, since Dec. 2011, Kim Jong Un, while refusing to do anything about the horrendous cruelty being committed next door. If it wanted to, Beijing could use its considerable influence to press Pyongyang to curb its atrocities. Or Beijing could simply begin welcoming North Koreans who manage to escape, instead of its current practice of treating them as "economic migrants" and forcibly repatriating them to their homeland, where they frequently face detention, torture and sometimes even execution. Instead, Beijing violates international law. Forcibly returning North Korean refugees in these circumstances is a blatant breach of the principle of non-refoulement -- the most basic principle of international refugee law, which prohibits returning people against their will to face persecution.

Beyond its own conduct, Beijing seems determined to obstruct the workings of international justice. The commission, led by the respected Australian jurist Michael Kirby, found that North Korea's systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity and urged their prosecution. Although there is no immediate prospect of arresting Kim or the long-time leaders of the army and security apparatus, the report could impel change: in places like Yugoslavia and Liberia an international indictment was deeply delegitimizing, hastening the departure of brutal leaders and potentially deterring them from acting on their worst inclinations. If it convinced Pyongyang to close the prison camps where tens of thousands of North Koreans languish, that would be an enormous step forward. 

The most logical venue for prosecution would be the International Criminal Court in The Hague (or a parallel tribunal, because many of the crimes were committed before 2002, the earliest that the ICC can assume jurisdiction.) Bringing the case to the ICC would require an UN Security Council resolution. But Beijing responded negatively to the commission's report. While refusing to answer the "hypothetical question" about how it would vote on the Security Council, Beijing said that submitting the matter to the ICC would "not help resolve the human rights situation" in North Korea. Even if other council members agree to act, China's potential veto is clearly a major obstacle. 

Several factors shape Beijing's indifference. Most important is its dislike of international attention to human rights. China occasionally accepts UN peacekeeping ventures or even international tribunals to stop mass atrocities committed in the course of armed conflict, but it fears a precedent of international attention to peacetime repression, lest China's own conduct -- whether in the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet or among its dissident community -- be the next subject of interest. And despite the brutality of the Kim government, China worries that North Korea may collapse, sending a flood of refugees into northeastern China. A collapse would also mean that South Korea, a Western ally that hosts some 28,500 U.S. troops, would border China as part of a unified Korea. 

These concerns are understandable, but also resolvable. Even if South Korea suddenly shared a border with China, Seoul would undoubtedly bear the bulk of the cost of reunification. And Beijing would most likely be able to negotiate with the United States to ensure that U.S. troops not be placed near China's border -- its main security concern.

Because it prefers the status quo, Beijing is closing its eyes to the enormous suffering of the North Korean people. The UN report should shake the conscience of anyone who reads it, including the Chinese: It describes a system of camps for 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in which inmates regularly endure public executions, torture, sexual abuse, and starvation as a tool of control and punishment. The number of contemporary victims in these camps would be substantially higher had hundreds of thousands not already perished there. The desperate inmates are reduced to an animal-like struggle for survival, while haunted by the unchecked sadism of their guards.

How can concerned people of the world persuade Beijing to change course? Just as Washington and Moscow have been pilloried for coddling friendly dictators, China should be held responsible for the suffering of the North Korean people. The commission's report has just raised the price of Beijing's indifference significantly. The fate of North Korea should be a regular part of all governments' private and public conversations with Beijing.

If China prevents the Security Council from engaging the International Criminal Court or a parallel tribunal, the General Assembly -- where there is no veto -- should set up a tribunal for North Korea under principles of universal jurisdiction.  Such a tribunal would lack the coercive backing of the Security Council, but it would have more legitimacy than comparable universal-jurisdiction prosecutions carried out by individual governments. The five permanent members of the Security Council won't like this circumvention of their vetoes, of course. But China should learn that the cost of irresponsibly exercising power is the erosion of that power. And after the UN report, the world should no longer ignore Beijing's complicity in North Korean crimes against humanity. 


In Bad Faith

The U.S. won't scuttle Pakistan's peace talks with the Taliban -- so long as no one tries to make peace.

Pakistan's bid to make peace with homegrown Taliban insurgents appeared to run aground over the weekend, after a faction of the extremist group claimed to have executed 23 paramilitary soldiers. At face value, stalemated talks are a setback for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has for months assiduously pursued negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Look deeper, however, and it is clear that the suspension of peace talks is actually good news for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Still, if Sharif fails to recalibrate his negotiation strategy -- in particular, by drawing a clear line of defense around Pakistan's constitutional order -- a rare period of goodwill between Washington and Islamabad could soon come to an end.

After several rocky years, the United States and Pakistan have managed to restore a narrow basis for security cooperation and are even coordinating their tactics against the TTP. To be sure, the peace talks were hardly welcomed by Washington, which views the TTP not just as a threat to the Pakistani state, but as a potential source of international terrorism. Nonetheless, the United States has allowed the negotiations to run their course, even holding off on drone strikes so as not to be responsible for scuttling the delicate process.

Under normal circumstances, of course, high-profile dialogue between the Pakistani government and the TTP would be cause for contention with the United States, not cooperation. But in conversations in Islamabad earlier this month, well-placed Pakistani officials went out of their way to convey to me that the talks are mainly a political charade. Soon enough, those officials hinted, the TTP will show its irreconcilable colors and the public will conclude that war is the only option. At this point, the army will be unleashed in North Waziristan, the principal bastion of anti-state militancy along Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan.

Outwardly, at least, U.S. policymakers appear to have received and accepted this same line, and to date, they have made no effort to force Islamabad's hand. On Feb. 9, as hardline Taliban appointees to the peace talks conferred with insurgent leaders in North Waziristan, U.S. drones reportedly buzzed overhead without firing a shot. The last known drone strike in Pakistan took place on Dec. 25, 2013. The CIA's newfound forbearance is coupled with equally restrained rhetoric from the State Department, all in stark contrast to U.S. actions last November, when U.S. drones opportunistically targeted then-TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud and, in the process, blew up a similar nascent dialogue attempt.

This temporary convergence of U.S. and Pakistani tactics will only hold, however, if Islamabad actually follows through on its plan to mobilize political support for a military campaign. Unfortunately, Taliban negotiators have proved at least as deft at winning propaganda points as their government counterparts. They now enjoy a national pulpit for their team of negotiators -- a team that includes Maulana Abdul Aziz, the hardline cleric who launched a failed insurrection from Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007 -- and have used the talks to buy time without putting down their arms.

The faltering of negotiations over the weekend, however, could give Islamabad the political cover it needs to reverse these losses by launching a large-scale military offensive. But at the moment, the Sharif government appears more inclined to revive the negotiations in pursuit of a cease-fire. This will test Washington's patience, a commodity that has always been less abundant in the U.S. counterterrorism community than in the diplomatic community. Those two camps have long debated the relative costs and benefits of the drone war in Pakistan, and the White House's present restraint looks like a limited test of Islamabad's intentions. One thing is clear: Extended waffling by Sharif will give U.S. officials less reason to hold off on drone strikes when Pakistan-based terrorist targets inevitably pop up on their radar screens.

The clock is also ticking in Afghanistan. As U.S. forces thin out, they will find it harder to counter TTP movements along the border and into Afghanistan during any future Pakistani operations in North Waziristan. That, in turn, will hurt the Pakistani army's ability to deliver a decisive blow to insurgents.

At the core of Islamabad's negotiating strategy lies a deadly flaw in its anti-Taliban propaganda campaign. Pakistan's top military and civilian leaders still refuse to publicly characterize the insurgents as what they are: insidious byproducts of official state support to extremist militant groups that have fought for decades in neighboring Afghanistan and India. Shirking its own responsibility, Islamabad has unconvincingly attempted to lay the blame on other doorsteps.

The blame game starts with the United States, whose drones are portrayed as the cause of (rather than a reaction to) Pakistan's terrorism problem. In an even greater stretch of the imagination, India is frequently depicted as a "foreign hand" behind the TTP. This unlikely narrative has seeped into popular culture. For instance, in Pakistan's highest grossing film of all time, the action-thriller "Waar," Indian spies team up with Taliban suicide bombers to slaughter patriotic Pakistanis. Months after its October 2013 release, the slickly produced movie still plays to sold-out audiences in upscale Pakistani cinemas.

This sort of propaganda actually plays into the TTP's hands. The insurgents and their sympathizers have easily and convincingly rejected flimsy charges of Indian sponsorship. They have also co-opted the government's anti-drone argument -- but painted Islamabad as America's enabler.

Instead of blaming phantom enemies, the Pakistani government should fess up to its past sins, stop criticizing its security partners, and present itself as the defender of Pakistan's constitutional order -- against the Taliban's inflexible vision for an Islamic state. In so doing, it would expose the insurgent group's essential irreconcilability, rally the widest possible group of allies across the political spectrum, and pave the way to decisive military action. By defining the issue in terms of the Taliban's violent rejection of core national principles, moreover, Islamabad would also set an important precedent for future dealings with Pakistan's many other militant groups.

By continuing to waffle on this issue, however, Islamabad will feed U.S. anxieties that the Sharif government is actually looking to cut a different -- and far more dangerous -- kind of deal with the Taliban, one that would sell Pakistan's constitutional order for cheap promises and temporary cease-fires. The prime minister's critics already suggest that violent extremists and sectarian groups enjoy a "live and let live" safe haven arrangement in his home province of Punjab. Others recall that in his past stint as prime minister, Sharif advocated a constitutional amendment to introduce sharia into Pakistani law.

These concerns are legitimate, and Washington should seek immediate reassurances from Islamabad to dispel them. But the real proof of Sharif's intentions will come only through the negotiations themselves. If the talks did indeed die with the 23 paramilitary soldiers, then both Islamabad and Washington should waste no time pivoting to a war footing, with U.S. forces in Afghanistan playing a supportive role from that side of the border. At stake is not merely the fragile renewal of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, but the future writ of the Pakistani state in the face of a determined and violent opposition. Unfortunately for Islamabad, the alternative to war with the TTP is not peace, but surrender.

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