Research Student: Ben Willis
North Korea and the Responsibility to Protect: The International Politics of Atrocity Crimes
My work seeks to explore international reaction to the ongoing human rights situation within North Korea through the prism of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P or RtoP). Broadly speaking, I am interested in examining how international society has conceived of its various protection duties in relation to chronic peacetime abuses within North Korea over the last decade - abuses which a 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report characterised as crimes against humanity, intrinsic to the fabric of a state that 'does not have any parallel in the contemporary world'.
While much scholarly attention to date has been focused on R2P-related issues surrounding conflict situations such as Libya and Syria, the case of atrocity crimes within North Korea has largely escaped sustained appraisal. Drawing on critical constructivist IR theory, my research is aimed at exploring how this frequently neglected case is able to advance our understanding of the wider political dynamics and conflicts of interpretation that continue to influence both the normative trajectory and pragmatic application of R2P.
My disciplinary background is in International Relations. I returned to higher education as a mature student in 2009, and received MA (Distinction) and BSc (First Class Hons) degrees in the subject from the University of Plymouth. Prior to and alongside this I had quite a varied employment history, and more recently had been working in Library and IT Services at the University.
Along with the PhD I am currently a Research Assistant for Protection Approaches, a UK-based NGO that focuses on identity-based violence and mass atrocity prevention. I have also previously worked as a volunteer within the Individuals at Risk Campaign Team at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.
What motivated me to undertake PhD study?
I wanted to take on the PhD for a number of reasons. Partly it was down to simple intellectual curiosity, and the unique opportunity to spend a length of time immersed in both the specific research topic and the wider field of study. I was also very conscious of doing so as an appropriate career step.
I chose Leeds as it has an excellent reputation as a research-intensive university, along with offering a very supportive working environment, a large and diverse postgraduate community, and a number of internationally recognised academics working in my field of interest.
What makes me passionate about my subject?
I was attracted to IR as a broader area of study for both empirical and normative reasons – simply put, not only does it concern itself with a number of big and important questions, but it also challenges us to consider both ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than with the problem of mass atrocity crimes, acts that “shock the moral conscience of humankind” but which remain a sadly persistent feature of the modern international system.
The last twenty years has witnessed a growth in scholarly interest in this area, yet we are still far from providing convincing answers to many of the considerable political, legal, and ethical questions that it raises. The issue of North Korean human rights is an especially compelling R2P case – given the scale, nature, and gravity of the situation – and is one that incorporates a wide range of preventive, curative, and palliative protection concerns.
What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?
I am looking to pursue a career within academia. I am also open to engaging in collaborative work with public, private, and third sector organisations.