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Sanctions on North Korea may hurt citizens' rights - U.N. expert

North Koreans pay their respects at the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung (L) and Kim Jong Il on Lunar New Year in this February 19, 2015 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 19, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - International community sanctions on North Korea may be hurting key economic sectors and hampering the human rights of its citizens, a United Nations expert said on Thursday.

“It is my conviction that a comprehensive assessment of the sanctions regime is needed in order to avoid unintended negative impact on human rights,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, in a speech to a U.N. committee.

Ojea Quintana said the sanctions must be evaluated to avoid imposing “what would effectively constitute a collective punishment” on North Koreans.

The rapporteur said Pyongyang was ultimately responsible for protecting the human rights of its citizens, yet “patterns of grave violations” persisted.

The U.N. Security Council last month strengthened sanctions against Pyongyang, including export bans as well as asset freezes and travel bans on various officials, over the country’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test so far, conducted on Sept. 3.

On Thursday, the United States unilaterally imposed sanctions on seven North Korean individuals and three entities over what it called serious human rights abuses, including forced labour.

Ojea Quintana highlighted the “deplorable” conditions of detainees in detention centres near the border with China including widespread sexual and gender-based violence.

Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Richard Chang