New U.S. Government Hostility Towards Cuba’s Medical Mission Program

On July 28, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the U.S. would no longer issue visas to Cuban officials who were directing that country’s medical mission program.[1] Here is the text of that announcement:

  • “The Cuban government engages in exploitative and coercive labor practices while it earns money on the backs of its citizens through its overseas medical missions program.  To address this labor abuse, the Department has imposed visa restrictions on certain Cuban officials and other individuals responsible for these coercive labor practices under the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 212(a)(3)(C).  These practices include working long hours, housing in unsafe areas, and compelling Cuban medical professionals to advance the regime’s political agenda.  Such visa restrictions could include immediate family members of these individuals.”

Response to U.S. Action

Previous posts have discussed Cuba’s foreign medical mission program and the invalidity of U.S. allegations that the program engages in illegal forced labor.[2] Here the main reasons for that invalidity:

First, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” At least four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions have recorded how they treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[3]

Second, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman.  He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[4]

 Third, relevant to this issue is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. The recent $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.[5]

 Fourth, international law does not support this allegation.

Most pertinent is the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which Cuba and 177 other state members of the International Labour Organization have ratified (as of 2016). The U.S., however, has not so ratified, yet another reason why the U.S. charge is inapt.

This treaty’s  Article 2(1) preliminarily defines  “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” But there are five exceptions to this definition set forth in the treaty’s Article 2(2). One such exception, in subsection (b), states  ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphases added.)[5]

Cuba clearly is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as previously stated, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications. Thus, under the most relevant statement of international law, Cuba has not engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to the foreign medical missions.

Fifth, there has not been any fair adjudicative process that has determined that such illegal coercion exists.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Statement: Visa Actions Against Cuban Officials (July 28, 2019); NBC News-Miami, US Restricts Visas for Cubans Involved in Overseas Medicine (July 28, 2019).

[2]  See U.S. State Department Unjustly Continues to Allege That Cuba’s Foreign Medical Missions Engage in Forced Labor (Aug. 17, 2017) See also the list of posts in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S”  in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[3] Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions,Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[4] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies  269, 286-87 (2012).

[5] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.

 

Continued Disagreements Over What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

Many previous posts have discussed the disagreements between the U.S. and Cuba over what, if anything, happened to U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba starting in late 2016. [1] That disagreement continues.

U.S. Medical Report [2]

The latest report on these issues by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair was published in the July 23/30 issue of the medical journal, JAMA. Its abstract of the study said the following:

  • “Importance. United States government personnel experienced potential exposures to uncharacterized directional phenomena while serving in Havana, Cuba, from late 2016 through May 2018. The underlying neuroanatomical findings have not been described.”
  • “Objective. To examine potential differences in brain tissue volume, microstructure, and functional connectivity in government personnel compared with individuals not exposed to directional phenomena.”
  • “Design, Setting, and Participants. Forty government personnel (patients) who were potentially exposed and experienced neurological symptoms underwent evaluation at a US academic medical center from August 21, 2017, to June 8, 2018, including advanced structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging analytics. Findings were compared with imaging findings of 48 demographically similar healthy controls.”
  • “Exposures. Potential exposure to uncharacterized directional phenomena of unknown etiology, manifesting as pressure, vibration, or sound.”
  • “Main Outcomes and Measures. Potential imaging-based differences between patients and controls with regard to (1) white matter and gray matter total and regional brain volumes, (2) cerebellar tissue microstructure metrics (mean diffusivity), and (3) functional connectivity in the visuospatial, auditory, and executive control subnetworks.”
  • “Results. Imaging studies were completed for 40 patients (mean age, 40.4 years; 23 [57.5%] men; imaging performed a median of 188 [range, 4-403] days after initial exposure) and 48 controls (mean age, 37.6 years; 33 [68.8%] men). Mean whole brain white matter volume was significantly smaller in patients compared with controls (patients: 542.22 cm3; controls: 569.61 cm3; difference, −27.39 [95% CI, −37.93 to −16.84] cm3P < .001), with no significant difference in the whole brain gray matter volume (patients: 698.55 cm3; controls: 691.83 cm3; difference, 6.72 [95% CI, −4.83 to 18.27] cm3P = .25). Among patients compared with controls, there were significantly greater ventral diencephalon and cerebellar gray matter volumes and significantly smaller frontal, occipital, and parietal lobe white matter volumes; significantly lower mean diffusivity in the inferior vermis of the cerebellum (patients: 7.71 × 10−4 mm2/s; controls: 8.98 × 10−4 mm2/s; difference, −1.27 × 10−4 [95% CI, −1.93 × 10−4 to −6.17 × 10−5] mm2/s; P < .001); and significantly lower mean functional connectivity in the auditory subnetwork (patients: 0.45; controls: 0.61; difference, −0.16 [95% CI, −0.26 to −0.05]; P = .003) and visuospatial subnetwork (patients: 0.30; controls: 0.40; difference, −0.10 [95% CI, −0.16 to −0.04]; P = .002) but not in the executive control subnetwork (patients: 0.24; controls: 0.25; difference: −0.016 [95% CI, −0.04 to 0.01]; P = .23).”
  • “Conclusions and Relevance. Among US government personnel in Havana, Cuba, with potential exposure to directional phenomena, compared with healthy controls, advanced brain magnetic resonance imaging revealed significant differences in whole brain white matter volume, regional gray and white matter volumes, cerebellar tissue microstructural integrity, and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks but not in the executive control subnetwork. The clinical importance of these differences is uncertain and may require further study.” (Emphases added.)

U.S. Commentary on the JAMA Report

JAMA Editorial [3]  In the same JAMA issue containing the University of Pennsylvania report, two medical doctors published an editorial that cautioned readers that the relevance of the neuroimaging findings was “uncertain” and that the exact nature of the affliction “remains unclear,” adding that more scientific evidence is needed.

Washington Post Editorial [4] “The authors of the study  acknowledge it had limitations: a small sample, a control group that was not ideal, and the methods could not offer any clues about what external event caused the trauma. A fair amount of mystery still shrouds the whole episode. The FBI was brought in to investigate, but its findings are not known. There has been speculation the U.S. diplomats, and some from Canada, were attacked by a weapon or device such as a microwave beam or sonic waves, but there is no confirmation.”

After conceding that the new study reported in JAMA “does not solve” the issues, the Post editorial asserts that study “does require that it be pursued. . . .The [U.S.] must continue to demand accountability for whoever did this, and the first step is to find out who, and why.”

According to the editorial, service in Cuba “clearly was not safe for the diplomats who suffered brain trauma. Cuba has a pervasive security service. Surely it knows what really happened. Instead of urging everyone to look the other way, Cuba’s government should get to the bottom of this and make public the findings. The [U.S.] must demand no less.”

New Yorker Article [5] Adam Entous, a staff writer for The New Yorker, interviewed Dr. Douglas Smith, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, about its study. Smith said that the study revealed tangible neurological changes that “are not like anything we’ve ever seen before.” But it “is clear that something structural in the brain was affected, but we don’t know what that is and what caused the effects.”  Nevertheless, Dr. Smith added, the “mass-hysteria hypothesis is debunked by very obvious neurological findings that you can’t imitate, you can’t mimic.” The study validated “that there are signs of brain damage.”

Dr. Smith also told Entous that the 40 patients also included CIA officers and that the study included imaging data for 36 of the 40 patients; the other four “were unreachable by any mode of communication,” presumably because they were CIA officers who are now operating under new covers in other countries.

According to Entous, although there still is no “hard scientific evidence about what caused the injuries, U.S. intelligence agencies still think the victims were attacked, most likely by Russia, which had ‘the means, motive, and opportunity,’ a second senior U.S. official told me. The official cautioned, however, that it was highly unlikely, at this late stage in the investigation, that U.S. spy agencies would uncover direct evidence, such as intercepted communications of Russian operatives admitting their culpability. The [unnamed] official said, ‘You almost never have it direct from the horse’s mouth, saying, ‘It was us. Great job, comrade!’ ”

Slate Article [6] After publication of the previously mentioned report, Slate published the following list of the suggested potential causes for the problems of these U.S. diplomats “ranked in highly unscientific order from least likely to most likely:” (1) noise; (2) microwaves; (3) viral infection; (4) previous trauma; (5) crickets or cicadas (partially); and (6) “it’s all in their heads.”

Cuba’s Reactions [7]

 At a July 30, 2019, press conference in Havana, Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdés-Sosa, General Director of Cuba’s  Neurosciences Center, on behalf of the Cuba’s Expert Committee, presented reactions to the University of Pennsylvania’s report.

Dr. Valdés-Sosa said that this report does not allow clear scientific conclusions to be drawn. The medical results are confusing and contradictory, of special concern given the numerous questions already raised by the international scientific community, which have not been satisfactorily answered.

The article does not prove that the diplomats suffered brain damage during their stay in Cuba, contrary to speculation and what was raised in tan August 2018 article in JAMA. More specifically the Cuban expert asserted the following:

“1-The authors themselves acknowledge that the study is inconclusive and that they have no explanation for their findings.

2-The changes described are small, very diverse, inconsistent, and do not indicate a coherent pattern. This is not only the opinion of the Cuban medical group, but of recognized experts in the field of neuroimaging, who have stated that these results are not consistent.

3-It is common that in neuroimaging studies, as in other medical fields, there are effects noted in small samples, which are not replicable. They originate by chance. Some of the changes reflect a slight change toward the abnormal, but others are slightly hyper normal.

4-The degree of to which the two groups’ data overlap is not shown in the article.

5-The differences between diplomats and controls, if any, may be related to how the control group was selected. Any pre-existing illness in a group of diplomats, which is absent in the controls (and vice versa) could give rise to a difference in the images.

6-The measures of functional connectivity networks used are very nonspecific and are altered by the psychological state of the subject, as recognized in the article itself and by the scientific community.

7-There is no discernible relationship between the alterations detected in the neuroimages and the symptoms reported by diplomats.

8-There is no coherence between the findings reported in this article and those from the previous one. For example, in the previous piece, from the same research group at the University of Pennsylvania, alterations of executive functions in neuropsychological tests were described. In this work no functional connectivity alterations are found in the executive subnet.

9-Alterations noted in neuroimages, if any, may have originated before the subject’s stay in Cuba or due to a disease unrelated to the ‘directional’ phenomena of strange sounds and other sensations described by diplomats.

10-Although the article’s title refers to so-called ‘directional phenomena,’ the work does not show any relationship between the findings in the images and these alleged phenomena. This is important, given the scientific community’s widespread skepticism regarding theories of sonic or microwave attacks.”

Therefore, the Cuban experts believe “the only way to clarify the health status of those affected is through transparent scientific discussion and the exchange of open, unbiased information.”

These experts observations were previewed by Cuba Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. He tweeted, “There isn’t the least evidence or scientific explanation supporting deliberate actions against diplomats in [Havana]. The article published by JAMA corroborates that. The [US] government lies are targeted against [Cuba]. The manipulation of this issue should stop.”

Conclusion

It is totally amazing that after nearly three years after the first U.S. diplomats in Cuba reported various medical problems, there still is no definitive public verdict on whether and why some diplomats (and CIA personnel) have suffered medical problems.

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[1] This blog has published many posts about this situation. See the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” and “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2019” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. 

[2] Verma, Swanson, Parker, et al., Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel With Possible Exposure to Directional Phenomena in Havana, Cuba, JAMA (July 23/30, 2019); Lederman, Doctors find differences in brains of U.S. diplomats who alleged mystery attacks in Cuba, NBC News (July  23, 2019); Health incidents in Cuba and China; an explainer, Center Democracy in Americas (Mar. 15, 2019)

[3] Muth (MD) & Lewis (MD), Editorial: Neurological Symptoms Among US Diplomats in Cuba, JAMA (Mar. 20, 2019).

 [4]  Editorial, The U.S. must demand accountability for what happened to diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (July 28, 2019).

[5] Entous, Brain Scans Shed New Light on Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats and Spies in Cuba, New Yorker (July 29, 2019).

[6] Paulus, A Comprehensive List of All the Potential Causes of the Cuban “Sonic” Attacks, Slate (July 26, 2019).

[7] No clear scientific evidence exists on alleged sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats in Cuba, Granma (Aug. 5, 2019); Rodriguez, Tweet (July 24, 2019); Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study, BBC (July 24, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Congressional Bipartisan Bills for Reversal of U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba 

This year two bipartisan congressional bills have been filed to reverse two U.S. policies regarding Cuba. The most recent one would improve U.S. travel to the island while the other would abolish the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Improve U.S. Travel to Cuba[1]

 On July 23, 2019, H.R. 3960 (Freedom for Americans To Travel to Cuba) was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman James McGovern (Dem., MA) and referred to the House Committee on Foreign Relations and the next day to its Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. It had 15 Democratic cosponsors–Kathy Castor (FL), Barbara Lee (CA), Jose Serrano (NY), Donald Beyer (VA), Jarred Huffman ( (CA), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Peter Welch (VT), Karen Bass (CA), Eleanor Norton (D.C.), Ro Khanna (CA), Maxine Waters (CA), Janice Schakowsky (Il), James Ranking (MD), Eliot Engel (NY) and Donald Payne (NJ). They were joined by five Republicans so-sponsors–Tom Emmer (MN), Rick Crawford (AR), Darin LaHood (IL), Guy Reschenthaler (PA) and Denver Riggleman (VA).

 Representative McGovern said, “Every single American should have the freedom to travel as they see fit. Yet the travel ban deliberately punishes the American people – our very best ambassadors – and prevents them from engaging directly with the Cuban people. It is a Cold-War relic that serves only to isolate the United States from our allies and partners in the region, while strengthening the control of ideological hardliners in both countries.  It’s time for us to listen to the majority of Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Cubans who do not support the travel ban, and get rid of it once and for all.”

On July 29, Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and 46 cosponsors (40 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 2 Independents) introduced a companion bill in the Senate “so Americans can travel to Cuba in the same way that they can travel to every other country in the world except North Korea. . . .  It is indefensible that the federal government restricts American citizens and legal residents from traveling to a tiny country 90 miles away that poses no threat to us.  At a time when U.S. airlines are flying to Cuba, does anyone here honestly think that preventing Americans from traveling there is an appropriate role of the federal government?  Why only Cuba?  Why not Venezuela?  Or Russia?  Or Iran, or anywhere else?  It is a vindictive, discriminatory, self-defeating vestige of a time long passed.”

End U.S. Embargo of Cuba[2]

In February of this year U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) with co-sponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act of 2019 (S.428). Subsequent co-sponsors are Senators Tina Smith (Dem., MN) and Elizabeth Warren (Dem., MA). The bill was referred to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Conclusion

Given the split party-control of the two houses of Congress, not much is expected for any progress on these bills in this Session of Congress.

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[1] H.R, 3960, Freedom for Americans To Travel to Cuba Act of 2019; Rep. McGovern, McGovern Introduces Bipartisan Legislation to End Cuba Travel Ban (July 25, 2019); S.2303, Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019; Sen. Leahy, Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Freedom of Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019 (July 29, 2019); Center for Democracy in Americas, CDA Applauds Reintroduction of the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019 (July 25, 2019).

[2]  S.428—Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2019 (Feb. 7, 2019); New Bill To End U.S. Embargo, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2019); Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 18, 2019).

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Denounced by Large Group of Human Rights Organizations and Activists

On July 23, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights was denounced in a letter from 179 organizations representing a broad range of American and international civil society along with 251 former senior government officials, faith-based leaders, scholars, educators and advocates.[1]

The Letter

The letter began by expressing their “deep concern” with the Commission and by objecting to its “stated purpose, which we find harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people and a waste of resources; the Commission’s make-up, which lacks ideological diversity and appears to reflect a clear interest in limiting human rights, including the rights of women and LGBTQI; and the process by which the Commission came into being and is being administered, which has sidelined human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.”

These concerns, the letter said, were inconsistent with the Secretary’s own affirmance “of the importance of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . . [and by his saying] the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.” Indeed, the letter commented, “the story of the international human rights movement is one of the deepened recognition and protective reach of rights based on the painstaking work of social movements, scholars, and diplomats, through international agreements and law.”

“Given this history, we view with great misgiving . . .[the Commission] aimed expressly at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are ‘unalienable’ and those to be now deemed ‘ad hoc.’ These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse. It is a fundamental tenet of human rights that all rights are universal and equal. Governments cannot take or discard them as they choose. Like other governments, the U.S. government is bound to certain obligations codified in widely ratified international treaties. . . . [The Commission] is a waste of time and energy better spent on actual human rights issues. More ominously, the reference to ‘ad hoc’ rights resembles language used by autocratic and dictatorial governments, which frequently speak in terms of a hierarchy of rights.”

The letter’s signatories also are “dismayed by the well-documented views of a significant majority of the Commission’s 10 members. . . . Almost all of . . . [its] members have focused their professional lives and scholarship on questions of religious freedom, and some have sought to elevate it above other fundamental rights. . . . No Commissioner focuses nearly as exclusively on any other issue of pressing concern. . . .”

“Moreover, the commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known for extreme positions opposing LGBTQI and reproductive rights, and some have taken public stances in support of indefensible human rights violations. . . .”

Therefore, this letter urged the Secretary “to immediately disband this body, and to focus your personal attention on the significant challenges facing the protection of human rights globally.”

Comments by Letter’s Organizer

Upon the release of this letter, its organizer, Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President, Policy of Human Rights First, stated:

  • “There’s a reason that Secretary Pompeo purposefully avoided engaging the State Department’s human rights experts in establishing the Commission on Unalienable Rights and selecting its members. There is no world in which the Commission benefits the cause of human rights, though in all likelihood it will provide ample fodder for bigotry. Given the views of the majority of the commissioners, the Commission should be seen for what it is: an attempt to rationalize a caste system of rights to exclude LGBTQ people and those in need of family planning.”
  • “For decades, dictators have spoken about ‘clarifying’ and ‘prioritizing’ certain rights in order to justify their actions. In order to defend this highly misguided effort, the Secretary of State is adopting similar rhetoric. His aims may be different, but the effect will be the same on marginalized people. If Secretary Pompeo really wanted to support human rights, he’d have a hard talk with President Trump and stop defending autocrats from Saudi Arabia to Hungary. Instead, he’s wasting staff time and taxpayer dollars in an attempt to generate intellectual cover for his ideologically regressive agenda.”

Conclusion

This blog shares many of the concerns in this letter as set forth in many previous posts about this Commission.

However, this letter’s allegations about the opinions and positions of some of the Commission’s members are not documented and, therefore, cannot be accepted at face value. In addition, the letter’s call for an immediate disbanding of this body is totally unrealistic.

Nevertheless, given the large number of prominent human rights organizations and individuals who are signatories to this letter, it is an important development on a serious, important issue involving the U.S. Therefore, it is shocking that research has not disclosed any discussions of this letter by prominent U.S. news media.

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[1] Letter, human rights first to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (July 23, 2019); Human Rights First Press Release, Diverse Coalition Calls for Disbanding State Department Commission on Unalienable Human Rights (July 23, 2019); Lederman & Lee, human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission, NBC News (July 23, 2019); Budryk, Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new ‘unalienable rights’ commission, The Hill (July 24, 2019).

 

Senators Express Deep Concern Over Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 23, 2019, a group of 22 Senators told Secretary of State Pompeo of their “deep concern” over the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. [1]

The Senators said they “vehemently disagree” with the Secretary’s assertion that there was “confusion” over what human rights are. “The 1948 UN declaration of Human Rights begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights ‘of all members of the human family is the foundation of the freedom, justice and peace.’ Moreover, widely ratified international treaties codify ‘inalienable’ rights.”

The letter continued, “it seems the administration is reluctant—or even hostile—to protected established internationally recognized definitions of human rights, particularly those requiring it to uphold protections for reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized communities, including LGBT persons. The [Secretary’s] assertion that decades of well-defined agreement on human rights has sown confusion over what rights are is simply an Orwellian twist to defend the indefensible.” In short, the Commission is “absurd, particularly from an administration that has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on protecting human rights across the world” by supporting “despotic governments abroad,” by “ignoring the devastating abuses and rights of children and families on our border” and by President Trump’s fawning “ over current abusers of human rights such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The senators also were concerned that the Commission’s membership was not fairly balanced, in accordance with federal law (41 C.F.R. Section 102-3.30). “The Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBT persons, hold views hostile to women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and/or support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

Finally the letter protested the Secretary’s failure to consult or obtain input from the Department’s career human rights experts.

This letter to Pompeo was organized by Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter was signed by the following Democratic presidential candidates: Kamala Harris (CA), Michael Bennet (CO), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Bernie Sanders (IN, VT). Other Democratic Senator signatories were Tammy Baldwin (WI), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Christopher Coons (DE), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Patrick Leahy (VT), Edward J. Markey (MA), Jeffrey A. Merkley (OR), Patty Murray (WA ), Jack Reed (RI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Tina Smith (MN), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ben Wyden (OR).

Conclusion

This blog, which is sceptical about the true purpose of this Commission, has published many posts about this Commission.

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[1] Letter, U.S. Senators to Secretary Pompeo (July 23, 2019); Lederman & Lee, human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission, NBC News (July 23, 2019); Budryk, Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new ‘unalienable rights’ commission, The Hill (July 24, 2019).

Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights       

Walter Russell Mead, the Wall Street Journal’s Global View columnist, sees a realpolitik rationale for the Trump Administration’s embrace of its concept of human rights in the U.S. Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S.  International Religious Freedom Alliance and the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1]

According to Mead, the Administration believes, these human rights initiatives, help “to unify its populist and conservative supporters in the U.S. even as it builds a coalition against Chinese overreach in Asia and beyond.”

“The fight for religious freedom integrates foreign and domestic concerns for many of Mr. Trump’s Christian supporters, who face aggressive secularism in the U.S. and follow closely the persecution of Christians abroad. Even American Christians concerned about [alleged] “creeping Shariah” and other alleged consequences of Muslim immigration to Western countries rally to the cause of religious liberty as a global value.”

By “highlighting China’s increasingly totalitarian policies, . . . the U.S. [shows that it] is doing more than Iran, Turkey or Pakistan to support oppressed Muslims in China [and that] does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world.”

In addition to his role as the Journal’s Global Views columnist, Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College and a Distinguished Fellow in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute.

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[1]  Mead, Trump’s Hesitant Embrace of Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 22, 2109). This blog recently has published many posts about the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

 

U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

On July 16-18, 2019, the U.S. State Department hosted its Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The opening event was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to emphasize the “importance of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities.” The closing event, also in Washington, D.C. was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.[1]

First Day Activities[2]

After welcoming remarks by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, the participants discussed the opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally. Through a series of plenary sessions, they discussed the necessary building blocks and emerging trends in advancing religious freedom, as well as how religious freedom, international development, and humanitarian aid can work together to advance mutual interests.

Second Day Activities[3]

 There were three separate discussions led by topical experts, civil society actors, religious leaders, academics and working-level government officials on topics such as best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.

At the end of the second day, the White House held a brief reception for some of the Ministerial attendees. One was Cuban Pastor Mario Felix Lieonart, who said, “Pastor, Ramón Rigal, and his wife are imprisoned in Cuba.  Please pray for them and help the people in Cuba. Two other Cuban pastors who were invited for the Ministerial “are not here because the government in Cuba would not give them permission to come. They are Moisés de Prada, president of the Assemblies of God, and Álida León, president of the new Evangelical League of Cuba, which said, “The intention to attend [the Ministerial] was made public, it was a proof of transparency and truth, we have nothing institutionally to hide.” Lieonart added, I am here because I am a refugee in United States.  Thank you for your hospitality for me.” In response to a question from President Trump, Rev. Lieonart said, “Raúl Castro is continuing in power because he is the First Secretary of the Communist Party.  And the new President is not really Cuba’s leader. Castro is the real leader.”

Third Day Activities[4]

Senior government and international organization representatives focused on: identifying global challenges to religious freedom; developing innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and sharing new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs shared their stories. Government delegations were encouraged to announce new actions and commitments they will take to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.

There also were the Keynote Address by Secretary Pompeo, an Address by Vice President Mike Pence and Closing Comments by Ambassador Brownback. The highlights of those speeches follow.

Secretary Pompeo’s Keynote Address

The attendance aat this Ministerial “proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.”

“Here in the United States, our Declaration of Independence clearly states that certain rights are unalienable. There are liberties to which all of mankind, in all places, at all times are entitled. Religious freedom is one of them. Our Constitution puts it in the very first amendment.”

“Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, [helped author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom,“ which states, ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free… No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.’”

“The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms religious freedom or belief as a universal right.”

“Today, we come together to turn our convictions into action. And there’s not a moment to lose. A shocking 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or denied entirely.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news of the Cuban evangelical leaders who registered for this very event to come here to Washington but were not permitted to come. . . . [T]he Cuban government prevented them from . . . [coming] to express their religious freedom. Such is the thuggish, intolerant nature of the current regime in Havana.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented about violations of religious freedom in Iran, Burma and China.

“{L]ookl at what we’ve accomplished as a result of last year’s ministerial.”

“The State Department has established an International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world. It’s already serving good, and its purpose around the world is expanding. . . . We encourage more countries to step up to the plate and donate and contribute to this important cause that can do so much good all around the world.”

Here are other examples. The “United Arab Emirates they hosted the first regional conference in February on promoting religious tolerance in their curricula. . . .  {T]he nations of the Organization of American States unanimously put forth their first ever statement, introduced by the United States, affirming religious freedom in our hemisphere. Along with the United Kingdom, the United States co-sponsored a groundbreaking conference this past November on meeting the needs of vulnerable religious minorities in conflict zones. And several governments have created special ambassadors specifically charged with advancing religious freedom in their country and around the world.”

The State Department “recently commissioned a group called the Commission on Unalienable Rights to generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and across national borders. The commission’s purpose is very simple. We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.”

“In 2019, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for every one of our Foreign Service Officers. We’ve, so far, trained nearly 12,000 employees on how to identify religious discrimination and persecution and how to work closely with faith leaders all across the world. It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom.”

“We should all consistently speak out about abuses of religious freedom. It’s the least that we can do. Today, we have nine statements of concern on countries and issues all teed up. I would ask each of you to sign them in solidarity.”

“Albania, Colombia, Morocco, and the Vatican will host regional conferences in the near future.”

“Thanks to Poland’s efforts, the UN General Assembly has named August 22nd as a special day to remember the victims of religious persecution. Please commemorate it in your home countries too. And we should all keep making the case at the United Nations and in other bodies that religious freedom should be a priority for that institution.”

“But governments alone can’t properly tackle this problem. Our countries need to support civil society groups.”

“I’m very proud to announce today a new effort that’s intended to help us in our goals across the board. We will create the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We hope that this new vehicle – the first every international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring likeminded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom. . . . it will defend the unalienable rights for all human beings to believe – or not to believe – whatever it is they choose.”

“You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together. You can be sure that the United States will be out front defending the God-given, unalienable right of all human beings to worship as they choose.”

Vice President Pence’s Remarks

“Since the earliest days of our nation, America has stood for religious freedom.  Our first settlers left their homes and all they knew for the chance to, as they said, “Begin the world [all] over again.”  They carved protections for religious liberty into the founding charters of our nation and our very earliest laws.  And after our independence was won, the crafters of America’s Constitution enshrined religious liberty as the first of our American freedoms.”

“Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that our precious liberties are not the gift of government, but rather they’re the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.  Americans believe that people should live by the dictates of their conscience, not the diktats of government.”

“Free minds build free markets.  And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well.”

“And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders. And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others.”

“The list of religious freedom violators is long; their oppressions span the globe.” It includes Burma, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.”

“While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities, sadly, are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships.  The truth is, they can and do arise in free societies, as well, not from government persecution, but from prejudice. This is the evil of Anti-Semitism.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019); State Dep’t, Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom Convenes Opening and Closing Events (July 12, 2019). The first Ministerial in July 2018 was discussed in a prior post.

[2] State Dep’t, Day 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 16, 2019).

[3] State Dept, Day 2: Track 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 2: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); The White House, Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Survivors of Religious Persecution (July 17, 2019); Cuban Pastor Denounces Cuban Violations of Religious Freedoms to President Donald Trump, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019); The regime prevents two of Cuba’s leading evangelical leaders from leaving the country, Diario de Cuba (July 14, 2019); We have nothing to hide’: the Evangelical League of Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Day 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Keynote Address at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); The White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial (July 18, 2019). The prior day the Secretary made a similar speech for the presentation of international religious freedom awards. (State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Reception for the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and Presentation of the International Religious Freedom Awards (July 17, 2019).