More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Yesterday’s post covered the formal launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are additional reactions to the Commission. [1]

Negative Reactions

 Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Pompeo’s argument for a new human rights panel was “absurd” and that the Trump administration “has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world.” Instead, “we need this President and this Secretary to actually champion human rights by standing up for America’s values and by using the framework that is already in place and which has been championed by prior administrations for decades, regardless of party.”

Representative Eliot Engel (Dem., NY). the Chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. Decades ago, Congress created an entire bureau in the State Department dedicated to defending and reporting on human rights and advising the Secretary and senior diplomats on human rights and democratic development. Now the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.” Engel also noted that he had cosponsored a measure to prohibit funding for this new body that recently had been passed by the House.

The American Jewish World Service denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, said, “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President for policy at Human Rights First and a former  deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said well-established principles for advancing human rights already existed and did not need to be revamped. He added that most of the 10 people named to the new commission viewed human rights largely through the lens of religious freedom. “At first blush,” he said, “the commission certainly seems to reinforce the perception that the administration and State Department under Secretary Pompeo uniquely emphasize religious freedom amongst universal rights.”

Another observer also voiced negative views of the Commission. “We don’t need this commission,” said Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for DRL from 2009 to 2013. “What we need is for the U.S. government, the secretary of state and the president to abide by and uphold international human rights standards we already have adopted.”

Joanne Lin of Amnesty International said, “”If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments. This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”

Positive Reactions

Daniel Philpott, a University of Notre Dame professor who was initially mentioned as a potential commission member, said that natural law reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights. “The idea is these claims of human rights are not based upon natural law or the truth of the human person. In a sense, these are false claims to human rights. It brings down the cause of human rights in general. Why should we pursue other human rights if human rights can be anything one faction or party advocates them to be?”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Chair of the new Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. And Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, endorsed the Commission as an effort to “help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights.”

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[1] Press Release: Menendez Questions Intent and Impact of Trump Admin’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 8, 2019); Press Release, Engel Statement on State Department “Unalienable Rights” Commission (July 8, 2019); Wong & Sullivan, New Human Rights Panel Raises fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Morello, State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law, Wash. Post (July 8, 2019); Visser, Mike Pompeo Unveils New Panel To Refocus U.S. Human Rights Priorities, Huffington Post (July 8, 2019); Oprysko, Mike Pompeo unveils panel to examine ‘unalienable rights,’ Politico (July 8, 2019); McBride, Pompeo Creates Commission on Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 8, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched its Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1]

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks

At the launch Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “the Trump administration has embarked on a foreign policy that takes seriously the founders’ ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government. Those principles have long played a prominent role in our country’s foreign policy, and rightly so. But as that great admirer of the American experiment Alex de Tocqueville noted, democracies have a tendency to lose sight of the big picture in the hurly-burly of everyday affairs. Every once in a while, we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been, and whether we’re headed in the right direction, and that’s why I’m pleased to announce today the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.”

The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.” (Emphasis added.)

“With the indispensable support of President Ronald Reagan, a human rights revolution toppled the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Union. Today 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.”

“But we should never lose sight of the warnings of Vaclav Havel, a hero of the late-20th-century human rights movement, that words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil; ‘they can be rays of light in a realm of darkness … [but] they can also be lethal arrows.’ And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed, the evils of any time and place will be justified in whatever is the dominant discourse of that time and of that place. We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”

“It’s a sad commentary on our times that more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights. International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” (Emphasis added.)

 With that as background and with all of this in mind, the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” (Emphasis added,)

The Secretary hopes that the Commission “will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? (Emphasis added.)

To put it another way, “the commission’s charge is to point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

Secretary Pompeo’s Prior Wall Street Journal Article[2]

The day before the Department’s launching of the Commission. Secretary Pompeo published an article about the Commission in the Wall Street Journal, in which he made the following comments beyond what he said at the official launch.

“America’s Founders defined unalienable rights as including ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They designed the Constitution to protect individual dignity and freedom. A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights.”

“Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.” (Emphasis added.)

He hopes “that its work will generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and national borders.” It “will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict? Should certain categories of rights be inextricably ‘linked’ to other rights?”

“The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.” (Emphasis added.)

Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for ‘rights,’ even pretending to be avatars of freedom. No one believed the Soviet call for collective economic and civil rights was really about freedom. But after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates adopted the same approach, appealing to contrived rights for political advantage.” (Emphases added.)

“The commission’s work could also help reorient international institutions specifically tasked to protect human rights, like the United Nations, back to their original missions. Many have embraced and even accelerated the proliferation of rights claims—and all but abandoned serious efforts to protect fundamental freedoms.” (Emphasis added.)

Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass. And ‘rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.” (Emphasis added.)

Announcement of Commission’s Chair

On July 8, the Secretary announced that the Chair of the Commission will be Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, an expert on human rights, comparative law and political theory and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, among many honors.

Professor Glendon acknowledged this appointment with the following remarks:

 

  • “Secretary, I am deeply grateful for the honor of chairing this new commission, and I wanted to thank you especially for giving a priority to human rights at this moment when basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators. At the same time, I understand that the mission that you have set us is a challenging one. You’ve asked us to work at the level of principle, not policy, and you’ve asked us to take our bearings from the distinctive rights tradition of the United States of America, a tradition that is grounded in the institutions without which rights would not be possible: constitutional government and the rule of law. I want to assure you, Mr. Secretary, that we will do our very best to carry out your marching orders and to do so in a way that will assist you in your difficult task of transmuting principle into policy.”

Announcement of Nine Other Commission Members

The Secretary also announced the appointment of the following nine additional members of the Commission. (The Commission’s Charter calls for 15 members so there may be an additional five members to be named later.)[3]

Russell Berman. He is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-chair of its Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. Recently he has written about the reemergence of anti-Semitism and China’s “programmatic efforts to suppress the ethnic identity of the Uighur people” of Islamic faith.

Peter Berkowitz.  He is the Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group and a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. He “studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in the United States, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.”

Paolo Carozza. He is Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and Director of its Kellogg Institute for International Studies an interdisciplinary, university-wide body “focusing on the themes of democracy and human development.”  His expertise is in the areas of comparative constitutional law, human rights, law and development and international law. From 2006 through 2010 he was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the principle international body for protecting human rights in the Western Hemisphere, and he also has served the Holy See in various capacities.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson. He is an American Islamic scholar, proponent of classical Islamic sciences and founder of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California. According to The New Yorker Magazine, he is  “perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world.” He was born in the U.S. as Mark Hanson and grew up a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, but at age 19 he read the Qur-an and converted to Islam.

Jacqueline C.  Rivers. She is Lecturer on Sociology at Harvard University. She holds B.A. and Ph. D degrees with honors from Radcliffe College and Harvard and has served as Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy of the Harvard’s J. F. Kennedy School of Government and a Graduate Research Fellow of the National Science Foundation. Rivers, an African-American, also is the Executive Director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies, which seeks to create and promote a philosophical, political and theological framework for a pro-poor, pro-life, pro-family movement within the ecumenical Black Church both domestically and internationally.

Meir Soloveichik. He is an American Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. degree in religion from Princeton University. He has written extensively about Jewish thought and life, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the limits of interfaith dialogue. In 2012 he gave the opening invocation at the Republican National Convention.

Katrina Lantos Swett. She is the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and now the President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, which is named in honor of her father, a Holocaust survivor and former Democratic Congressman. She is married to Richard Swett, former Ambassador to Denmark and former Congressman, and she converted to his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has been an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Christopher Tollefsen. He is the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Philosophy Professor with specialization in moral philosophy, natural law ethics, practical ethics and bioethics. He has written many articles for “Public Discourse,” the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, which seeks to promote public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies.  He also is a co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life and the editor of John Paul II’s Contribution to Catholic Bioethics.

David Tse-Chien Pan. He is Professor of German at University of California, Irvine. His research has focused on the problem of aesthetic experience as a mediator of human history in order to understand how history develops through a process of recollection and interpretation that depends on judgment and takes the reception of works of art as its model.

Reactions

Secretary Pompeo’s Wall Street Journal article for the first time really sets forth what has been speculated as the Commission’s true mission: redefinition and narrowing of international human rights.

A senior State Department official, in a report by CBS News, made the same point, perhaps more diplomatically, when he said the Commission will act like a “study group, examining the concept of universal human rights, where those rights come from and the difference between inherent rights and those prescribed by governments. . . . Unalienable rights are granted to everyone, everywhere, at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay, or a man or a woman, or black, white, brown or purple.’”

However, this official said, topics like abortion and gay marriage will not be part of the panel’s agenda. ‘Women’s rights or gay rights or healthcare rights, those are domestic issues.’ At some point gay marriage might be considered one of those, but this is an issue that’s being worked out on a nation-state level.’”

The importance of this Commission from the Trump Administration’s standpoint is underscored by the impressive resumes of its Chairperson and its initial other members. Therefore, advocates for the existing body of international human rights law need to prepare to combat this onslaught.

Amnesty International USA immediately said there was no reason for such a review given the decades-old protections in place and that the use of the word “unalienable” might be a code word to narrow human rights to the Founders’ notions of the late 18th century. Similar thoughts were expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union: “taxpayer resources would be better spent assessing the administration’s failure to meet basic human rights obligations, rather than redefining those rights.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019); Sullivan & Wong, State Department Creates Advisory Panel on Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Reuters, Pompeo Launches Panel to Review Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019)(notes Trump Administration’s U.N. actions against sexual and reproductive health measures); Assoc. Press, Trump Administration Reviews Human Rights’ Role in US Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019). Previous posts to this blog have discussed this Commission: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019).

[2] Pompeo, Unalienable Human Rights and U.S. foreign Policy, W.S.J. (July 7, 2019).

[3] Another source listed two possible additional members of the Commission: Kiron Skinner and F. Cartwright Weiland. Skinner is the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and a former Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Weiland is a current or former chief speechwriter for Senator John Cornyn and Republican Whip (Rep., TX) and/or Policy Analyst at Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. (Ruffini, Mike Pompeo unveils new “Unalienable Rights” commission amid concerns over progressive rollbacks, CBS News (July 8, 2019).)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution

On February 11, Cuban authorities arrested 20 activists of thePatriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 on the country’s proposed new constitution.

These arrests of Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) members for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 occurred at UNPACU’s headquarters in eight houses in Santiago de Cuba in connection with an early morning assault by over 200 Cuban soldiers and police, who seized computers, printers, telephones and other equipment and records. 

UNPACU’s national coordinator, José Daniel Ferrer Garcia, blasted these arrests: “They attack us, they beat us, they rob us, they torture us and they even want to stave us.”  On February 11 he also started a hunger strike until at least February 24 (the day of the national referendum seeking approval of the new constitution). Three days later at least 25 of the organization’s activists had joined the hunger strike.

There also are reports that José Daniel Ferrer Castillo (the 16-year-old son of UNPACU’s national coordinator) arbitrarily had been detained and beaten. In addition, on February 13, the Cuban police again appeared at UNPACU’s headquarters to harass members of the organization.

UNPACU, which was founded on August 24, 2011, defines itself as a civil organization that advocates the peaceful but firm struggle against any repression of civil liberties in Cuba. According to Amnesty International, it “is an organization that brings together dissident organizations based mainly in Santiago de Cuba, but also in neighboring provinces in the east of the country. Its goal is to achieve democratic change in Cuba by non-violent means. Since its inception . . . its members have suffered harassment and intimidation . . ., including arrests by the authorities.”

According to UNPACU, the proposed new constitution “denies elementary rights, restricts basic freedoms {and Cubans] will continue oppressed and in the deepest misery.” The central reason for this conclusion, it says, is Article 5, which states as follows:

  • The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” (Emphasis by UNPACU.)

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José Daniel Ferrer: “Either they respect or they kill us,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 12, 2019); Marco Rubio on the violent opposition against the UNPACU: ‘More sanctions come to the response,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 13, 2019); UNPACU: 25 opponents on hunger strike ‘at least until 24 February,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 14, 2019); UNPACU; UNPACU Release, UNPACU calls to vote NO on the new Cuban Constitution; José Daniel Ferrer, Wikipedia.

Cuba’s Legislature Approves Revised Draft of New Constitution

On December 22, Cuba’s National Assembly unanimously approved a proposed new constitution for submission to a national referendum on February 24, 2019. It incorporates into an original one published in July hundreds of mainly small changes proposed by citizens during a three-month public consultation at community meetings nationwide. [1]

Summary of Latest Draft of Constitution

This draft maintains Cuba as a centrally planned economy ruled by a single Communist Party, but recognizes private property for the first time and paves the way for a separate referendum on legalizing gay marriage. It  also creates the role of prime minister alongside the current president, as well as provincial governors.

The new draft also recognizes worker-owned cooperatives for the first time as a legal form of production in every sector of the economy, while maintaining Cuba’s largely inefficient and stagnant state-run industries as the central means of production.

The draft contains the following 11 titles:

  • Title I: Political foundations
  • Title II: Economic fundamentals
  • Title III: Fundamentals of educational, scientific and cultural policy (Old Title V)
  • Title IV: Citizenship
  • Title V: Rights, Duties and Guarantees.
  • Title VI: Structure of the State.
  • Title VII: Territorial Organization of the Stat
  • Title VIII: Local Organs of Popular Power
  • Title IX: Electoral System
  • Title X: Defense and National Security
  • Title XI: Reform of the Constitution.

Cuba Official Reaction to New Draft.[2]

In closing this session of the National Assembly, President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the island’s economic challenges — including a week 1.2 percent 2018 growth rate in 2018 and similar growth expected next year — required the acceptance of private business, joint public-private ventures and coops working together. He promised to fight widespread public-sector embezzlement and corruption that makes it virtually impossible to get anything done in Cuba without a series of small bribes.[3]

The modest changes to the draft constitution along with the recent changes to regulations governing private enterprise are seen by William LeoGrande, a U.S. expert on Cuba, as unprecedented responsiveness to organized public pressure. It “indicates both the government’s flexibility and also its recognition that the Cuba of 2018 is not one in which people will simply accept whatever the authorities dictate.” These changes also recognize the economic and financial difficulties facing the island.

Indeed, cash-strapped Cuba plans fresh austerity measures and will pressure the sluggish bureaucracy to tighten its belt and cut red tape to address weak growth, falling export earnings and rising debt.

Cuban Opposition to the Draft Constitution[4]

 According to Diario de Cuba, several Cuban organizations have launched a campaign to defeat this draft in the national referendum. Here are some of their principal objections:

  • The draft maintains the role of the Communist Party as the ” highest leading political force in society” and reaffirms state control of the economy.
  • While recognizing the role of the market and other forms of property, it affirms that Cuba “will never return” to capitalism because “only in socialism and in communism the human being reaches his full dignity.”
  • It does not allow for the existence of other political parties and independent media,
  • It denies the possibility of directly electing the president of the country,

The organizations supporting the “No” vote  are: Artists against Decree 349, Damas de Blanco Association, Asociación Pro Libertad de Prensa (APLP), Independent Trade Union Association of Cuba (ASIC), Citizens Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) ), Cuba Independiente y Democrática (CID), Cuba Piensa, Foro Antitotalitario Unido (FANTU), Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, Cuban Youth Dialogue Table (MDJC), Citizen Movement Reflection and Reconciliation, Cuban Reflection Movement, Maceista Movement for Dignity, Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), Observatory of Electoral Rights (ODE), Party for Democracy Pedro Luis Boitel, Project Di.Verso, OCDH Support Network and Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

 Amnesty International’s  Criticism of the Draft Constitution[5]

 Amnesty International had the following comments on the revised draft:

  1. At first glance, it appears to strengthen a host of human rights protections. But at a closer look, it quickly limits them to what is already found in national law. . . many of which are contrary to international law and standards.”
  2. On paper, it provides better protections to people accused of crime—like the right to a defence lawyer. In practice, all lawyers work for the state and rarely are prepared or able to mount an adequate defense without losing their job.”
  3. It maintains undue restrictions on freedom of expression. While article 59 ‘recognizes, respects and guarantees the freedom of thought, conscience and expression, Article 60 retains control over the organization and functioning of all media. This is inconsistent with international human rights law and standards, that require states not to have monopoly control over the media and,instead promote a plurality of sources and views.”
  4. It also stands to continue online censorship. On the one hand, the text proposes the “democratization of cyberspace. but on the other it condemns the use of the Internet for ‘subversion’ (Article 16.l). This could allow for criminal laws to be applied arbitrarily against independent journalists and bloggers, who already work in a legal limbo that exposes them to arbitrary detention, and whose work is already being blocked and filtered.”
  5. It continues to place undue restrictions on freedom of assembly, demonstration and association. Article 61 states that these rights, ‘For lawful and peaceful purposes,’ are recognized by the State whenever they are exercised with respect to public order and compliance with the mandatory provisions of the law.’ However, international law and standards are clear that the only legitimate reasons to restrict these rights is for  the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights of others. In practice, protest by political opposition groups and human rights defenders are not tolerated by the authorities. For example, representatives of the Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of prisoners detained on politically motivated grounds, continue to be arbitrarily detained, usually for several hours each weekend, solely for exercising their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly,”
  6. “It undermines artistic expression. Article 95.h protects artistic expression, but only when it conforms with ‘socialist values.’ Not only is this provision an undue restriction of freedom of expression, but in practice, anyone who dares to speak out against the government is quickly labeled ‘counter-revolutionary.’ One of the first laws signed by President Díaz Canal was Decree 349, a dystopian new law which stands to censor artists.”[6]
  7. “The reforms are unlikely to strengthen the independence of the judiciary or protect the right to fair trial. Article 48 protects the right to be tried before a ‘competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law.’ These are all key elements to ensuring the right to a fair trial. At the same time, Article 8 subordinates all organs of the state – presumably including the judiciary – to ‘socialist values’ which in practice may allow for undue interference by the presidency in judicial decisions. Serious and ongoing limitations on the independence of lawyers and the judiciary have been documented by Amnesty International and the UN for decades.”
  8. “If approved, it will pave the way for Cuba to become the first independent nation in the Caribbean to legalize same sex marriage. The revised Constitution defines marriage as between two people (Article 68) and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (Article 40). While these provisions are a huge step forward in the path for equality and dignity for all, LGBTI activists say authorities still tightly control LGBTI activism outside of state-sanctioned spaces.”
  9. “It guarantees several economic, social and cultural rights. The proposed Constitution recognizes that human rights cannot be divided and depend on each other to make them happen in a progressive way and without discrimination (Article 39). The state recognizes its responsibility for the protection of older people (Article 73), and people living with disabilities (Article 74). It recognizes the right of people to “dignified housing” (Article 82), and the responsibility of the Cuban state to guarantee the rights to “public health” (Article 83), education (Articles 84), water (Article 87) and food (Article 88). Nevertheless, in a context where the judiciary is not independent, enforcing these rights through the courts will be unrealistic in practice.”
  10. “It commits Cuba to promoting the protection and conservation of the environment and to confronting climate change, which it recognizes as a ‘threat to the survival of the human species’ (Article 16). Cuba could strengthen this commitment further by joining fellow Caribbean countries in signing the Escazú Agreement, a major step forward for the right of people to access information and participate in policies, projects and decisions that affect the environment.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, Cuban Assembly Approves Draft of New Constitution, N.Y. Times (Dec. 22, 2018); Reuters, Cuban Lawmakers Approve New Constitution Which Heads to Referendum, N.Y. Times (Dec. 22, 2018); Intervention of Romero Acosta in the National Assembly, on the main changes of the Constitution from the Popular consultation, Granma (Dec. 22, 2018).See also prior posts about the new constitution in the ”Cuba’s New Constitution, 2018” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] Gamez Torres, After 60 years of revolution in Cuba, cracks in leadership emerge, Miami Herald (Dec. 27, 2018); Reuters, “Reality” Bites: Cuba Plans More Austerity as Finances Worsen, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2018).

[3] See Cuba Relaxes Some New Rules Regarding Private Enterprise, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec.7, 2018).

[4]  Start a campaign for the ‘No’ to the new constitution, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 23, 2018); 20 reasons to vote NO on the constitutional referendum, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 26, 2018); The new Constitution will not reflect the society to which Cubans aspire, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 18, 2018).

[5]  Amnesty Int’l, 10 ways reforms to Cuba’s constitution would impact human rights (Nov. 21, 2018); Tillotson, Ten repercussions for the human rights of the reform of the Constitution of Cuba, El confidencial (Nov. 21, 2018).

[6] See Cuba Tightens Censorship of the Arts, dwkcommentaires.com (Dec. 26, 2018).

“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

Cameroon Elected As  Member of U.N. Human Rights Council

As has been discussed in many posts, for the last several years the government of Cameroon has been engaged in armed conflict with the minority of Cameroonians whose principal European language is English (the Anglophones). In the course of that conflict, the government allegedly has committed many human rights violations.[1]

This record and the objections against these acts were voiced by many other governments during Cameroon’s recent Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is the body within the U.N. system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. These Council members are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly [purportedly] takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard. (Emphasis added.)

Despite Cameroon’s dismal human rights record, on October 12, 2018, the U.N. General Assembly elected Cameroon to be a member of the Council for a three-year term beginning January 1, 2019.[2]

Amnesty International  Human Rights Watch and other rights groups objected to the election of Cameroon and certain other countries. “Elevating states with records of gross human rights violations and abuses is a tremendous setback,” said Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director, Daniel Balson. “It puts them on the world stage, and moreover, it empowers them to fundamentally undermine notions of human rights that are accepted internationally.[3]

In this context, Human Rights Watch raised “serious concerns about human rights in . . . Cameroon, . . . . [where] government security forces and armed separatists have committed grave abuses against residents of the country’s Anglophone region. The region has been rocked by protests and violent clashes rooted in longstanding political grievances of the Anglophone minority. While the government has taken some positive steps in recent months, including signing the Safe Schools Declaration, violence and abuses in the Anglophone region continue.”

The Council elections of Cameroon and four other African states (Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Somalia and Togo) are partially attributable to the Council’s allocation of 13 of the 47 seats to African states; and to three of the African members having terms ending on December 31, 2018 and being ineligible for re-election after having served two consecutive terms (Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Kenya). The other African members are Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.[4]

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[1] See Cameroonian President Biya Wins Re-Election by a Landslide, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 26, 2018); Continued Violence in Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 4, 2018). See also posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, US, Rights Groups Say UN Rights Council Vote Lets Abusers In, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2018); Human Rights Watch, UN: Philippines, Eritrea Don’t Belong on Rights Council (Oct. 11, 2018).

[4] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of the Human Rights Council; U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human Rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

 

U.N. Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review 

On September 21, 2018, the U.N. Human Rights Council held a meeting in its 39th regular session. An important item on the agenda was the final review of the latest Universal Periodic Reviews of the human rights records of three more states, including Cuba.[1]

Just before this session, the Council provided an Addendum to Cuba’s national report that listed its responses to the 339 recommendations that had been made by other U.N. Members and Stakeholders. Of these 339 recommendations,  Cuba had “supported” (accepted or noted) 309, and rejected 30 in the following categories[2]

Recommendations Rejections
Improve freedoms of assembly & association  13.0
End arbitrary detentions    4.0
Release prisoners of conscience    3.0
Recognize rights of political activists    2.0
Respect independent media    2.0
Allow independent monitoring of detention    1.5
Establish independent judiciary    1.5
Allow complaints to treaty bodies    1.0
Allow multiparty elections (U.S.)    1.0
End coercive labor    0.5
Increase laws against human trafficking    0.5
TOTAL 30.0

Cuba’s Ambassador, Pedro Pedrosa, made  introductory and concluding statements that included the following comments:

  • Cuba had rejected 30 of the recommendations because they were “politically skewed” and some reflected the “hegemonic ambitions of some [the U.S.] to undermine Cuban systems.” He also condemned the U.S. embargo (blockade) as a “massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights.”
  • For Cuba, ratification of an international treaty is a “very serious process” and is never made under pressure, again referring to the “hostile policies of the U.S. against the Cuban people.”
  • Cuba is against the death penalty and has not had an execution since 1923. However, it needs to keep the death penalty because of terrorism.
  • Cuba has a “system of independent courts to insure “ respect for human rights.
  • In 2017 Cuba welcomed two international human rights monitors (human trafficking and international solidarity).
  • Cuba calls for democracy and international governance of the Internet and the end of the digital divide and monopolies of these technologies.
  • Cuba is proud of the accomplishments of its Revolution and its contributions to the broadening of human rights.
  • Reforms in Cuba can only happen with true international and impartial cooperation.
  • The UPR process should not be a forum for attacks or proposals by foreign powers [U.S.].
  • Cuba rejects “rash” comments at this session by the World Evangelical Alliance and the Christianity Global Solidarity because they ignore the Cuban reality of religious freedom and right to change religion. Nevertheless, he invited these organizations to visit Cuba.
  • He also criticized the comments from Amnesty International and U.N. Watch.

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[1]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council,  Documentation (39th Regular Session). Previous posts about the current (and other) Cuba UPRs are listed in the “Cuban Human Rights” section of  List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

[2]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Cuba: Addendum (Sept. 18, 2018) (views on conclusions and/or recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review).