As discussed in previous posts, since 2016 Cameroon has been experiencing violence, and a de facto civil war, between its dominant Francophone citizens and its minority Anglophones. That violence has been continuing.
Now thousands of people in the English-speaking areas are fleeing to the French-speaking capital of Yaoundé. One of those people, Pamela Njoke, and her two young children waited four hours in her hometown of Bamenda to get on a packed bus to go to the capital. She said, “People are dying everywhere. It is horrible.”
There also are bloody battles between the government and Anglophone separatists seeking to form a new nation they call Ambazonia. An estimated 400 have been killed and thousands displaced. One of the leaders of a group of separatists has asserted that the October 7 national presidential election is banned in the Anglophone regions and any attempt to conduct the election will result in “military” action against such attempts.
On September 27 the separatists attacked a prison in the northwestern part of the country and freed 100 inmates.
The government also is fighting Boko Haram militants in the north of the country with additional abuses on both sides,. On September 30 President Paul Biya on a re-election campaign stop in the Far North region asserted that Boko Haram had been defeated in the country.
All of this violence and disruption are expected to suppress voting in the October 7 presidential election.
As reported on prior posts, Cameroon recently has been experiencing great violence between the Cameroonian military forces, on one side, and separatists and Boko Haram, on other sides. Recently a video on social media appeared to show Cameroonian soldiers executing two women, a baby and a young girl, and the U.S., among others, had urged the Cameroonian government to conduct an immediate and transparent investigation.
Now on July 25, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, issued a statement expressing “deep alarm at persistent reports of human rights violations and abuses in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon, as well as in the Extreme North.”
He also said, “it was regrettable that the Government of Cameroon had failed to grant the UN Human Rights Office access to the Northwest and Southwest despite repeated requests.” Such access would enable the U.N. “to verify allegations made against both security forces and armed elements” regarding “violence against Cameroonians in the western part of the country.”
Since 2017 “the situation has worsened considerably . . . [with] reports that armed elements have carried out kidnappings, targeted killings of police and local authorities, extortion and have torched schools. . . .[and] that Government forces are responsible for killings, the excessive use of force, burning down of houses, arbitrary detentions and torture.”
He condemned “the ambush on 13 July near the town of Kumba in the Southwest region on a Minister of Defense convoy.” In addition, he said he was “’utterly appalled’ by a horrific video reportedly showing members of the armed forces executing two woman, a child and a baby accused of being members of Boko Haram. . . . [and] am deeply worried that these killings captured on camera may not be isolated cases.”
In light of these horrible events, the High Commissioner urged “the Government to launch independent investigations into the reports of human rights violations by State security forces as well as abuses by armed elements.”
Prior posts have discussed Cameroon’s deadly confrontations with Boko Haram terrorists in the northern part of the country and the violent conflicts between its Anglophone and Francophone populations.  Here is a report on developments in these matters plus the country’s upcoming presidential election.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on July 19 blamed both sides for “grave abuses” against civilians and the forced evacuations of more than 180,000 people from their homes. HRW said, “Anglophone separatists have extorted, kidnapped and killed civilians, and prevented children from going to school. In response to protests and violence by armed separatists, government forces have killed civilians, used excessive force against demonstrators, tortured and mistreated suspected separatists and detainees, and burned hundreds of homes in several villages.”
The Cameroonian government, rejecting the HRW report, said the level of force it used remained “proportional to the extent of the threat.” It also condemned separatist attacks and defended its security forces, saying all alleged atrocities are investigated. Just because such investigations “are not always widely disseminated to the public does not in any way mean that they are not taken.”
The Boko Haram Conflict
As discussed in a prior post, on July 12 Amnesty International (AI) reported the existence of a grainy video on social media showing two women — one with a baby on her back and another holding hands with a young child — walking across a dirt patch. Behind them were armed men one of whom yells in French “You are B.H.[Boko Haram], you are going to die.” The men blindfolded them and forced them to kneel. The armed men then raised their rifles and shot them.
Four days later the U.S. Government issued a statement expressing it was “gravely concerned” over this incident and called on “the Government of Cameroon to investigate thoroughly and transparently the events depicted in the video and to take appropriate steps to bring the men to justice.
On July 19 the Cameroonian Government announced that it had arrested four soldiers suspected of killing the women and children, and an army officer in that region said the arrestees “are suspected of being the authors of the executions in the video.” Four other Cameroonian military sources told Reuters that the video did show Cameroonian soldiers and that the video was filmed in 2014 or 2015 in the early operations against Boko Haram.
Cameroon’s Upcoming Presidential Election
Meanwhile, more than 20 candidates have registered to run against longtime President Paul Biya in October’s presidential election. Attempts to have opposition forces back one candidate failed, making Biya’s reelection most likely.
Cameroon has emerged again in international news coverage over conflict with the U.S. Ambassador and reported extrajudicial executions of two women, a child and a baby in the northern part of the country.
Conflict with U.S. Ambassador
This coming October 7 Cameroon will hold its presidential election, and the only viable candidate is the 85- year-old Paul Biya, who has been President for the last 36 years. Recently Cameroon has accused the U.S. Ambassador Peter Henry Barlerin, a career diplomat, of improper meddling in this upcoming election.
The problem arose on May 17, when the U.S. Ambassador, released a press statement about his meeting that day with President Biya. The last point of that statement asserted that “the President and I discussed upcoming elections. I suggested to the President that he should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered in the history books to be read by generations to come, and proposed that George Washington and Nelson Mandela were excellent models.” Each of them, of course, left their countries presidencies after only one term.
This comment by the Ambassador’s “caused an uproar among officials in Cameroon and in the local media, which accused him of trying to influence a foreign election. Mr. Barlerin even received death threats.
Five days after the Ambassador’s comments, May 22, Cameroon’s Minister of External Relations, H.E. Mbella Mbella, summoned the Ambassador to the Ministry and told him that the Cameroonian government strongly disapproved of his statement as flouting all diplomatic practice, civility and the law. Discussions between an ambassador and a head of state, according to the Minister, are privileged and confidential. The Minister also said that the Cameroonian people had fairly elected and re-elected Mr. Biya as their president, that Cameroon would not tolerate any foreign interference or meddling in its elections and that the Ambassador’s allegations regarding conduct of Cameroon’s defense and security forces were unfounded.
Late last month, the Ambassador’s “photo was plastered across the covers of at least three local newspapers, which accused him of paying nearly $5 million to opposition candidates in the presidential race.” The U.S. Embassy released a statement calling this story “entirely false.”
This diplomatic spat occurs while the country is going through a violent conflict between the majority of the population who speak French (the Francophones) and the minority who speak English (the Anglophones).
Reported Extrajudicial Executions
The country also has been battling Boko Haram extremists in its northern region. The latest in this conflict was a July 12 Amnesty International (AI) report of a grainy video on social media showing two women — one with a baby on her back and another holding hands with a young child — walking across a dirt patch. Armed men walk behind them, and one yells in French “You are B.H. [Boko Haram], you are going to die.” The men blindfold them and force them to kneel. Then they raise their rifles and shoot them.
According to AI , its experts have “gathered credible evidence that it was Cameroonian soldiers depicted in a video carrying out the horrific extrajudicial executions of two women and two young children.” The human rights group says the video was probably shot in Cameroon’s far north region, where Cameroonian forces have been fighting to push back Boko Haram extremists over the past several years. The Cameroonian government said it would investigate, while expressing skepticism about this analysis of the video.
On July 16, the U.S. State Department stated it was “gravely concerned” over this incident and called on “the Government of Cameroon to investigate thoroughly and transparently the events depicted in the video, make its findings public, and if Cameroonian military personnel were involved in this atrocity, hold them accountable.” This was necessary because “all countries, including Cameroon, must uphold their international and national commitments and obligations to protect the human rights of their residents and promote accountability.”
 In a July 13, tweet, Biya announced that he was running for re-election. He said, “”I am willing to respond positively to your overwhelming calls. I will stand as Your Candidate in the upcoming presidential election.” (Reuters, Cameroon’s Veteran President Makes bid for Seventh Term, N.Y. Times (July 13, 2018).)
On June 19, 2015, the U.S. Department of State released its “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014.” Such annual reports are required by federal statute to cover the prior calendar year.
Tina S. Kaidanow, U.S.Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, gave a special briefing on this report. She pointed out that “the number of terrorist attacks [worldwide] in 2014 increased 35 percent, and total fatalities increased 81 percent compared to 2013, largely due to activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. More than 60 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. And 78 percent of all fatalities due to terrorist attacks also took place in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. The increase in total fatalities was in part a result of certain attacks that were exceptionally lethal.”
The Ambassador then provided broader context by discussing the terrorism committed in 2014 by al-Qaida, ISIL, Boko Haram and the civil war in Syria and of the need for the U.S. to have partners “to disrupt terrorist plots and degrade terrorist capabilities . . . [and to] help counter the spread of violent extremist recruitment and address the conditions that make communities susceptible to violent extremism. We must do more to address the cycle of violent extremism and transform the very environment from which these terrorist movements emerge.”
The U.S. last year, the Ambassador emphasized, provided “ counterterrorism assistance . . . in the fields of rule of law and countering recruitment, . . . a wide array of expertise and programmatic support for our partners to help them identify and disrupt the financing of terrorism, strengthen aviation and border security, and sharpen their law enforcement and crisis response tools to respond to the terrorist threat.” In addition, the U.S. engaged “in robust diplomacy, expanding our partnerships, building bilateral and regional capabilities, and promoting holistic and rule-of-law based approaches to counter terrorism and violent extremism.”
The report’s chapter on “State Sponsors of Terrorism” noted that such a state has been determined by the Secretary of State “to have . . . [a] government [that] has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Once a country is designated, it remains a State Sponsor of Terrorism until the designation is rescinded in accordance with statutory criteria.” For 2014 there were four such states: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Here is what was said about Cuba for 2014:
“Cuba was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982. Though not within the timeframe covered by this report, on April 14, 2015, President Obama submitted to Congress the statutorily required report and certifications indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including the certification that Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six-months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The required 45-day Congressional pre-notification period expired, and the Secretary of State made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective on May 29, 2015.” 
“In recent years, Cuba has taken a number of steps to fully distance itself from international terrorism and has taken steps to strengthen its counterterrorism laws. In 2013, Cuba made a commitment to work with the Financial Action Task Force to address its anti-money laundering/counterterrorism finance (AML/CFT) deficiencies. Since that time, Cuba has made significant progress in establishing the framework necessary to meet international AML/CFT standards by, for example, adequately criminalizing money laundering and terrorist finance and establishing procedures to identify and freeze terrorist assets, among other legal and regulatory actions.”
“Throughout 2014, Cuba supported and hosted internationally recognized negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Government of Colombia aimed at garnering a peace agreement. Safe passage of FARC members provided in the context of these talks has been coordinated with representative of the governments of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Norway, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. There is no credible evidence that the Government of Cuba has provided specific material support, services, or resources, to members of the FARC, or the National Liberation Army (ELN), outside of facilitating the internationally recognized peace process between those organizations and the Government of Colombia.”
“The Government of Cuba does continue to allow approximately two dozen members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Organization (ETA) to remain in the country. The Cuban government provided assurances that it would never permit the ETA members living in Cuba to use Cuban territory for that organization’s activities against Spain or any other country. There is no available information that the Government of Cuba allowed any of these ETA members to plan, finance, lead, or commit acts of international terrorism while residing in Cuba.”
“The Government of Cuba does continue to harbor fugitives wanted to stand trial or to serve sentences in the [U.S.] for committing serious violations of U.S. criminal laws, and provides some of these individuals limited support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care. Although Cuba continues to refuse to return certain individuals that fled to Cuba in the past, it has been more cooperative with the [U.S.] in recent years. In 2014, the Government of Cuba engaged in talks with U.S. officials in reference to some of these fugitives still residing in Cuba.”
There is nothing surprising in the Report’s discussion of Cuba. The report is statutorily required to cover the prior calendar year, and Cuba’s designation of state sponsorship was not rescinded until May 29, 2015. Therefore, it had to be included in this report as such a sponsor, and the discussion is fully consistent with that subsequent rescission.
 A prior post discussed the April 14, 2015, presidential notification of such rescission to the Congress and another post, the May 29, 2015, official rescission of Cuba as such a sponsor. Earlier posts covered the legal and political issues regarding such rescission and the U.S. already having conceded many reasons why Cuba had provided assurances that it will not support future acts of international terrorism.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on the subject,  is in the midst of its 28th regular session at its headquarters in Geneva Switzerland with the session ending on March 27th. 
At the opening of the session on March 2 the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein,  set forth his concerns on human rights. Three days later, on March 5th, he commented on his annual report on human rights. This post will examine both of these speeches.
From March 2 through 5, the Council conducted what it called its High Level Segment, in which national leaders addressed the Council on the overall subject of human rights. Two of those national leaders were U.S. Secretary of State john Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Their remarks will be covered in subsequent posts while another post will analyze those remarks and the speeches of the High Commissioner.
High Commissioner’s Speech, March 2nd 
The “cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists . . . continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily.”
“And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests. How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them. For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed.”
“It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the [U.N.] was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.” By “ratifying the U.N. Charter, [states] have made a clear commitment [in the words of its Preamble] to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.’”
“And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.”
“States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. [U.S.?] Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. [Cuba?] A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”
“In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by [the Council] as [its] independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies. I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.”
“The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.”
“They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.”
“The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace.”
“Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed. Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary. Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighborhoods.”
“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees [U.S.?]; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. . . . [T]hey are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honors the dignity of its people.”
“The only real measure of a Government’s worth is . . . the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”
“Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today: ‘I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me.’ “
“I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalization, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth. They are not new.”
“At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face. We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.”
“What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity? You must not make it so. This is principally your burden, and ours. Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally. Let us make it so.”
High Commissioner’sSpeech, March 5th 
The High Commissioner was “appalled by the massive suffering ISIL provokes [in Syria, Iraq and Libya]: from the murders, torture, rape and sale of children . . . ; to mass beheadings; burning people alive in cages; seemingly genocidal attacks on ethnic and religious groups; the obliteration of due process; torture; deprivation of income and every kind of service and resource; recruitment of children; the destruction of elements of the cultural heritage of humanity; and, not least, particularly vicious and comprehensive attacks on the rights of women and girls.” [Similar horrible actshe said, were perpetrated in Nigeria by Boko Haram and in Yemen and Somalia by other groups.]
“My Office strongly supports efforts by States around the world to prevent and combat terrorism, and to ensure that the perpetrators of terrorism, as well as their financiers and suppliers of arms, are brought to justice.”
“Terrorist attacks [,however,] cannot destroy the values on which our societies are grounded – but laws and policies can. Measures that build what has been termed the ‘national security state’ – such as arbitrary or prolonged detention; torture and ill-treatment; massive surveillance that contravenes the right to privacy; unfair trials; discriminatory policing; and the abusive use of legislation to curb legitimate rights to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression – are human rights violations. They generate legitimate resentment, harm social cohesion, and undermine the essential values of the international community.”
“There is real danger that in their reaction to extremist violence, opinion-leaders and decision-makers will lose their grasp of the deeper principles that underpin the system for global security which States built 70 years ago to ward off the horror of war. The fight against terror is a struggle to uphold the values of democracy and human rights – not undermine them. . . [C]ounter-terrorist operations that are non-specific, disproportionate, brutal and inadequately supervised violate the very norms that we seek to defend. They also risk handing the terrorists a propaganda tool – thus making our societies neither free nor safe. The use of torture, neglect of due process and collective punishment do not make the world any safer.”
“To be truly effective, any response to extremist violence must be targeted, proportionate, and legal. Military campaigns, financial sanctions and attempts to staunch the inflow of weapons – such as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty – may be part of the solution.”
“But other actions are needed to stem the root causes that feed into these conflicts. We must acknowledge that large numbers of people do not join such extremist movements en masse because they have been suddenly and inexplicably hypnotized. Extremism – however repugnant – is nurtured by ideology, and by alienation fed by years of tyranny, corruption, repression, discrimination, deprivation and neglect of the legitimate rights of communities.”
He especially was “disturbed by a continuing trend of harsh restrictions on public freedoms by States across all regions. I refer to military crackdowns on demonstrations; harsh sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents in politically motivated trials; brutal punishments for simple tweets; censorship; oppressive and illegitimate regulations of civil society movements; the use of new technologies to stifle human rights in the virtual space; and new security laws that are unjustly broad, endangering civil liberties and human rights.”
“And yet the great pillar of every resilient and participative society is freedom of expression. Freedom to formulate the ideas of equality led to the overthrow of colonialism, and has powered every movement against discrimination and injustice. To immunize against dictatorship or totalitarianism, to undo discrimination, to drive justice and accountability, we need freedom of expression – full and free and far-reaching. There is no good governance without free speech.”
The High Commissioner’s speech included specific criticisms of many countries. About the U.S., he said: “In the United States, the Senate report on torture in the context of counter-terrorism operations is courageous and commendable, but profoundly disturbing. For a country that believes so strongly in human rights to have swiftly abandoned their fundamentals at a time of crisis is as astonishing as it is deplorable. And yet few other countries have had the courage to likewise publicly investigate and publicly admit to rights abuses resulting from counter-terror operations – and many should.”
“Under international law, the [Senate] report’s recommendations must be followed through with real accountability. There is no prescription for torture, and torture cannot be amnestied. It should also lead to examination of the institutional and political causes that led the US to violate the absolute prohibition on torture, and measures to ensure this can never recur.”
“As the Senate report clearly demonstrates, the neglect of due process, use of torture and collective punishments that were permitted by US officials in the post-9/11 context did not make the world – or the US – any safer. On the contrary, they increased the threat of terrorism, by feeding into the grievances on which it thrives. The orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo are a recruitment tool for ISIL and other groups. As former President George W. Bush has conceded, Guantanamo became, I quote, ‘a propaganda tool for our enemies.’”
The High Commissioner also expressed regret at the renewed use of the death penalty in a number of countries – Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia – and “the continuing extensive use” of the death penalty in China, Iraq, Iran and the U.S.
In conclusion, he said, “It is the people who sustain government, create prosperity, heal and educate others and pay for governmental and other services with their labour. It is their struggles that have created and sustain States. Governments exist to serve the people – not the other way round.”
“Governments that protect human rights, combat discrimination and deprivation, and which are accountable to their people are more prosperous and more secure than those which stifle rights, hamper opportunities, and repress freedoms. When people’s rights are respected – when they are accorded dignity, have opportunities to express their skills and are given a fair share of resources – they form resilient societies. When they are wronged, their rights betrayed, there is a constant threat of turmoil. Respect for the human rights of the people is not destabilizing; but driving legitimate opposition underground is.”
Speeches about human rights in international fora often are replete with platitudes. These speeches by the High Commissioner are not. While he condemns the horrible actions of ISIL and Boko Haram, these groups are not represented at the Council. Instead the countries that are represented are often the victims of their evil deeds. Therefore, the High Commissioner spent most of his time chastising the latter countries for failing to live up to the human rights commitments they have made as they are combatting terrorism. Moreover, these speeches address some countries by name and point our their failings.
In a later post we will look again at these speeches in the context of the issues of human rights in the process of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.
 The Human Rights Council has 47 member states elected by the U.N. General Assembly. Currently both the U.S. and Cuba are such members.
 Materials about the Council’s 28th session are available on its website.
 The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the U.N. and the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which “spearheads the [U.N.’s] human rights efforts . . . by strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.”
Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan was unanimously elected the High Commissioner by the U.N. General Assembly in June 2014. His many years of diplomatic service include being Jordan’s Ambassador to the U.S., his country’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. and his serving as an officer of the International Criminal Court. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Cambridge University.
In its waning days the 113th Congress has taken at least three actions regarding international religious freedom.
New U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom
On December 12th the U.S. Senate by a vote of 62 to 35 confirmed President Obama’s nomination of David N. Saperstein, a prominent Reform rabbi, to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in charge of countering religious persecution around the world.
Saperstein was a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. He also was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (the Commission) from 1999 to 2001 and its Chair (1999-2000). For 40 years, Mr. Saperstein has been director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, lobbying on a wide range of civil rights and social justice issues.
At a confirmation hearing in September, Mr. Saperstein spoke out against religious discrimination in Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, among other countries. “Even in Western Europe,” he said, “we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Semitic discourse and violence against Jewish communities.”
The Senate Republican Policy Committee noted that Mr. Saperstein had criticized a ruling in June in which the Supreme Court said that some corporations could deny contraception coverage to their female workers on religious grounds. He expressed dismay at the ruling, which was hailed by conservatives as a victory for religious liberty, and he supported legislation to override the decision, in an effort to protect women’s health.
Amendment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 
On August 8, 2014, H.R. 4028 became Public Law No.: 113-154. It amended the “Findings” section (Section 2(a)(4)) of the 1998 statute to add three words (“desecration of cemeteries”) so that it reads as follows:
“The right to freedom of religion is under renewed and, in some cases, increasing assault in many countries around the world. More than one-half of the world’s population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice. Religious believers and communities suffer both government-sponsored and government-tolerated violations of their rights to religious freedom. Among the many forms of such violations are state-sponsored slander campaigns, confiscations of property, desecration of cemeteries, surveillance by security police, including by special divisions of “religious police”, severe prohibitions against construction and repair of places of worship, denial of the right to assemble and relegation of religious communities to illegal status through arbitrary registration laws, prohibitions against the pursuit of education or public office, and prohibitions against publishing, distributing, or possessing religious literature and materials.” (Emphasis added.)
The author of this bill, Representative Grace Ming (Dem. NY), said during the House debate, “There are two related problems we seek to address through this legislation. One is the religiously motivated vandalism of cemeteries that occurs with alarming regularity. The second is the building and development over cemeteries in places where there are no communities remaining to protect and look out for the cemeteries.” She added that the bill “works to identify and preserve cemeteries, memorials, and buildings in foreign countries that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans, and it does much work in areas of the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communities were destroyed by the Holocaust and where power subsequently passed to atheistic, communist regimes.”
Other bills in this Congress were offered to make other amendments to the statute, but they were not adopted, including a bill by Senator Marco Rubio (S. 2675) that would have imposed requirements and restrictions on presidential actions with respect to countries designated by the Commission as “of Particular Concern for Religious Freedom.” He introduced his bill the day after the State Department had issued its annual report on this freedom, and Rubio said, “While I welcome . . . [the Department’s] announcement updating CPC designations, this administration has failed to do so since 2011.” This proposed amendment “encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
In December 2014, too late for any legislative action this year, Reps. Joe Pitts (Rep., PA) and Anna Eshoo (Dem., CA) introduced H.R. 5878 (An Act to amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to further express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, freedom of religion or belief abroad and individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion or belief, and for other purposes). It would add non-state actors like Boko Haram in Nigeria to the group of bodies the U.S. government can sanction for violating religious freedoms. The bill will be re-introduced in the next Session of Congress.
Reauthorization of the Commission on International Religious Freedom
On December 10thth the House adopted H.R. 5816 re-authorizing the Commission essentially for only another nine months (to September 30, 2015), and on December 15th the Senate added its approval of the bill.
This action reflected the inability of the two chambers to reach agreement on the terms of a lengthier reauthorization. In this context, I was surprised by a statement about this inability from Leonard L. Leo, the Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies and a former member of the Commission (2007-2009) and its Chair (2009-2012). He said that the Commission was formed in 1998 to be a watchdog on the State Department to ensure that it would promote religious freedom.
In July the House passed a reauthorization bill (H.R. 4653) that never passed the Senate. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2019, essentially another five years. It also would have (a) required training of foreign service officers on “the relationship between religious freedom and security, and the role of religious freedom in United States foreign policy;” (b) encouraged the Department of State to allow Commission members and staff to have “access to classified information;” and (c) allowed the Commission interns, fellows and volunteers to be paid compensation by “sponsoring private parties” so long as there was no conflict of interest.
During the House debate on this bill, Rep. Chris Smith (Rep., NJ), said that the original statute was passed by “a somewhat supportive Congress but highly reluctant [Bill Clinton] White House.” He lamented that eight countries designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” or CPCs by the Commission had not been similarly designated by the State Department and that the Obama Administration had not enacted sanctions for such designations of other countries.
During another House debate, the one on the previously mentioned “desecration of cemeteries” bill, the same Representative Smith said at a May 22, 2014, hearing he chaired, there had been evidence of “the lack of enforcement and the lack of due diligence on the part of the administration when it comes to the International Religious Freedom Act. Not since 2011 has there been a designation of what we call country of particular concern, CPC status, or the dishonorable status that it conveys ought to be done every year. . . . [despite the Commission’s pointing out] that there are eight [other] countries that ought to be so designated, followed by eight others, including Vietnam, that needed to be added to the list, making a total of 16 countries that are then liable to sanctions.”
In the other chamber Senator Richard Durbin (Dem., Illinois) offered a reauthorization bill (S. 2711) that was not adopted by either chamber. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2016, but also would have required annual rotation of its chair and vice chair based on political party affiliation and restricted service in such positions to one term. It also would have required the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to be notified in advance of all Commission meetings and allowed the Ambassador to attend all meetings as a nonvoting member. Finally it would have required (a) at least six commissioners to approve any commission statement and allow dissenting statements and separate staffs for the two major political parties; and (b) the Commission’s annual report to be issued after the issuance of the annual religious freedom reports by the Department of State.
Congressional criticism of the State Department and the President for their alleged failure to follow every recommendation of the Commission, in my judgment, is uncalled for. I also disagree with any proposed legislation like that of Senator Rubio’s that seeks to impose legislative constraints on the president based upon the Commission’s reports.
The basic reason for this judgment was expressed well by the Commission’s current Chair, Ms. Katrina Lantos Swett, when she acknowledged the Commission has limited authority when compared with the U.S. Department of State and implicitly the U.S. President. She said, “The State Department has a more difficult job than we do because they are balancing American security interests, American commercial interests, American cultural interests, American exchange interests, a whole range of diplomatic interests, and one of the things that they are putting into that mix is the defense of our fundamental values, human rights and religious freedom and other such things. Because of its much larger portfolio the State Department cannot be as single-minded as we are.”
 Detailed information about bills in Congress can be obtained at www. Congress.gov. A prior post summarized the structure and members of the Commission while others posts have discussed the international law on this subject and some of the Commission’s annual reports. Although I believe that freedom of religion is important for every individual and for nation states, I believe that the Commission’s negative views on the status of that freedom in Cuba for 2011 and 2013 are unjustified.