The Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family

On October 22, the U.S. hosted a ceremony at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)  for the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family.[1]

Contents of the Declaration[2]

The Declaration was prepared because COVID-19 prevented the signatories from meeting in Geneva, Switzerland for the 2020 World Health Assembly “to review progress made and challenges to uphold the right to the highest attainable standards of health for women; to promote women’s essential contribution to health, and strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society; and to express the essential priority of protecting the right to life, committing to coordinated efforts in multilateral fora.”

The signatories, therefore:

“1. Reaffirm ‘all are equal before the law,’  and ‘human rights of women are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms’;”

“2. Emphasize ‘the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights,’  as well as economic, social, and cultural rights; and the ‘equal rights, opportunities and access to resources and equal sharing of responsibilities for the family by men and women and a harmonious partnership between them are critical to their well-being and that of their families’ ; and that ‘women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources, and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels;’”

“3. Reaffirm the inherent ‘dignity and worth of the human person,’ that ‘every human being has the inherent right to life,’ and the commitment ‘to enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant;’”

“4. Emphasize that ‘in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning’ and that ‘any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process’; Reaffirm that ‘the child… needs special safeguards and care… before as well as after birth’ and ‘special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children,’ based on the principle of the best interest of the child;”

” 5. Reaffirm that ‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’; that ‘motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance,’ that ‘women play a critical role in the family’ and women’s ‘contribution to the welfare of the family and to the development of society’;”

“6. Recognize that ‘universal health coverage is fundamental for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related not only to health and well-being,’ with further recognition that ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ that ‘the predominant focus of health-care systems on treating illness rather than maintaining optimal health also prevents a holistic approach’; and that there are ‘needs that exist at different stages in an individual’s lifespan, which together support optimal health across the life course, entailing the provision of the necessary information, skills, and care for achieving the best possible health outcomes and reaching full human potential; and”

“7. Reaffirm ‘the importance of national ownership and the primary role and responsibility of governments at all levels to determine their own path towards achieving universal health coverage, in accordance with national contexts and priorities’, preserving human dignity and all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Furthermore, the signatories ”hereby declare in mutual friendship and respect, our commitment to work together to:

  • Ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and equal opportunity for women at all levels of political, economic, and public life;
  • Improve and secure access to health and development gains for women, including sexual and reproductive health, which must always promote optimal health, the highest attainable standard of health, without including abortion;
  • Reaffirm that there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion, consistent with the long-standing international consensus that each nation has the sovereign right to implement programs and activities consistent with their laws and policies;
  • Build our health system capacity and mobilize resources to implement health and development programs that address the needs of women and children in situations of vulnerability and advance universal health coverage;
  • Advance supportive public health policies for women and girls as well as families, including building our healthcare capacity and mobilizing resources within our own countries, bilaterally, and in multilateral fora;
  • Support the role of the family as foundational to society and as a source of health, support, and care; and
  • Engage across the UN system to realize these universal values, recognizing that individually we are strong, but together we are stronger.”

The Declaration’s Signatories[3]

The co-sponsors and signatories of this Declaration were the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary and Uganda. The other 26 signatories included Poland, the Belarus (where security forces are currently trying to suppress a women-led protest movement), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan and Libya.

According to the Women, Peace and Security Index that was established by Georgetown University, most of the signatories are among the worst countries for women’s rights, and none of the top twenty countries on that index—except for the U.S. which ranked 19th—signed the declaration.

At the ceremony, Alex Azar, the Secretary of DHHS, said, “too many wealthy nations and international institutions put a myopic focus on a radical agenda that is offensive to many cultures and derails agreement on women’s health priorities. Today, we put down a clear marker: No longer can U.N. agencies reinterpret and misinterpret agreed-upon language without accountability. Member States set the policy for the U.N. to pursue. Not the other way around.”

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo added that this document aims to “protect women’s health, defends the unborn and reiterates the vital importance of the family as the foundation of society.” He also stressed, “There is no international right to abortion.”

The document does not directly address same-sex marriage, but its statement that the family is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” has clear meaning for those signatories that restrict LGBT rights like Egypt.

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[1] Health & Human Services Dep’t, Trump Administration Marks the Signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration (Oct. 22, 2020); Berger, U.S. signs international declaration challenging right to abortion and upholding ‘role of the family,’ Wash. Post (Oct. 22, 2020); Borger, U.S. signs anti-abortion declaration with group of largely authoritarian governments, Guardian (Oct. 22, 2020).

[2] Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family.

[3]  See n. 1; Azar, Remarks at the Geneva Consensus Declaration Signing Ceremony, DHHS (Oct. 22, 2020); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Participates in the Geneva Consensus Declaration Signing Ceremony (Oct. 21, 2020).

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Issues Final Report 

As previously noted, on July 6, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its Draft Report.[1] The Final Report was issued 51 days later on August 26 as “a consensus document that was signed and approved unanimously by all 11 commissioners.”[2]

The latter was after the Commission had solicited and obtained a large number of comments, mainly negative, about the Draft Report.[3] But presumably after reviewing those comments, the Final Report was issued with “only [unidentified] small changes.”  The only public explanation of this decision was the following: “For the most part, the recent round of public comment restated perspectives and points shared before, during, and after the Commission’s five public meetings . . . and so already had been taken into account by the Commission.”

The most important criticisms of the Draft Report, which this blog shared, were its statement, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” Also criticized were the draft Report’s downgrading of “positive rights,” i.e., rights that “owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings,” and Secretary Pompeo’s objections to women’s reproductive rights (especially abortion) and to LGBTQ rights.

 Criticism of Draft Report

Here is a summary of some of the criticisms of the Draft Report from some of the respected international human rights non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Watch submission stated, “With other organizations, we also remain concerned that the commission itself was not representative of the human rights community, did not take testimony from the full scope of the human rights community, and did not consider in its scope the range of issues the human rights framework aims to address. Freedom House pointed out that there already are mechanisms for interpreting human rights obligations of states at international and regional levels. The supposed gap the commission was created to fill is one that does not exist; therefore, the premise [for the Commission] is dubious and its work duplicative. . . . we continue to question its value and have increasing concerns about the repercussions that its work may have on the universality and efficacy of human rights protections and on the institutions designed to oversee compliance and implementation.” That submission also stated the following:

  • “The world has no shortage of actors who aim to weaken existing protections or call internationally recognized rights into question. Too often, that has included the United States. In recent years, the United States has moved sharply away from its longstanding if inconsistent role of seeking to advance human rights worldwide. Its decisions to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, stonewall UN human rights experts, make an extraordinary threat of vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on women, peace, and security because it mentioned survivors’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, and terminate funding for multilateral bodies like the United Nations Population Fund, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization that help advance rights to education and health worldwide have removed the United States as a key player on global human rights issues. The United States State Department’s creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights purports to scrutinize well-grounded rights and obligations and reinterpret them in a way that deprivileges certain human rights but poses a risk to all rights. The United States should prioritize fulfilling its commitments, not redefining them to fulfill the wishes of a few.”
  • The Report “sets dangerous precedent that countries should decide which internationally recognized rights are or are not valid. . . . appeals to history and tradition are frequently abused by governments to justify their rejection of internationally recognized human rights norms. . . . Such an approach is likely to fragment and weaken the international human rights system, not strengthen or revitalize it. “
  • The Declaration of Independence and UDHR “are statements of principle, not obligation. Using these documents without also considering relevant human rights treaties and other sources of international law to guide human rights policy leads to a distorted understanding of the United States’ binding international obligations and commitments.”
  • The Report “spends little time on the adoption of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the enfranchisement of women, the strengthening of due process under the Warren Court, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and Americans With Disabilities Act, and jurisprudence recognizing the right to reproductive autonomy and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Similarly, it does little to acknowledge increased recognition over the years of economic and social rights as central to human rights discourse.”
  • U.S. “obligations under core human rights treaties coexist with other commitments the United States has made to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, which are largely absent from the commission’s report.”
  • “The human rights project is facing challenges, but they are “not a matter of too many people seeking or claiming their rights. Instead, they are challenges that arise from autocratic or authoritarian governments that have denied fundamental rights, silenced vulnerable populations, and diminished the institutions and civil society groups that protect human rights from erosion.”
  • “The [draft] report erroneously suggests “that human rights that are inconsistent with domestic traditions are less meaningful or real than those the United States deems to favor.. . . [and] does not sufficiently acknowledge the maintenance, scrutiny, and accountability that upholding human rights requires.”
  • “Efforts to secure access to abortion are . . . about rights to life, to health, and to bodily autonomy. Similarly, efforts to secure the freedom to marry are . . . about the right to form a family and equal access to existing rights and protections without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Two other such organizations offered similar comments. Freedom House: Trump Administration ignored or excused violations by Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, N. Korea and rebuffed pressure for racial justice in U.S. The draft report also rejects LGBT+ people, women and minorities. In addition, Freedom House rejects prioritization of rights and failure to recognize change views of rights over time (Pp 21-22). Human Rights First said proliferation of rights claims has not undermined legitimacy and credibility of human rights framework; treaties have not created uncertainties; rights hierarchies are wrong; abortion, affirmative action & same-sex marriage are valid rights; effort to preclude extension of new rights is wrong. It is retreat from human rights. (Pp 80-94).

Human Rights First’s Criticism of Final Report[4]

According to Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights First, Secretary Pompeo “has imposed his personal preferences [in the Final Report]while relying on arguments that pose a profound threat to all human rights as well.”

The Final Report “is a frontal assault on international human rights law. The report treats the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], adopted in 1948 and drafted with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the heyday of the human rights movement.” But this important document “is a non-binding political declaration. It has been followed over the years by a series of legally binding treaties, each with an independent expert committee elected by treaty members to interpret its language and monitor compliance. The commission disparages this legal elucidation as a ‘proliferation’ of rights, suggesting that there are now too many rights.”

Initially, the UDHR was codified in two legally binding covenants. One, on civil and political rights, contains provisions similar to the US Constitution, and the US government has ratified it. Another, on economic, social, and cultural rights, finds parallels in US law but not the US Constitution. The US government signed but never ratified it or fully embraced its rights.”

“After these foundational covenants, a handful of other treaties were adopted, spelling out, for instance, the meaning of the prohibition of torture or ways to protect womenracial minoritieschildren, and people with disabilities from discrimination. What Pompeo’s commission disparages as “proliferation” is in fact a process to ensure respect for the rights of people who traditionally have been marginalized or neglected.”

The Commission seemed most concerned with “interpretations of human rights law to protect reproductive freedom and the rights of LGBT people. In the case of LGBT rights, for example, the Human Rights Committee—the official body for interpreting the civil and political rights covenant—has found that the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as the US Supreme Court recently found that sex discrimination includes discrimination against LGBT people.”

“The Pompeo commission’s discomfort with the Human Rights Committee is why it lionizes the non-binding [UDHR]. The declaration, as a statement of principles, has no accompanying interpretive body of law. That allows the US government to interpret its broad principles on its own, as if the covenants had never been adopted as its legally binding version.”

The Commission “seems to favor an a la carte approach to rights: The US government will pick the rights that it wants to observe, and others can do the same. That approach would be music to the ears of the world’s autocrats, and many will happily take the opportunity to trample on certain basic rights that Pompeo himself has rightly defended in places like Hong Kong.”

“To effectively abandon binding treaties for the Pompeo commission’s a la carte approach is to relegate human rights to the vagaries of government preferences. That’s not a system of human rights. It’s an excuse for repression, discrimination, and abuse.”

Conclusion

The Final Report also completely ignores the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After reciting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as among “certain unalienable rights” that “ are endowed by their Creator,” the Declaration next states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments will need to enact various kinds of statutes and other rules “to secure . . .life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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[1[ See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2020). Here are links to other posts on this blog about this Commission.

[2] State Dep’t, [Final] Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 26, 2020).

[3] The Commission’s website has a page for Public Submissions to the Commission, but they are limited to submissions before the issuance of the Draft Report in light of this statement, “At each of its public meetings, the Commission solicited input from the general public on relevant topics regarding human rights. Sometimes comments came from audience members who attended the meetings in person and who generously offered their thoughts and posed questions to commissioners at the microphone. Other times, outside individuals and groups opted to send more detailed written commentary to the Commission.”

[4] Roth, Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Will Endanger Everyone’s Human Rights, hrw.org (Oct. 27, 2020).

U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting  

On September 23, 2019, the U.N. General Assembly held a High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage that aimed to accelerate progress toward universal health coverage for everyone around the world, which would include access to health care services, medicines and vaccines in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, under which all countries have committed to try to achieve universal health coverage by 2030.[1]

At this High-Level Meeting, Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, read a joint statement on behalf of the following 19 countries representing more than 1.3 billion people: the United States of America plus Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan), Eastern Europe/North Asia (Belarus, Russia), Europe (Hungary, Poland), Latin America (Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti) and  Middle East (Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen).

The U.S. Joint Statement[2]

“We believe that health of women, men, children and adolescents supports and improves the overall health of our families and communities, and that the family is the foundational institution of society and thus should be supported and strengthened.”

“We commend the United Nations and the Member States on the significant work done on the Universal Health Coverage Political Declaration,[3] and for the high priority placed on expanding access to health care.”

“We therefore urge Member States to join us in focusing on the important work of expanding health and opportunities for all people, and especially those in situations of risk and/or vulnerability.”

“To make the most meaningful progress without delay or dissension, we respectfully call upon Member States to join us in concentrating on topics that unite rather than divide on the critical issues surrounding access to health care.”

We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies.” (Emphasis added.)

Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context. There is no international right to an abortion and these terms should not be used to promote pro-abortion policies and measures.” (Emphasis added.)

Further, we only support sex education that appreciates the protective role of the family in this education and does not condone harmful sexual risks for young people.”  (Emphasis added.)

“We therefore request that the U.N., including U.N. agencies, focus on concrete efforts that enjoy broad consensus among member states. To that end, only documents that have been adopted by all Member States should be cited in U.N. resolutions.” (Emphasis added.)

“To this end, we also understand the important role the Sustainable Development Goals play in assisting countries realize their own path to universal health coverage, in accordance with national policies and legislation.”

“We strongly support the highest attainable health outcomes for women, men, children, and adolescents holistically and throughout their lives.”

We support equal access to health care, which includes, but is not limited to reproductive concerns, maternal health, voluntary and informed family planning, HIV, elimination of violence against women and girls, and empowerment to reach the highest standard of health.” (Emphasis added.)

“We support programs to improve the health, life, dignity, and well-being of women, men, children, and families, and we will continue to be their stalwart defender.”

“Let us focus on concrete issues and challenges to accelerate access to health for all.”

“To this end, international solidarity has a key role to play, in order to the build broad consensus by member states.”

Preceding U.S. Letter Urging Support of the Joint Statement[4]

Prior to this High-Level Meeting, Secretary Azar and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly sent a letter to at least some of the other U.N. members that were to attend this High-Level Meeting encouraging them to sign this joint statement opposing “harmful UN policies, especially at the World Health Organization, that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “ensuring that every sovereign state has the ability to determine the best way to protect the unborn and defend the family as the foundational unity of society vital to children thriving and leading healthy lives.”

This letter reportedly also said, “We remain gravely concerned that aggressive efforts to reinterpret international instruments to create a new international right to abortion and to promote international policies that weaken the family have advanced through some United Nations forums.” Evidence of this [effort] is found in references throughout many multilateral global health policy documents to interpret ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ to diminish the role of parents in the most sensitive and personal family-oriented issues. The latter has been asserted to mean promotion of abortion, including pressuring countries to abandon religious principles and cultural norms enshrined in law that protect unborn life.”

Other U.S. Challenges to U.N. Documents

This U.S. letter and the Joint Statement are consistent with prior efforts by the Trump Administration to delete and remove language from various U.N. agreements. Here are examples of this effort: (a) this April intense lobbying by U.S. officials resulted in the removal of references to sexual and reproductive health from a UN security council resolution on combatting rape in conflict; and (b) the U.S.previously attempted to water down language and remove the word “gender” from UN documents.

On September 24 Secretary Azar remained at the U.N. to attend President Trump’s address to the General Assembly and to meet with other governments representatives. He also was interviewed on Tony Perkins’ “Washington Watch” radio program  [5]

Opposition to U.S. Joint Statement[6]

The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag, spoke out in a competing joint statement issued on behalf of 58 countries. Although it did not mention the U.S. Joint Statement or use the word “abortion,” her joint statement clearly opposed the U.S. position. Her main points were the following: (1) “We strongly believe that SRHR [Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights] is an integral part of Universal Health Coverage and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. (2) “Investing in SRHR has proven to be affordable, cost-effective, and cost saving.” (3) “Gender-related barriers to accessing UHC [Universal Health Care] must be addressed, including by direct involvement of women, adolescents and marginalized groups in policy and program design.” (4) “Investing in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in UHC is necessary to address the needs of women, girls, adolescents and people in the most marginalized situations who need these the most.”

Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation tweeted that the action was “unbelievable news” and that “women’s rights must be protected at all times.” Another objector was Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, who said that “sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, and are enshrined in UN agreements for almost 25 years now” and that “the Trump administration’s position is extreme and its repeated attempts to strip women, girls, and gender- diverse people of their rights at the United Nations have failed.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the Pompeo-Azar letter “shows how they are trying to erode international consensus and roll back the clock for women and girls. It’s not just abortion that they care about, they care about women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their bodies and about denying them critical access to the services they need.” That Pompeo and Azur both signed the letter suggests an escalation of the US strategy to undermine policy statements, she added.

Keifer Buckingham, senior policy adviser for international public health at the Open Society Foundations, said that rather than an escalation, “it could be them just putting out in public what they have been doing in private.” She said the US was effectively sending a message of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, which could have funding implications.

Other civil society and women’s rights groups expressed alarm at the efforts and accused the U.S. of aligning with countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan with poor human rights records and, also, of putting unfair pressure on poor countries that depend on U.S. aid.

Support for U.S. Joint Statement[7]

On the other side of this controversy were anti-abortion groups that praised the statement as a sign of the administration’s “strong pro-life leadership on the world stage.” For example, the group Susan B. Anthony (SBA ) List issued a statement, saying, “From day one, President Trump has worked to restore respect for life as a foundational American value, not only in our domestic policies, but in our international relations as well.”

Conclusion

This speech by Secretary Azar, the preceding letter and the U.S. lobbying for other nations’ support against abortion and reproductive health can be seen as confirmation of fears that the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights that was announced this June was designed to put a gloss of respectability on efforts to attack women’s rights and to appeal to the Administration’s base of very conservative religious supporters.[8]

As noted in other posts, this U.S. Commission emphasizes the July 4, 1776, U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the Commission ignores that phrase’s indications that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “among” certain unalienable rights; i.e., there are other such rights. Moreover, the Commission ignores the very next sentence of that Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognizes that these recited rights need to be “secured” by subsequent legislation that will have details not specified in this Declaration. (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, the U.S.-promoted Joint Statement’s requiring all 193 U.N. members to adopt a U.N. document or treaty as a precondition for them to be used in other U.N. documents would give every one of those members a veto right on the subsequent use of those documents or treaties. Is there any such document or treaty that has such unanimous approval? (That is exceedingly unlikely.) It also is  antithetical to the provisions of such treaties requiring a certain number of ratifications in order for the treaties to go into effect for the parties to the treaties. In short, this provision of the Joint Statement would totally prevent progress on these and many other issues.[9]

In short, the U.S. positions expressed in the U.N. speech by Secretary Azar were most unfortunate.

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[1] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Represents the United States During UNGA High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Care Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, uhc 2030.

[2] U.S. HHS Dep’t, [Secretary Azar], Remarks on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); Howard, U.S. wants the U.N. to oppose terms such as “reproductive health and rights” in policies, CNN (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] The Political Declaration stated that the High-Level Meeting will have “a dedicated focus for the first time on universal health coverage . . . and [a strong recommitment] to achieve universal health coverage by 2030” with 83 numbered paragraphs of specific actions towards that goal. (U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, Political Declaration on the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 10, 2019).)

[4] Cha, U.S. joins 19 nations, including Saudi Arabia and Russia: ‘There is no international right to an abortion, Wash. Post (Sept. 24, 2019); Ford, Leaked letter suggests US is rallying UN members to oppose abortion, Guardian (Sept. 23, 2019).

[5] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Attends Presidential Address at UNGA, Furthers U.S. Partnerships on Health through Bilateral Meetings (Sept. 24, 2019).

[6] Netherlands Ministry Foreign Affairs, Joint Statement on SRHR in UHC (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] SBA List, Pro-Life Groups Praise Trump Admin’s Defense of Life at the UN (Sept. 24, 2019).

[8] See posts to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

[9]  See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES).

 

 

 

 

Washington Post Criticizes Commission on Unalienable Rights

An August 23, editorial in the Washington Post criticized the recently established U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] It thereby joins this blog and many other voices in finding this Commission unnecessary and misguided.

According to the Post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lamented so called “ad hoc rights” and “the proliferation of rights claims” and called for a return to fundamentals or “unalienable rights.” Yet to date the Secretary has not “spelled out what he means” or offered “a single concrete example of what rights he wants to curtail.” This has prompted many human rights advocates to complain that the true purpose of the Commission is to exclude women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights.

President Trump, however, “does not adhere to principle on human rights.” Instead, these two leaders “have singled out abuses when it suits their purpose” while turning “a blind eye toward the unsavory activities of regimes they favor.”

Therefore, “rather than. . . [tweaking] definitions [of human rights], Mr. Pompeo should start honestly speaking the truth about the world’s most frequent and serious rights violators.” [2]

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[1]  Editorial, Why redefine U.S. policy on human rights?, Wash. Post (Aug. 23, 2019).

[2] A recent article about  Pompeo reports that as an unsuccessful Kansas businessman he had the financial backing of the Koch brothers; that this Koch support continued while Pompeo was a Congressman and fierce critic of President Obama’s foreign policy; that Pompeo in 2016 was determined to stop Trump from getting the GOP’s presidential nomination, but at the party’s National Convention that year had switched to supporting Trump; that Trump’s November 16, 2016, interview of Pompeo was the first time they had met; that Pompeo as director of the CIA held daily briefings with Trump and waged what a former White House official described as a “concerted campaign” to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State; that the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, banning the gay-pride flag at U.S. diplomatic posts and scepticism about climate change are parts of “Pompeo’s own ideological agenda;” and that Pompeo is approaching the Secretary’s job “like a future Presidential candidate.” (Glasser, The Secretary of Trump, The New Yorker (Aug. 26, 2019).)

 

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).

 

Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background

This year Cameroon’s human rights record is the subject of its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. This post reviews basic information about the Council and its UPR process. Future posts will look at the pre-hearing papers for Cameroon’s current UPR and then its UPR hearing and then finally the results of the UPR.

The  Human Rights Council[1]

The Council since 2006 has been an important arm of the United Nations in recognizing and helping to enforce international human rights norms in the world.

The Council is made up of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly 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.

The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The seats are allocated on the following geographical basis:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

The current African members are Angola, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia.

The UPR Process[2]

One of the ways the Council seeks to encourage universal compliance with international human rights standards  is its UPR of individual U.N. member states. The UPR is universal in that all 193 U.N. members and all human rights norms are reviewed and it is periodic because it done every four years. Such reviews are to be “based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States.” This is to be done with “a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialogue, with the full involvement of the country concerned.”

The UPR process involves (a) the state’s submission of a report to the Council; (b) submission of written questions and recommendations to the state from other states and stakeholders (human rights NGO’s, etc.); (c) the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ summary of U.N. information about the country; (d) questions submitted to the country in advance by the Working Group; (e) the hearing by the Council, (f) the preparation of a draft report on the state by a Council working group, (g) the state’s comments on that report, (h) another hearing before the Council and (i) the Council’s adoption of the final report on the outcome of the UPR.

Council’s UPR Working Group for Cameroon’s UPR[3]

The UPRs are conducted by the Council’s 47 members acting as an UPR Working Group. In addition, any other U.N. Member State can take part in the review.

Each State’s review is assisted by a groups of three States, known as a “troika,” who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly. For Cameroon’s third UPR the Troika members are United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Iraq and South Africa.

The UPR Hearing

The May 16 hearing lasted three and a half hours, during which the state under review was given 70 minutes to present its report, as well as answer questions made by other states and present concluding remarks. The remaining 140 minutes were allocated to states participating in the review to ask questions, make comments and recommendations to the state under review.

The second stage of the process will take place during the Council’s 39th period of sessions in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

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[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of Council; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Current Membership.

[2] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic Facts about the UPR

[3]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Cameroon’s human rights record to be reviewed by Universal Periodic Review (May 11, 2018).

 

 

 

Advance Questions for Cuba in Its Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council

As summarized in a previous post, Cuba’s human rights record is now undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. That post also discussed Cuba’s national report, submissions by stakeholders (NGO’s and others), a summary of U.N. information about Cuba and information about a pre-session hearing. Now we look at the questions submitted to Cuba in advance of the Council’s hearing on May 16 and an unusual criticism of Cuba by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights along with additional background information about the Council and the UPR.

Advance Questions for Cuba[1]

 The following advance questions were submitted by other Council members:

Member Questions
Belgium 1. When does the Cuban government plan to ratify human rights conventions to which it is not yet party?

2. Does Cuba plan to extend an open invitation to the special procedures of the Human Rights Council?

3. Will Cuba respond favorably to requests for visits by the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and Freedom of Expression, which have been pending since 2015 and 2016?

4. Does Cuba now guarantee access to independent lawyers to all persons deprived of their liberty?

5. What concrete actions has Cuba taken to release persons deprived of their liberty for political reasons.?

Brazil 1.How does Cuba guarantee the rights of the LGBTI?

2.How does Cuba ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary?

Germany 1.Does Cuba plan to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

2.What will Cuba do to enable independent journalism?

3.Identify blogs and websites currently blocked and the reasons for same.

4.Will Cuba abolish travel restrictions for persons on parole or for those in certain professions, including the medical sector?

5.Will Cuba establish an independent national human rights institution?

Liechtenstein 1.Will Cuba ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court in its 2010 version?

2.Will Cuba join the Code of Conduct for U.N. Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes?

Malta 1.What steps has Cuba taken to increase the effectiveness of control by the people of the activities of States bodies, elected representatives and civil servants.?
Portugal 1.How does Cuba coordinate the implementation of UPR recommendations that it accepts?

2.How does Cuba coordinate the implementation of recommendations/observations by U.N. human-rights Treaty bodies and Special Procedures and by regional mechanisms?

Slovenia 1.Provide more information on how non-governmental organizations operate in Cuba and details on any consultation process with them.
Spain 1. Is Cuba reforming its Law on Associations and the Electoral Law to promote a higher level of inclusion and social participation?

2. Which multilateral instruments on Human Rights does Cuba plan to sign and/or ratify?

Sweden 1.Provide more information on Cuba’s prevention of trafficking in persons.

2.Provide more information on Cuba’s effort to improve internet access.

3.Has Cuba denied exit visas for human rights defenders and ndependent civil society members?

4.How will Cuba secure free and unrestricted travel for all of its citizens?

Switzerland 1.What did Cuba do to guarantee free and open participation of all citizens in its last election?

2.How many Cuban citizens were candidates in the election “without being a member of an officially recognized Cuban institution [e.g. Communist Party]?

3.Is Cuba broadening the list of legal private businesses (cuentapropistas)? Is Cuba reviewing the definition of cuentapropistas to include self-declared human rights organizations, independent journalists and bloggers and community-based organizations?

4.Will Cuba amend its constitution to eliminate the subordination of the Supreme court to the National Assembly and to the Council of Ministers?

5.How is the Cuban Criminal Code’s concept of “pre-criminal social dangerousness” interpreted?

6.How do families have transparent and open information about a family member who is a temporarily detained as an alleged criminal?

United Kingdom 1.Will Cuba allow the development of independent political parties, including their legal registration and participation in future elections?

2.How does Cuba ensure that all Cubans are able to participate fully in political and electoral processes?

3.Will Cuba end laws and policies that apparently give primacy to the principle of national unity?

4.Will Cuba move towards international independent verification of the condition of its prisons and detention facilities?

5.Will Cuba bring its laws into compliance with international human rights standards on freedom of expression, association and assembly?

U.S.A. 1. Will Cuba ensure that members of the political opposition, including independent candidates, can participate freely and without threats?

2. When will Cuba allow members of Ladies in White and all other citizens to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, religion and association?

3. How does Cuba ensure that those responsible for violations and abuses of human rights and labor rights (including members of the police, military and security services) are investigated and held responsible?

4. Will Cuba respect the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of assembly, expression and association of members of the Independent Union Association of Cuba and all other workers and representatives?

5. How is Cuba promoting access to information and access to an Internet that is open, interoperable, reliable,  secure and affordable to its citizens?

 

U.N. High Commissioner’s Criticism of Cuba[2]

At a May 11 press briefing, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released statements of concerns about human rights in Cuba and four other countries. Here is what was said about Cuba:

“There are deeply worrying reports that officials in Cuba have prevented a number of human rights defenders and civil society representatives from boarding flights to travel to meetings abroad on the pretext of requiring more detailed identity checks. These measures have resulted in passengers missing their flights and therefore the meetings, which in some cases were organised by a UN entity.”

“So far this year, the UN Human Rights Office has received direct information relating to 14 cases of Cubans being told by officials that the computer system required extra screening. We are also aware of reports that dozens of other people may have been stopped in this way from travelling, allegedly with no explanation by the Cuban authorities as to why they were held up nor on whose orders”

“These cases suggest that these additional checks are being used deliberately as a form of intimidation, pressure and harassment against certain individuals. Civil society organizations have also told us that they were informed verbally by the authorities that their representatives would not be allowed to leave the island before June.”

“We have previously expressed our concern at the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Cuba, including the arbitrary arrest and short-term detention of individuals, particularly before, during and just after demonstrations. “

“We call on the Cuban authorities to respect everyone’s right to freedom of expression and to freedom of movement, and to ensure that human rights defenders and civil society representatives are not unjustifiably prevented from travelling, including those planning to attend UN meetings, in particular the Universal Periodic Review of Cuba on 16 May in Geneva.”

“Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”’Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”

“The UN Secretary-General presents an annual report to the Human Rights Council on intimidation and reprisals, and in October 2016 the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, was designated to lead the monitoring and response to reprisals for cooperation or intimidation, including that which aims to discourage or prevent future co-operation with the UN system. Cuba was among the countries named in the last two reports.”

“The UN Human Rights Office will continue to monitor such cases to ascertain whether they merit inclusion in the next report.”

U.N. Human Rights Council Membership[3]

The Council is made of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly 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.

The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The seats are allocated on the following geographical basis:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

The current members include Cuba and the United States, both of whose terms expire on December 31, 2019, while Venezuela is also a member with its term expiring on December 31, 2018.

Council’s UPR Working Group for Cuba’s UPR[4]

The UPRs are conducted by the Council’s 47 members acting as an UPR Working Group. In addition, any other U.N. Member State can take part in the review.

Each State’s review is assisted by a groups of three States, known as a “troika,” who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly

For Cuba’s third UPR the Troika members are Egypt, Nepal and Peru.

The May 16 hearing will last three and a half hours, during which the state under review is given 70 minutes to present its report, as well as answer questions made by other states and present concluding remarks. The remaining 140 minutes are allocated to states participating in the review to ask questions, make comments and recommendations to the state under review.

The second stage of the process will be take place during the Council’s 39th period of sessions in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

=================================

[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (First Batch); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (Second Batch); Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (Third Batch).

[2] U.N. High Comm. Hum. Rts., Press briefing note on Yemen, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Montenegro (May 11, 2018); The UN denounces the blockade of the Cuban regime on the departure of human rights defenders, Diario de Cuba (May 11, 2018).

[3] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Background on Council Membership; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Current Council Members.

[4] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic facts about the UPR; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, List of Troikas (20th Session).

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Council’s Sparring Over Cuban Human Rights

This September the U.N. Human Rights Council  in Geneva, Switzerland has encountered two items relating to Cuba: (a)  a Council reprimand of Cuba for its alleged punishing some of its citizens for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights and (b) Cuba’s human rights record.

The Council’s Reprimand

On September 20 the U.N. Human Rights Council reprimanded Cuba by putting it on a list of 29 states that have “punished people, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the UN on human rights.”  Such reprisals and intimidation include travel bans, asset-freezing, detention and torture.[1]

The  29 states on the list are Algeria, Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. (The nine in bold along with 38 other U.N. members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve on the Council.)

The report said the  following about Cuba:

“On 18 October 2016, some mandate holders raised with the [Cuban] Government allegations of harassment and reprisals against human rights defenders and members of the Cubalex Legal Information Center for their cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights (see A/HRC/34/75, CUB 3/2016). The allegations were mainly in relation to advocates’ cooperation with the Human Rights Council, its special procedures and the universal periodic review mechanism, and took the form of stop and questioning at the airport and harassment by immigration agents. Additionally, on 23 September 2016, the offices of Cubalex Legal Information Center were raided (CUB 3/2016).” (Report, Section V.B.5.)[2]

The Council’s Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour, said, “There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, and particularly this Council, that people get punished, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights,”

Complaint about Cuba’s Human Rights

On September 19, under the Council’s Agenda Item 4: “Human Rights Situations Requiring Council Attention,” a U.S. diplomat expressed U.S.’ deep concern about the human rights situation in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Russia, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, (North Korea), China, DPRK (North Korea), Hong Kong, Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela and Cuba. (Emphasis added.)[3]

The diplomat’s statement about Cuba was very short: “We urge Cuba to release political prisoners and cease the harassment of civil society groups.” (Emphasis in original.)

The U.S. statement about Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, was longer. It said, “We condemn the Maduro regime’s repressive actions to violate human rights including by suppressing dissent and peaceful protests in Venezuela.  We call on it to dissolve the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and restore Venezuela’s democratic institutions; hold free, fair, and credible elections as soon as possible; and provide humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis in original.)

Cuba’s Response.

The same day (September 19), Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the Council, Ambassador Pedro L. Pedroso Cuesta, made the following longer response:[4]

  • “Is it politicization, double standards and selectivity, [all] bad practices, that will end up prevailing in the work of the Human Rights Council? Many of us hope not.”
  • “However, what we have heard in the debate of this theme, as well as in others last week, suggests that some promote that this is the way to go by this body.”
  • “Several countries continue to seek to stand as paradigms for the promotion and protection of human rights and use this and other agenda items to criticize other countries, while xenophobia, racism and intolerance increase in their own territories to a highly worrying level.”
  • “How can one think they are seriously concerned about human rights situations in countries of the South, when they promote wars and interventions against them, and then ignore or keep their hands off the suffering they caused with these actions to citizens whose rights are supposedly sought to improve?”
  • “Why do they oppose implementing the right to development and thereby improve the situation of millions of people living in poverty?”
  • “Cuba rejects manipulation for political ends and double standards in the treatment of human rights. The accusations against my country made by the [U.S.] representative, as well as unfounded, are inconsistent with the need to promote an objective, non-politicized and non-discriminatory debate on human rights issues.”
  • “I must also draw attention to the fact that such statement, centered on the alleged violations of others, aims at ignoring all human rights violations occurring in its territory, and the deep international concern caused by the language of exclusion that appears in that country.”
  • “We demand the cessation of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than 55 years. The measures of June 16 to reinvigorate this blockade are doomed to failure, and will not achieve their purpose of weakening the Revolution or bending the Cuban people.”
  • “We reiterate our solidarity with the Venezuelan Government and people and call for an end to all interference in the internal affairs of that country. We demand respect for the legitimate right of the Venezuelan people to continue building the social model that drives the Bolivarian Revolution.”
  • “Let us not let the failure of the defunct Commission on Human Rights repeat itself in the Council. It is our duty to work for cooperation and respectful dialogue to prevail, and politicization, selectivity and double standards disappear once and for all.”

As mentioned in a previous post, U.S. Vice President MIke Pence at the U.N. Security Council Meeting  on September 20 complained about Cuba and certain other countries being members of the U.N. Human Rights Council in light of what he said was its oppression and repression, a charge rejected by Cuba at that same meeting and by Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the General Assembly on September 22.   https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/09/24/u-s-cuba-relations-discussed-in-u-n-proceedings/

Conclusion

These developments at the Council do not involve the potential imposition of sanctions of any kind on Cuba. Instead they are, I believe, verbal sparring on an international stage. (If I am missing some potential sanctions, please advise in a comment to this post.)

I have not seen any Cuban response to the Council’s reprimand. In any event, Cuba as soon as possible should end any harassment of Cubalex Legal Information Center and any of its officers and employees.

Any reforms of the Human Rights Council would seem to lie with the General Assembly, which I assume would only do so after significant study, analysis and voting, and I am unaware of any such study being proposed or conducted.

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[1] U.N. Human Rts. Council, Report of the Secretary-General: Cooperation with the United Nations, Its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (# A/HRC/36/31, Sept. 15, 2017)(Advance unedited version); U.N. Human Rts Council, Oral presentation by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights of the Report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (No. 36/31 Sept. 20, 2017); U.N. Human Rts Council, Report highlights rising reprisals against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN (Sept. 20, 2017); Reuters, Record Number of States Punishing Human Rights Activism: U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2] See earlier post to dwkcommentaries: Cuban Police Search and Seize Property of Independent Legal Center (Oct. 7, 2016) (CUBALEX is the Center in question); More Cuban Arrests of Dissidents ( Dec. 2, 2016) (arrest of Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who is ‎affiliated with Cubalex).

[3] U.S. Mission Geneva, Statement by the United States of America (Sept. 19, 2017).

[4] Cuba rejects manipulation of human rights issue in Geneva, Granma (Sept. 21, 2017).

Jesus, The Refugee

“When last we saw Jesus he had just delivered a withering homiletic critique of his neighbors in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had refuted their assumption that God’s intentions for the human family were reserved solely for them and their nation.”[1]

“The townspeople nearly throw Jesus off the cliffs outside Nazareth for saying that, but somehow he escapes.”

Jesus thereby “became a former person, a person without a home, rejected by his own people and expelled. It had happened to him before, when the Holy Family had fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the violence of King Herod. Now, when Nazareth runs him out of town, Jesus becomes a refugee again. He never returns to his hometown.”[2]

Then Jesus and the disciples walked the nine miles or so northeast of Nazareth to the village of Cana.

“When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Cana they were invited to a wedding feast [where he performed his first miracle by turning] six jugs of water  into wine.” This is the account of that event from John 2:1-11 (NRSV):

  • ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘ They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has yet to come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification and holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. when the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him,’Everyone serves the fine wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have been drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.’

[This wedding scene has great significance because marriage] “is a recurring metaphor in scripture for the relationship between God and the people of God. The prophets used wedding language to describe God’s desires for the human family, especially for those who suffer. Isaiah’s words, directed to a long-ago people in exile, may have been read that day:”

  • ‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.’ (Isaiah 62:4)

“‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.’ The marriage scene in Cana offers a counterpoint to the violence Jesus experiences in Nazareth. It opposes his dehumanization. It reaffirms God’s love for one who has been subjected to hatred. ‘For the Lord delights in you.’ ‘Jesus did this,’ John says, ‘The first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)”

“The wine [provided by Jesus] signals something. The marriage feast with its abundant drink is a sign that God will not abandon the outcast children of God but will instead delight in them. God will contest those who seek to deny the humanity of others, in this case, Jesus, the former person from Nazareth. God uses the wedding feast to show that the degradation of humankind will be resisted, and that the resistance will be girded in joy.”

“Jesus changes the water into wine to signal God’s hospitality to those rejected by others and to reveal God’s delight in those deeemed to be former people.”

“At the wedding feast in Cana Jesus launches a movement. A movement of joyful resistance  against the baser impulses that run through each of us and through the principalities and powers of every time and place.”

“Yesterday a Jewish congregation in Illinois welcomed a Syrian family that had arrived in the U.S. on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the very day new rules excluding all refugees were issued. A day later the American Jews welcomed the Syrian Muslim family to their new town near Chicago with hugs and cheers and toys for the children. The members of the synagogue – and more than 100 were involved in supporting the family – then brought them to their new home, where they had prepared a feast, complete with a Syrian-style cake. ‘If this is the last group of refugees to get in,’ the [Illinois] rabbi said, ‘We will show them the best of America.'[3]

“It was the miracle of Cana all over again, and God’s intentions for the human family carried the day.”

“Today, in our time and in this land, the church still finds its calling in that same movement [of joyful resistance against the baser impulses].”

[We do so while recognizing that] “no religion or nation is innocent. . . . It’s what Europeans did to indigenous people and enslaved Africans. It’s happening now to Muslims and christians in Syria, in unprecedented numbers.”

“’Those of us who follow Jesus are no different from the refugees of our time. Once we were former people. Forgotten people. Displaced people. At the heart of our faith is the claim that God stands with those cast out who now dwell in the kingdom of memory, and the mandate that we stand with them, as well.”

[As 1 Peter tells us,] “’Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people,’ [and] goes on to say.

  • ‘Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to…conduct yourselves honorably…so that…they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when God comes to judge.’ (I Peter 2:10-12)”

“Judgment is a word to be used sparingly and with great caution, but in the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, we as a nation, and certainly those of us who follow the refugee named Jesus, will be judged by our response. Assuring the safety and security of our country is essential, but when we indiscriminately close our borders to mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence in their homeland and when we refuse entry to people solely on the basis of religion or national origin we are no different from and no better than those across history who have forced others to become former people.”

“’Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ Emma Lazarus said in her poem written in celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which she called the Mother of Exiles, ‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.'”

“Remember the ship called the St. Louis carrying Jews, forced from our harbors to return to Nazi Germany? Or Japanese-Americans driven from their homes and put in camps? Or the Dakota people expelled from this state and their land? Have we learned nothing from our history?”

“We live in a nation founded by people fleeing persecution. As people of faith we cannot remain silent in the face of policies that run counter to the biblical call to ‘welcome the stranger in our midst’ and that ignore the American commitment to offer refuge.”

Reactions

I found this sermon very moving although I had these nagging concerns. Jesus’ mother Mary already was at the wedding and thus it is fair to assume the residents of Cana had heard something about Jesus’ preaching, but they probably would not have heard about Nazareth’s expulsion of Jesus. If so, then the residents did not welcome Jesus as a refugeee. I assume that Cana was a small village and that most of the residents were at the wedding celebration. Therefore, when Jesus and his 12 disciples show up, there is nowhere else for them to go. These 13 additional guests placed an unexpected burden on the wine and food for the guests, yet the 13 were invited and welcomed. I also assume that in that time and place, as is true today, wedding guests are expected to bring gifts for the bride and groom, and Jesus and the disciples had no gifts in hand. Recognizing this faux pas and the burden they were placing on the bride and groom, Jesus provided extra wine as a gift and as a thank you for being included.

Are these concerns misplaced? I solicit comments from those who have greater knowledge about the Cana story.

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[1] This blog post is an edited version of Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s January 29 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, including his reference to his prior sermon that was discussed in an earlier post.  (the 1/29/17 sermon, Westminstermpls.org/2017/02/02/why-chan; the 1/29/17 bulltin, wp-content/uploads/2017/01; the bog about the 1/22/17 sermon, dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/30/Jesus-inaugural-address.

[2] The phrase “former people” comes from historian Douglas Smith, who used the term to refer to the Russian aristocracy banished and persecuted after the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013).) Smith, by the way, before college, was involved in youth activities at Westminster Church.

[3] Kantor, Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2017).

Possible Amendments to the New Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) 

As reported in a prior post, on September 28, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) even though the Chair (Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and Ranking Member (Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of this law.

Immediately after the adoption of this law, Senator Corker and others expressed desires to change the new law.[1] Let us look at these concerns and efforts to amend JASTA.

Certain Senators’ Concerns

Senator Corker said he thought the issues could be addressed in the “lame-duck” /Senator session of Congress after the November election and that possible fixes included limiting the bill’s scope just to the Sept. 11 attacks, changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill and establishing a tribunal of experts who ‘could first determine if there was culpability there.’”

Without specifics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there could be “potential consequences” of JASTA that are “worth further discussing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might have to “fix” the legislation to protect U.S. troops in particular. Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader and now a lobbyist for the Saudis, said, “I do feel passionately this is a mistake for a variety of reasons, in terms of threats to troops, diplomats, sovereignty, there’s serious problems here. Hopefully we can find a way to change the tenor of this.”

 Saudi Arabia’s Reactions

On October 3 Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet released a statement criticizing the adoption of JASTA.[2] It said the new law was “a source of concern to the international community in which relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, as this law came to weaken the immunity of the world guaranteed by the United Nations, its agencies and councils which were formed to preserve the legal sovereignty of all its member countries across the universe. Weakening this sovereign immunity will affect all countries, including the United States. [The cabinet] expressed hope that wisdom will prevail and that the U.S. Congress would take the necessary steps to avoid the bad and dangerous consequences that may result from the JASTA legislation.”

On October 20 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Afterwards the two of them held a joint announcement at the State Department.[3] With respect to JASTA, Kerry said:

  • We “did discuss [JASTA’s] very negative impact on the concept of sovereign immunity. And the interests of . . . [the U.S.] are at risk as a result of the law that was passed in Congress in the final days. And we discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11 but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities. Sovereign immunity is a longstanding, well-upheld standard of law, and unfortunately this legislation – unintentionally, I think – puts it at great risk and thereby puts our country at great risk. So we’re talking about ways to try to address that.”

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments about JASTA were the following:

  • “I . . . want to add my voice to what the Secretary said about the importance of sovereign immunities. Sovereign immunities have been a cardinal principle of the international legal order that was established after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. The objective is to bring order to the international system. And where sovereign immunities are diluted, the international system becomes chaotic, and no country, and no government, is able to conduct its official business without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, as the country with the biggest footprint in the world, of course has the most to lose by this, because you have operations all the way from Japan to South America to the Pacific, and I think that is why the vast majority of countries have come out vehemently and very strongly against . . . JASTA . . . for its dilution of sovereign immunities. And there have been a number of countries that are looking at reciprocal measures, and if this issue takes hold, we will have chaos in the international order, and this is something that no country in the world wants.”

However, neither gentleman provided details about so-called “fixes for JASTA.

Moreover, there already are “9/11 lawsuits” brought by 9,000 plaintiffs against Saudi Arabia consolidated in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan that had been dismissed, but will be resurrected under JASTA. Already there is talk about potential discovery and other pre-trial activity in the cases. This includes plaintiffs’ efforts to reinstate Saudi Arabia as a defendant. And on September 30 a new Sept. 11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the widow and daughter of a Navy officer killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

However, Raj Bhala, a professor of international and comparative law at the University of Kansas Law School, opines that the “deck remains stacked against the plaintiffs” with their biggest challenge: persuading a court there is solid evidence of a direct Saudi government role in the 9/11 attacks.[4]

Other Reactions

On October 10 China’s Foreign Ministry said China opposes all forms of terrorism and supports the international community on anti-terrorism cooperation, but that such efforts should “respect international law and principles of international relations, including fundamental principles of nations’ sovereign equality.” Therefore, every country “should not put . . . [its] domestic laws above international law and should not link terrorism with any specific country, religion or ethnicity.” The Foreign Ministry also noted that China’s people and assets at home and around the world face a growing risk from terrorism, but it has a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.[5]

Many other countries oppose JASTA. France considers that laws such as JASTA would lead to a “legal chaos” at the international level. Russia has slammed the legislation as undermining international law. Turkey views JASTA as a law against the principle of individual criminal responsibility for crimes and expects it would be reversed shortly. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned that JASTA could have a dire effect on US international relations.[6]

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said JASTA was an example of “legislative fecklessness.” Immediately after the bill’s passage, Republican congressional leaders talked about the need to “fix” the bill and tried to blame President Obama for the problems by falsely claiming he had not made a strong case against the bill. But the president had vetoed the bill, publicly articulated the reasons for the veto and personally and through Administration officials had warned congressional leaders about the adverse implications of the bill. Thus, a “’stupid bill’ that adversely affects American national interests is now law.”[7]

A New York Times editorial, agreeing with Professor Drezner, said that the adoption of the bill over a presidential veto, was a new example of congressional “craven incompetence” and that JASTA should be repealed. A Wall Street Journal editorial also called for repeal.[8]

Conclusion

The only specific suggestions of ways to “fix” JASTA that I have seen are Senator Corker’s. The idea of creating a new tribunal presumably to assess whether a specific state has sponsored or aided and abetted acts of terrorism in the U.S. sounds too complicated, but there are not enough details about such an idea to have a detailed response. The same is the case for his other suggestion about changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill. The idea of limiting the law to 9/11, however, might be a way to see how such a law works out in practice before it is expanded to include any other situation as the law now stands.

Instead, I offer the following initial suggestions for amending JASTA on the assumption that repeal is not currently feasible:

  1. Assign exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions under JASTA to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and require or suggest that all such cases be assigned to a designated District Judge. That will assist the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the White House and foreign governments in monitoring any such actions and eliminate the risk of inconsistent decisions at the District Court level and at the level of the federal courts of appeal. There is no reason to have any other federal courts involved in such cases and absolutely no reason to have any state courts so involved.
  2. Make the U.S. Government a necessary party to any such civil action.
  3. There should be limitations on permissible pre-trial discovery in such cases. Here is one way to do so. After answers to any complaint in any such civil action have been served and filed and before any other proceedings in the case, require the U.S. Government to provide its opinion as to whether the foreign state in any such case has sponsored or aided and abetted any acts of terrorism in the U.S. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has not sponsored or aided and abetted any act of terrorism in the U.S., then the civil action should be dismissed. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the case should proceed to assess damages with appropriate discovery. If the U.S. Government states that it does not know whether the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the U.S. Government should propose a plan for discovery in the case to attempt to resolve that question as quickly and as inexpensively as possible with a prohibition of any discovery that is not included in such a plan.

Now we wait to see what bills will be introduced in Congress to amend JASTA.

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[1] Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers May change Sept. 11 Law After Rejecting Veto, N.Y. times (Sept. 30, 2016); Peterson & Lee, Congress Looks to Narrow Bill Allowing Terror Victims to Sue Foreign Governments, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Sept. 11 Law Weakens International Relations, Saudi Cabinet Says, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Saudi Press Agency, Press Release regarding JASTA (Oct. 4, 2016); Hubbard, Angered by 9/11 Victims Law, Saudis Rethink U.S. Alliance, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir After Their Meeting (Oct. 20, 2016) Reuters, U.S. Urges Houthis to Keep Ceasefire, Discusses JASTA With Saudi, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2016). No additional details about any proposed “fixes” to JASTA were provided in response to questions at the State Department’s October 21 Daily Press Briefing.

[4] Mazzetti, Claims of Saudi Role in 9/11 Appear Headed for Manhattan Court, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016); Bravin, Lawyers Move Quickly After Congress Enacts Bill Allowing Suits Against Saudi Arabia, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[5] Reuters, China Backs Sovereign Immunity After U.S. Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2016).

[6] Fotouh, JASTA: Real threats and hidden opportunities, Egypt Daily News (Oct. 24, 2016).

[7] Drezner, The unbearable idiocy of Congress, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Editorial, Congress Has Itself to Blame for 9/11 Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2016); Editorial, Instant Senate Remorse, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).