Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review Hearing by the U.N. Human Rights Council

On May 16, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland held a 210-minute public hearing on its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cuba’s human rights record. The hearing consisted of Cuba’s report by its Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, and other Cuban officials; comments and recommendations by 140 countries (50 seconds each for a total of approximately 117 minutes); and responses by the Cuban officials.

Before the hearing,, the Council received Cuba’s human rights report, a summary of U.N. information about Cuba, reports from stakeholders (human rights organizations and others); and advance questions from some U.N. Members. The  224 submissions from stakeholders, for example, included around 17 that said Cuba’s constitutional and legislative framework “guaranteed the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, and others, on the other hand, said that Cuba had not undertaken any reforms to promote the exercise of political freedoms.[1]

Cuban Government’s Report[2]

From the times of the US military occupation, which severed our independence, under the governments it imposed, 45 per cent of children did not attend schools; 85 per cent of persons lacked running water; farmers lived in abject poverty without ever owning the land they tilled and immigrants were brutally exploited. In Cuba [during those years], workers and farmers had no rights.  Extrajudicial execution, enforced disappearances and torture were recurrent.  Discrimination based on the color of the skin was brutal; poverty was rampant and women and girls were even more excluded.  The dignity of Cubans was tarnished and Cuba’s national culture was trampled upon.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Cuban Revolution led by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruiz transformed that reality and continues to strive to improve the quality of life, wellbeing and social justice for all of our people, thus implementing all human rights. That willingness to protect human dignity, provide equal opportunities and ‘conquer all the justice,’ has remained unchanged and unswerving until today.”

“Our country has continued to take steps to further improve its economic and social development model with the purpose of building a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation by strengthening the institutional structure of our political system, which is genuinely participatory and enjoys full popular support.”

In accordance with the Constitution, we have continued to strengthen the legal and institutional framework for the protection and promotion of those rights, and we have introduced modifications and proposals adapted to the needs and realities of the Cuban society and international standards. The attention to citizens has been equally improved by means of the expansion of the mechanisms, ways and recourses in the hands of the population to denounce any  infringement of the legal system or their rights; file claims or petitions to the competent authorities; channel up their opinions and concerns and actively participate in the adoption of government decisions.”

The Foreign Minister then provided more details about Cuba’s “protection of the right to life. . .; law enforcement authorities . . . [being] subject to rigorous control processes and popular scrutiny.; . . .There has been no impunity in the very few cases of abuses involving law enforcement agents and officials;” no traffic in firearms; continued strengthening of “people’s participation in government decision-making and the exercise of the freedoms recognized under the Constitution and the law;” increased “effectiveness of the control exercised by all citizens over the activity of state organs, elected representatives and public officials;” advancing “the promotion of the right to full equality; in the struggle against elements of discrimination based on the color of the skin and against women;” and  increasing “support to prevent and cope with manifestations of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” He also mentioned increases in numbers of civil society organizations, and said defenders of human rights enjoy government recognition and support.

However, in Cuba, “the legal system cannot be infringed upon or subverted to satisfy a foreign agenda that calls for a change of regime, the constitutional order and the political system that Cubans have freely chosen.  Those who act this way are not worthy of being described as human rights defenders; they rather qualify as agents to the service of a foreign power, according to many western legislations. (Emphasis added.)

Cuba has continued to strengthen its cooperation with the UN mechanisms that take care of these issues. . . We have strictly complied with all  . . . 44 of the 61 international human rights instruments [into which we have entered.]”

“Cuba has continued to promote initiatives at the [U.N.] Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, for the defense of human rights, including the rights to development and peace.  We have consistently opposed every attempt to politically manipulate said bodies; selectivity as well as double standards.”

Likewise, “huge efforts are being made, amid adverse financial conditions, to preserve the purchasing power of salaries and pensions, improve access to food, adequate housing and public transportation, while preserving and even enhancing the quality of universal and free education and public health. No one will ever be left to his or her own fate in Cuba.”

“We cannot but mention our condition as a small island developing country, faced with an unfavorable international economic situation, characterized by the prevalence of irrational and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption; market regulations and non-transparent and less than democratic international financial institutions. Added to this are the adverse effects of climate change and the impact of natural disasters of high intensity on our economy.  Substantial resources should be invested to cope with them. (Emphasis added.)

“The strengthening of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba and its extraterritorial implementation causes deprivations and continue to be the main obstacle to the economic and social development of the country.  This unjust policy, which has been rejected by the international community, violates the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and International Law and represents a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of our people, thus qualifying as an act of genocide under the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948.” (Emphasis added.)

“We demand the return of the territory usurped by the US Naval Base in Guantánamo, where the United States maintains a detention camp in which serious human rights violations and acts of torture are committed.”(Emphasis added.)

“The political and media campaigns against Cuba, which distort our reality, intend to discredit our country and conceal Cuba’s undeniable human rights achievements.“ Emphasis added.)

We are opened to dialogue and will offer all the necessary information based on the respect and objectivity that should characterize this exercise, in which there should be no double standards or politically motivated manipulations, which we will not accept, because, as was expressed by the President of the Council of State and Ministers, Comrade Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez on April 19, “there is no room for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle.  In Cuba, by the decision of the people, there is only room for the continuity of that legacy with the Revolution and the founding generation, without giving up to pressures, without fear and setbacks, always defending our truths and reasons, without ever renouncing sovereignty and independence, development programs and our own dreams.” (Emphasis added.)

Other Countries Comments and Recommendations[3]

During the hearing a total of 339 recommendations, many of which are repetitious, were made. Many countries, especially those friendly with Cuba like Russia and China and developing countries, made no recommendations at all. Others were more critical: members of the European Union (EU), United States, Japan, Canada, but also Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Gabriel Salvia, the General Director of the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America, said, “It is a great step forward for more Latin American countries to point out the human rights situation in Cuba,”

Near the end of this section of the hearing, the U.S.’ 50-seconds were the sharpest against Cuba.[4] Michele Roulbet, the U.S. delegate, said:

  • “The April presidential transition again robbed the Cuban people of any real choice in shaping their country’s future; the same actors are in charge, many just with different titles, selected in a process that was neither free nor fair. The government stacked the system against independent candidates, none of whom were able to run for seats in the National Assembly, which selected the president.”
  • “The Cuban government continues to criminalize independent civil society and severely restricts the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief and the right of peaceful assembly.  It routinely applies laws to silence journalists and critics, and punishes those working to expand access to information and freedom of expression for those in Cuba.”
  • In an “attempt to silence opposition voices, the government reportedly continues to use arbitrary and politically motivated detentions, torture, harassment, and travel prohibitions.  Recent examples of this include those who attempted to monitor the undemocratic presidential transition; those who have advocated for political change; and those who were prevented from participating in the 2018 Summit of the Americas in Lima and this UPR process.”

The U.S. then made the following three recommendations to Cuba: (1) “Reform its one-party system to allow for genuinely free and fair multi-party elections that provide citizens with real choices [regarding their government. “(2) “Cease the practice of arbitrarily detaining journalists, opposition members, and human rights defenders, including preemptively, and adopt a legal framework that ensures judicial independence.” (3) “Release arbitrarily detained or imprisoned individuals who were detained and imprisoned for peaceful assembly, investigate and report on government activity, or express political dissent, and allow them to travel freely both domestically and internationally.”

About midway through this section, Cuba responded to some of the criticisms. It denied the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, restrictions on the right to strike, or even the obstacles to travel freely, while insisting on the independence of the justice system. Cuban. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez described the alleged dissidents and human rights activists as “agents of a foreign power,” a regular practice of the regime to attempt to discredit opponents.

Cuba’s Closing Comments[5]

Foreign Minister Rodriguez in his final statement at the hearing said, “It is regrettable that certain countries are continuing to manipulate the human rights question for political ends, to justify the embargo on Cuba and ‘regime change.’ hey have no moral authority and on the contrary are the perpetrators of extensive, well documented and unpunished violations of human rights; they ride roughshod over the aims of the Universal Periodic Examination and persist in selectivity, double standards and the politicization of human rights.” (Emphasis added.)

These practices, which in recent years have started to reemerge, discredited the [former U.N.] Commission on Human Rights and prompted its replacement by this Council. We will be on a retrograde path if we allow such deviant practices to be consolidated in the Council’s work. Respectful dialogue reflecting the principles of objectivity, impartiality and non-selectivity; and the respect for each people’s self-determination, its right to decide its own political, economic, social and cultural system, and its development model, are the cornerstone of international cooperation in this area.” (emphasis added.)

A small number of the recommendations have an interventionist character, contrary to the spirit of cooperation and respect on which this exercise is based. One of the recommendations is strange: it is the United States which is prohibiting its citizens from travelling to Cuba and restricts their freedom to travel; it is Washington which is denying Cubans, Cuban families, consular services and visa issue at its embassy in Havana.” [These recommendations will be rejected.] (Emphasis added.)

We are keeping to our “socialist and democratic revolution, with the humble and for the humble” proclaimed by Commander-In-Chief Fidel Castro and inspired by José Martí’s brotherly formula: “With everyone and for the benefit of everyone”.

U.S.-Cuba Subsequent Conflict Over Cuba’s UPR[6]

Immediately after the Geneva hearing, from the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in New York City,  U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, issued a statement. It said that the UPR process expects countries “to allow independent civil society organizations to fully and freely participate in their UPR process. However, the Cuban government blocked independent Cuban civil society members from traveling to Geneva to participate in their review process, just as they did last month when they blocked Cuban civil society members from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit of the Americas.” (Emphasis added.)

Ambassador Haley added, “A country with a human rights record as abysmal as Cuba’s is no stranger to silencing its critics. But the Cuban government can’t silence the United States. We will continue to stand up for the Cuban people and get loud when the Cuban government deprives its people of their human rights and fundamental freedoms and robs them of free, fair, and competitive elections, denying them the opportunity to shape their country’s future.” (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile the live webcast of the hearing was watched in Miami by some Cuban-Americans, who were gathered at the headquarters of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, whose website says, “Since its inception in 1990, the Cuban Democratic Directorate  has been characterized by a consistent and cohesive strategy for liberty and democracy in Cuba.” The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, which was established in 1992 “to promote a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba with zero tolerance for human rights violations,” complained that Cuba had flooded the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights with letters sent by Communist Party organizations, the Cuban Women’s Federation and other organizations affiliated with the government that contained “absurd praise about the Cuban system.”

Remaining Steps in Cuba’s UPR[7]

Following the UPR hearing,  Cuba this September will submit a formal response to the recommendations, and the Working Group then will prepare a draft of the Outcomes Report. This report will provide a summary of the actual discussion, including the questions, comments and recommendations made by States to Cuba, as well as the responses by the Cuban Government.

Such outcome reports are not all that illuminating. For example, the one for Cuba’s prior review in 2013, which probably will be a lot like the one forthcoming for this latest review,[8] contains a summary of the hearing–presentation by Cuba (para. 5-26), interactive dialogue and responses by Cuba (paras. 27-169)—and a mere sequential listing of the repetitive recommendations made by the states at the hearing (paras. 170.1-170.291) although there also is an integrated more useful 45-page “thematic matrix of the recommendations.”

Another document from 2013 set forth Cuba’s views on these conclusions and recommendations and its voluntary commitments. It  listed many recommendations that “enjoy the support of the Government of Cuba;” others that have been noted by the Government; and the following 20 that  did “not enjoy the support of the Government:”

No. Country Recommendation
170.136 Belgium Adopt legislation to improve immigration & relations with Cuban diaspora
170.139 Belgium, Czech Repub., Slovenia Implement legal safeguards to protect human rights defenders, journalists, against abuse of provisions for criminal prosecution & release all political prisoners
179.162 Belgium Amend the Law of Criminal Procedure in order to avoid the cases of indefinite extension of the preliminary investigation
170.171 Romania, Estonia & Hungary Remove restrictions on freedom of expression notably concerning the connection to the Internet; Reconsider all laws that criminalize or restrict the right to freedom of expression & right of internet freedom; Lift restrictions on rights to freedom of expression that are not in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; ensure affordable & unhindered access to the internet for all.
179.172 Spain Allow freedoms of expression, association &assembly; allow human rights associations to obtain legal status through inclusive and official registration
170.173 Switzerland Lift restrictions hindering free expression & ensure that human rights defenders & independent journalists are not victims of intimidations or arbitrary prosecutions & detentions
170.174 U.K. & Northern Ireland End measures to restrict freedom of expression & assembly including short-term detentions and use of criminal charges such as “precriminal social dangerousness”, “contempt” and “resistance”
170.175 Ireland Repeal legislation relating to so-called “pre-criminal social dangerousness”
170.176 U.S.A. Eliminate or cease enforcing laws impeding freedom of expression
170.177 France Guarantee freedom of expression & peaceful assembly plus free activity of human rights defenders, independent journalists & political opponents
170.179 Canada Take further measures to improve freedom of expression by allowing for independent media &  improving access to information through public access to internet by taking advantage of the recent investment in the fiber optic network
170.182 Austria Guarantee free, free & independent environment for journalists and ensure that all cases of attacks against them are investigated by independent & impartial bodies
170.183 Netherlands End repression, investigate acts of repudiation & protect all persons who are targets of intimidation or violence
170.184 Poland Liberate immediately & unconditionally all prisoners held in temporary detention or sentenced in connection with exercising their freedom of opinion & expression as well as freedom of assembly & association
170.187 U.S.A. Release Alan Gross and imprisoned journalists such as Jose Antonio Torres immediately. [Gross was released on 12/17/14]
170.188 Australia Stop limitations on civil society activities, including short-term detention of political activists
170,189 Germany Stop harassment, intimidation & arbitrary detention of human rights activities
179.190 Hungary Stop short-term detentions, harassments & other repressive measures against human rights defenders & journalists. Implement legal safeguards to ensure their protection against abuse of provisions for criminal prosecution
170.192 Australia Reduce government influence & control over internet as part of a broader commitment to freedom of expression
170.193 Germany End online censorship

 

The report finally has to be adopted at a plenary session of the Human Rights Council. During the plenary session, the State under review can reply to questions and issues that were not sufficiently addressed during the Working Group and respond to recommendations that were raised by States during the review. Time is also allotted to member and observer States who may wish to express their opinion on the outcome of the review and for stakeholders to make general comments.

Conclusion

After the final adoption of the Outcomes Report, the Council has no authority or power to compel Cuba to do anything. Instead, Cuba “has the primary responsibility to implement the recommendations contained in the final outcome.”

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Cuba’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council (April 30, 2018); Advance Questions for Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council (May 11, 2018).

[2] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba will continue to build an ever freer, more democratic, just and fraternal society (May 16, 2018).

[3] ‘It is a great step forward for more Latin American countries to point out the human rights situation in Cuba,’ Diario de Cuba (May 16, 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba reiterates its commitment to cooperate with the UN human rights system (May 16, 2018); Havana warns that it will reject the recommendations of the UN with criticism of its ‘constitutional order,’ Diario de Cuba (May 18, 2018).

[4] U.S. Mission to U.N. (Geneva), U.S. Statement at the Universal Periodic Review of Cuba (May 16, 2018).

[5]  Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba reiterates its commitment to cooperate with the UN human rights system (May 18, 2018); Havana warns that it will reject the recommendations of the UN with criticism of its ‘constitutional order,’ Diario de Cuba (May 18, 2018).

[6] U.S. Mission to U.N., Press Release: Ambassador Haley on Cuba’s Human Rights Record (May 16, 2018).

[7] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic facts about the UPR.

[8] U.N. Hum. Rts.  Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Cuba (July 8, 2013); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Cuba: Addendum: Views on conclusions and recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review (Sept. 2013); U.N. Human Rts. Council, Matrix of recommendations.