More Observations on Cuba’s Reactions to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

A prior post discussed the reactions to U.S.-Cuba reconciliation by Cuba’s government and its people. Here are additional observations on these topics.

As noted in that prior post, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, gave an extensive interview on the U.S.-Cuba negotiations to a Granma journalist, and more recently Granma published the official English translation of the interview. Vidal reveals a great knowledge of the intricacies of U.S. law on the embargo and “wet foot/dry foot” immigration practices.

She also rebutted the contention by some U.S. critics of the rapprochement that the U.S. failed to obtain a “quid pro quo” for its concessions. She said, “Relations between Cuba and the United States have historically been asymmetrical. Therefore, the notion of quid pro quo cannot automatically be applied, taking into consideration that there are many more things to dismantle on the U.S. side than on the Cuban side. Cuba does not have sanctions against U.S. companies or citizens; nor do we hold occupied territory in the United States;  we don’t have programs financed by Cuba intent upon influencing the situation within the United States or promoting changes in the internal order of the United States; we don’t have radio or television broadcasts, specially conceived in Cuba and directed toward the U.S.”

Moreover, she said, “questions of an internal nature for Cuba or questions directed toward promoting changes in our internal order will never be put on the table during this process of negotiation.”

Meanwhile, President Raúl Castro on February 13th received Army General Sergei Shoigu Kuzhuguetovich, Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation. During the meeting, Granma reported, they discussed the historical ties between the two nations and ratified the willingness to continue strengthening the bonds of cooperation.

In January a el Nuevo Herald journalist from Miami visited  the island and concluded, “many Cubans, including laborers who have started up their own small businesses,  employees of state enterprises and retirees were hopeful that the new approach in relations between the U.S. and Cuba would result in greater prosperity for the average citizen after 56 years under the control of Castro.”

Cuban boy in Havana
Cuban boy in Havana

The journalist also saw Cuban children with T-shirts emblazoned with the face of President Obama and  Cuban women and men wearing shirts or pants with “American flag.”

This February, a BBC journalist talked with some of the young people at the annual March of the Torches at the University of Havana to commemorate Cuba’s revered poet and independence hero, Jose Marti. They welcomed the announcement of a thaw with Washington. “In the past, the two countries have had their problems, not between the people but our governments,” said 18-year-old Daimara. “But now we can improve relations with the US and the whole world.” Her friend, Sandra, added, “It was about time! It’s a step forward, a step towards better ties with everyone.”

Senator Klobuchar Introduces Bill To End Embargo of Cuba

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

On February 12, 2015, Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced S.491: Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. Its five cosponsors are Senators Richard Durbin (Dem., IL). Mike Enzi (Rep., WY),  Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Debbie Stabenow (Dem, MI). The bill was referred to the Senate’s   (a) Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and (b) Foreign Relations Committees.

                        Comments on S.491

Senator Klobuchar’s press release said the bill would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and thereby pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government. [1]

This press release also stated, “It’s time to the turn the page on our Cuba policy. Fifty years of the embargo have not secured our interests in Cuba and have disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores. There are many issues in our relationship with Cuba that must be addressed, but this legislation to lift the embargo will begin to open up new opportunities for American companies, boost job creation and exports, and help improve the quality of life for the Cuban people.” [2]

She subsequently told a Minnesota newspaper, “There’s been a sea change in terms of how people are thinking about Cuba. I think it’s really important to get people from the Midwest involved. Our interests are different than some of the other people traditionally involved in this issue. … We come at it from a production perspective, from the perspective of wanting to sell things there.” [3]

Klobuchar’s bill was endorsed by the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba. Its Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk of Cargill Incorporated, said, “We appreciate Sen. Klobuchar’s leadership to advance this bipartisan bill, modernize U.S. policy toward Cuba and boost opportunities for American agriculture. Ending the embargo will enable our agriculture sector to work in partnership with Cuba and the Cuban people, develop a meaningful trading relationship and create jobs across many sectors of our own economy.”

Internal Senate Political Concerns

As previously mentioned S.491 was referred to two committees: the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, each of which presents problems for successful passage of the bill. [4]

The Banking Committee has 12 Republican and 10 Democratic members. Its Chair is Richard Shelby (Rep., AL) while its Ranking Member is Sherrod Brown (Dem., OH). With two and maybe three exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority will be opposed to the bill while the Democrats will support the bill. The two exceptions are Republican Jerry Moran (KS), who supports ending the embargo, and Democrat Robert Menendez (NJ), who opposes such action. The other possible exception is Republican Bob Corker (TN), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who issued a noncommittal statement about the December 17th rapprochement.[5]

The Foreign Relations Committee has 10 Republican and nine Democratic members. Its Chair is the previously mentioned Bob Corker (Rep., TN) and its Ranking Member is Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ). With three and maybe four exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority, including Marco Rubio (FL), a Cuban-American who strongly and repeatedly opposes reconciliation, will oppose the bill while the Democratic minority will support the measure. The exceptions are Republicans Jeff Flake (AZ) and Rand Paul (KY), who have supported ending the embargo, and Democrat Menendez, a Cuban-American who vehemently opposes reconciliation with Cuba, including ending the embargo. The possible exception is Chair Corker, who has issued a noncommittal statement on the rapprochement. Thus, it is conceivable that there could be a 10-9  (or even a 11-8) vote approving the bill in committee. But if it does not also get out of the Banking Committee, that probably means very little.

These internal Senate political considerations prompted Klobuchar to acknowledge to the Minnesota newspaper that the Foreign Relations Committee’s obstacles for the bill “are clearly something to be reckoned with … but it doesn’t mean that two people [Senators Rubio and Menendez] can stop the whole thing.” She added that the legislation could come up through the Banking. Housing and Urban Affairs Committee or be passed in piecemeal fashion through other bills.

Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, who is a cosponsor of a companion bill (H.R.403) in the House of Representatives, also talked to the Minnesota newspaper about the political difficulties of passing such measures. Indeed, he called the odds of lifting the embargo this year as “thin” due to the political sway of the older generation of Cuban-Americans in certain congressional districts.

Peterson thought the elimination of the embargo will “help [Minnesota farmers] a little bit” by increasing demand and, therefore, farm prices, “but it’s marginal in the whole scheme of things.”

Conclusion

I thank and congratulate Senator Klobuchar for introducing this important bill and the six other senators for cosponsoring the bill. 

I conclude by adding the following three reasons for ending the embargo that I have not seen elsewhere:

1. Without the embargo, the U.S. would not face the annual fall nearly unanimous condemnation of the embargo by the U.N. General Assembly.

2. The elimination of the embargo might assist the U.S. in combatting the increasing Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America.

3. Cuba repeatedly has claimed that the embargo has caused damage to its economy, and at last Fall’s U.N. General Assembly meeting Cuba asserted the total damages were $1.1 trillion. That obviously is a very large amount of money. I am confident that in any litigation or arbitration over such a claim the U.S. would mount a thorough critique and arguments to rebut the claim, including evidence and argument that any alleged damages were caused by Cuban ineptitude and that the major premise of the argument (the illegality of the embargo under international law) was unfounded. Nevertheless, as is true in any disputed claim like this, there can be no 100% guarantee that the claim will be rejected in its entirety. Thus, this damage claim must be recognized as a contingent liability of the U.S., and ending the embargo will minimize the amount of that liability.

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[1] On January 15th the Congressional Research Service issued CRS Report 4388: “Cuba Sanctions: Legislative Restrictions Limiting the Normalization of Relations” In a 15-page table it “lists the various provisions of laws comprising economic sanctions on Cuba, including key laws that are the statutory basis of the embargo, and provides —on the authority to lift or waive these restrictions.”

[2] Similar press releases were issued by Senators Durbin and Leahy.

[3]  Sherry, Sen. Klobuchar leads effort in U.S. Senate to life Cuba trade embargo, StarTribune (Feb. 13, 2015).

[4] The THOMAS legislative service of the Library of Congress late on February 12th said the bill was referred to both of these committees, but on February 13th it said it was only referred to the Banking Committee. Since the embargo clearly relates to foreign relations, I assume the latter THOMAS version is incorrect.

[5] Research-backed comments and corrections on the positions regarding Cuba by the members of these committees are solicited and welcome.

President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

With God’s leading or nudging the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation, the timing of the announcement of that historic change on December 17th was due to more prosaic factors from the U.S. perspective.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible were several. The health of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. As we now know, the U.S. and Cuba had been engaged in secret negotiations for 18 months, and delaying the announcement ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

All of these considerations suggest why the President on December 16th (the day before the announcement about Cuba) quietly signed the $1.1 trillion appropriation bill even though it contained a repeal of an important provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act regulating financial institutions that Senator Elizabeth Warren passionately resisted.  The President did not want a lack of funding to interfere with or torpedo the reconciliation.

Within a week of the announcement we learned that the U.S. GDP for the third quarter had increased 5.0%, the strongest quarterly performance in a decade, and the U.S. stock market reacted with a record close on December 23 with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 18024.17, registering its 36th record close this year. Unemployment is below 6.0%. The FY 2014 deficit is below its 40-year average. The Affordable Care Act has reduced uninsured Americans by 25%, and overall health-care spending has slowed significantly. The U.S. Dollar is stronger against other world currencies. The federal government’s bailouts of banks and the auto industry that rescued the economy from a total collapse at the start of the Obama presidency were closed out with a net profit to the taxpayers of $15.4 billion. Low world oil prices help the American consumer and weaken regimes hostile to the U.S., especially Russia, Iran and Venezuela. An amazing economic performance! (Packer, A Pretty Good Year for Government, New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2014); Higgins, Oil’s Swift Fall Raises Fortunes of U.S. Abroad, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2014).)

President Obama, using the “fourth quarter” analogy of his favorite sport of basketball, obviously has concluded that he would be engaged in a vigorous “fourth quarter” (the last two years of his eight years in office) to do as much as possible of what he believes to be in the national interest of our country. Indeed, at the first Cabinet meeting after the huge Republican victories in this year’s midterm election, Obama gave every Cabinet member a white card that said, “We are entering the fourth quarter, and really important things happen in the fourth quarter.” Timothy Egan, a New York Times’ columnist, says Obama has “been liberated by defeat” and “in finally learning how to use the tools of his office, Obama unbound is a president primed to make his mark.” He is “marching ahead of politicians fighting yesterday’s wars,” who are forced “to defend old-century policies, and rely on an aging base to do it.” Moreover, Obama now “has Pope Francis as a diplomatic co-conspirator,” leaving Republican opponents of Cuban reconciliation to try to lecture “the most popular man on the planet.”  (Osnos, In the Land of the Possible, New Yorker (Dec. 22 & 29, 2014); Eagan, Obama Unbound, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

Finally the merits of reconciliation and these reflections on the timing of the announcement resurrect my personal support of the President. Given the Administration’s problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other administrative issues, I was beginning to think that Obama’s lack of prior administrative experience was a reason why he would not be the great President I expected him to be. Now, however, his achieving reconciliation with Cuba is a masterful demonstration of his intellectual, administrative and political skills.

Congratulations, Mr. President!

Tom Hayden: Will U.S.-Cuba Normalization Fail Again?

[This is a re-posting of an August 15, 2014, article in The Democracy Journal by Tom Hayden, political activist for social justice, author and Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center. Article licensing information appears on tomhayden.com (http://tomhayden.com/), which granted permission for this re-posting. Many similar posts have been published on https://dwkcommentaries.com/tag/cuba/.%5D

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On May 12, President Obama held a confidential conversation in the White House with Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader. The meeting was a fateful one. Did they discuss Uruguay’s becoming the first Marijuana Republic? Perhaps. Did they discuss the US-Cuba diplomatic impasse of 55 years? Most certainly, because three weeks later at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Uruguay the delegates reaffirmed a decision to officially invite Cuba to a summit in Panama next May.

The Obama administration will have to accept Cuba’s recognition by the OAS this spring or sit sheepishly in isolation. Fifty years ago, the OAS voted 15-4 to terminate all diplomatic relations and trade with revolutionary Cuba. Uruguay was one of the four dissenters in those days, when the revolutionary Mujica was underground, and has not changed its position over time. One doesn’t need gray hairs to observe that the US policy towards Cuba is obsolete and counter-productive. Ten years ago, then state Senator Barack Obama called for diplomatic recognition. Hillary Clinton recently revealed her support for recognizing Cuba as secretary of state. Recent polls, even in Florida, show majorities in favor of normalization. Inner circles in both countries are trying to explore a rapprochement, wary of pitfalls and domestic critics.

The most important recent change in US policy is the lifting of the travel ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island. As many as 500,000 travel back and forth every year, visiting family, sharing dialogue, spending millions in remittances. On the Cuba side, all agree that Raul Castro has opened significant space for private investment and entrepreneurs once condemned as counter-revolutionary. Businesslike bilateral talks are underway about issues of mutual interest, from currency exchanges to potential oil spills.

The biggest obstacle, from the Cuban view, is a persistent US program of covert “democracy promotion” – or, regime change – aimed at subverting the Cuban government by funding dissident networks in Cuba. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, is how US Sen. Patrick Leahy recently described the leaked revelations about a secret social media “Cuban twitter” program called ZunZuneo, after a Cuban hummingbird. One among fifty years of subversion projects, ZunZuneo was launched in 2009 after Obama spoke of building a new relationship. Its sponsor was the US Agency for International Development [AID], even after an AID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing communications equipment in violation of Cuban law.

Gross, now serving a 15 year sentence, is at the center of the heightened tensions now threatening normalization. Gross, 65, is widely reportedly in poor health and threatening to take his own life if he’s not released by next year. Should that occur, according to one top US official, it would end any hope of Cuba winning the return of one of its agents, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five who were captured in DATE while surveilling anti-Castro Cubans flying into Cuban airspace to drop propaganda materials. When two exile pilots were shot down by the Cubans after warnings conveyed directly to the US government, the Five were imprisoned on conspiracy and espionage charges. Two have served their time in federal prisons and returned to Cuba. Two others will finish their terms shortly, leaving Gerardo Hernandez facing a double life sentence.

Prisoner swaps have occurred before, for example in 1978-79 when President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro orchestrated the release of Puerto Rican nationalists who were imprisoned for shooting up the US House of Representatives in 1954. Although the releases were described as unrelated, the Puerto Ricans were pardoned and returned to their island while separately the US received a group of its agents held in Cuban prisons.

It would be logical therefore to swap Gross for Gerardo Hernandez, even if arranged separately, but nothing seems logical about the US-Cuban deadlock. According to interviews with participants, such a staged swap finally was being considered a few weeks ago – until the fiasco of the Obama administration’s trade of five Taliban officials for the return of the American POW, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. Republicans, some Democrats and the mainstream media complained that the five-for-one deal favored the Taliban, and then the issue became inflamed by hazy reports that Bergdahl had abandoned his Afghan base and was perhaps “anti-war.”

The Obama team was flat-footed in their response, failing to notify even their top Congressional allies. That  failure violated a legal requirement that Congress be informed thirty days before any such deal, an obstacle that most likely would have killed the swap. But Democratic leaders were furious at not even being informed of the move.

That’s why Alan Gross remains behind bars in Cuba with no deal for his release remotely possible. With the Gross matter unresolved, the entire process of normalization could go off track.

Many in Washington view the Cubans as too stubborn in the Gross case. But the Cubans have been burned by unfulfilled promises and miscommunications many times over the decades, and leaving Gerardo Hernandez behind is unacceptable to them – just as Obama argued that leaving Pfc. Bergdahl behind was out of the question.

The Cuban dilemma is that if anything should happen to Gross they will never see Gerardo back and a rapprochement could slip away. It may sound shocking to many Americans, but the death of Alan Gross in a Cuban prison would serve the interests of some in the anti-Castro Cuban lobby that is deeply threatened by the prospects of normalization. The death of Gross would serve the narrative that Castro’s Cuba operates a heartless gulag, ignoring the many proven examples of Cuban exile terrorism directed from Miami against Cuban civilians, like the 73 Cubans killed in an airline bombing in 1976. Cuban exiles have been a perfect examples of the “cancer on the presidency”, the metaphor once used by Nixon aide John Dean. They were the lead conspirators in the 1972 Watergate break-in, and the 1976 assassinations of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffett, on embassy row in Washington DC. Their violent attacks on Cuba from a Miami enclave are too numerous to document.

Cuba will make its own decision for its own reasons in the Gross case, and may have to make it soon. Since the Obama administration fears any appearance of a quid pro quo in the wake of the Bergdahl fiasco, should Cuba expect nothing in exchange for the release of Gross as a humanitarian gesture? That might depend on the initiative of the many in the US Congress who recognize that it’s long past time for a better relationship with Cuba. They could, for example, communicate private guarantees of White House action. They could try deleting the $20 million in federal funds for “democracy programs” in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal. They could send a letter to Obama requesting Cuba’s removal from the list of four countries designated as “terrorist” states, which hampers Cuba’s access to financial capital. They could urge the president to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba or spending US dollars there, thus undermining the current embargo. If they can’t do anything in response to a release of Gross, they could watch the prospect of normalization drift away.

Another recent crisis may shadow the US-Cuban process, revealing the complications of the impasse.. A long-planned improvement of relations between Russia, Cuba and Latin America is underway just at the moment when clouds of the Cold War are darkening the horizon over the Ukraine. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has just forgiven ninety percent of Cuba’s $30 billion debt owed to Russia for three decades, fueling the anti-communist suspicions of the Cuban Right. The arrangement is helpful to Cuba’s economy, long embargoed by the US, and adds a new counterweight against the US pressures on Cuba. If initial reports that Russia re-establishing a spy base on the island, that might chill the relationship further. Cuba, of course, has a sovereign right to accept a Russian base, especially as US regime change programs continue.

Whatever the spillover from the Bergdahl affair and the growing Russian-American conflict, however, nothing can stop the clock ticking towards 2015 when Obama has to decide whether to join the Organization of American States in restoring Cuba to equal membership. If that’s what the president’s confidential White House meeting with Uruguay’s Mujica in May was all about, the process of normalization may yet survive the remaining obstacles to resolution after five long decades.

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report 2014   

Comm'n Intl Religious Free                                                

On April 30, 2014, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its Annual Report 2014, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (“the Act”).[1]

Introduction

The Commission relies upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[2] (P. 9.)

The Report stressed the importance of this freedom. It says this right “protects the freedom of religious communities, as groups, to engage in worship and other collective activities. It also protects every individual’s right to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, as well as the freedom to manifest such a religion or belief, subject only to the narrow limitations specified under international law.” (P. 9.)

This right is important, says the Commission, “because it enables people to follow what their conscience dictates. . . . People are entitled to religious freedom by virtue of their humanity.” Therefore, there can be no “coercion or compulsion in these matters.” (P. 2.)

Moreover, whenever this freedom is abused, “societal well-being would suffer” as well as democracy and other human rights and economic productivity. So too “peace and security may become more elusive.” In short, according to the commission, “the defense of religious freedom is both a humanitarian imperative and a practical necessity.” (P. 3.)

General Recommendations

The Commission recommended that the U.S. do the following with respect to this freedom:

  • develop and implement a religious freedom strategy;
  • demonstrate the importance of religious freedom , including the designation of “countries of particular concern ” identified by the Commission;
  • reinvigorate and create new tools under the Act;
  • expand training, programming and public diplomacy about the subject;
  • expand multilateral efforts on the subject; and
  • protect asylum-seekers from being returned to countries where they face persecution for religious reasons. (Pp. 7-8.)

“Countries of Particular Concern” (Tier 1 Countries)

Under its authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. (P. 5.)

The latest report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight countries as Tier 1 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition, the Report recommends that the following additional eight countries also be so designated by the State Department: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. (P. 5.)

Tier 2 Countries

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met. (P. 5.)

The latest Report designated the following nine countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia and Turkey.[3] (P. 5.)

Other Countries

The latest Report also discussed seven other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka) and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. (P. 5.)

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will critique the Report regarding that country.

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[1] The Act § § 202, 205. The Report contains an account of the development of the Act and the 15-year history of its implementation. (Pp. 11-23.) A prior post examined the fascinating structure and composition of the Commission, and another post its report issued in 2013.

[2] See Post: International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion (Jan. 1, 2012).

[3] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Latest U.S. Reports on International Religious Freedom

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.[2]

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[4]

The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).[5]

Latest State Department Report

USDeptStateseal

After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”

The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”

Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”

The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”

According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”

Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.[6]

Latest Commission Report

USCommRelFree

 

Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.

The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.[7]

The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:

  • Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
  • Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
  • Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
  • Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
  • “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
  • Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
  • Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
  • Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.

When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.

Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.


[2]  Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[5] A prior post examined the prior State Department report.

[6] The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.

[7] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”