“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Report on Human Trafficking  

On June 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of State released its 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, which is “the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking” and “ the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.”[1]

For this Report, “severe forms of trafficking in persons” is defined in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Victims Act (TVPA) as:

  • “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

In this Report, the Department placed 188 countries (including the United States) into the following four tiers plus “Special Cases” (Libya, Somalia and Yemen) based on the extent of their governments’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” found in Section 108 of the TVPA:

  • TIER 1 [36] “countries whose governments fully meet the . . . [TVPA’s] minimum standards.”
  • TIER 2 [78] “countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.”
  • TIER 2 WATCH LIST [44] “countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards AND: a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecution, and convictions of trafficking crimes; increased assistance to victims; and decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government and convictions of trafficking crimes; or c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”
  • TIER 3 [27] “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

Susan Coppedge, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, made remarks at the ceremony.[2] She said the Report was the U.S.’ “principal diagnostic tool to assess government efforts across what we call the three Ps: prosecution, protection and empowerment of victims, and preventing future trafficking crimes.” She also said there had been 27 downgrades in this Report compared with the prior report and 20 upgrades. In addition, she responded to journalists’ questions, but none was asked about Cuba.

The Report’s Assessment of Cuba’s Record on Human Trafficking [3]

In the 2016 Report Cuba was again placed in the Tier 2 Watch List with the following explanation.

“Cuba is a source and destination country for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Child sex trafficking and child sex tourism occur within Cuba. Cuban authorities report people from ages 13 to 20 are most vulnerable to human trafficking in the country. Traffickers also subject Cuban citizens to sex trafficking and forced labor in South America and the Caribbean. The government indirectly acknowledged the presence of foreign national trafficking victims in Cuba. The government is the primary employer in the Cuban economy, including in foreign medical missions that employ more than 84,000 workers and constitute a significant source of Cuban government revenue. Some participants in foreign medical missions and other sources allege Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; however, the Cuban government and some participants say the program is voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba. The government uses some high school students in rural areas to harvest crops and does not pay them for their work but claims this work is not coerced.”

“The Government of Cuba does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these measures, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing antitrafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore Cuba is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year. The government reported continued efforts to address sex trafficking, including the prosecution and conviction of 18 sex traffickers in 2014 (the most recent available data) and the provision of services to 13 victims in those cases. The government publicly released a written report on its anti-trafficking efforts in October 2015. Multiple ministries engaged in anti-trafficking efforts, including the Ministries of Justice, Information Science and Communication, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Education, Tourism, Labor and Social Security, Culture and Health, and the attorney general’s office. The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking, although the government reported its submission of some trafficking-related penal code amendments to the National Assembly for review during the reporting period. The Cuban government was more transparent in providing details of anti trafficking efforts and the government’s overseas medical missions program. However, the government did not prohibit forced labor, report efforts to prevent forced labor, or recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad. The government provided funding for child protection centers and guidance centers for women and families, which serve all crime victims, including trafficking victims. These centers had the ability to screen cases, make referrals to law enforcement, assist with arranging cooperation with law enforcement up to prosecution, and provide victim services.”

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CUBA

“Draft and enact a comprehensive anti-trafficking law that prohibits and sufficiently punishes all forms of human trafficking, including forced labor, sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17, and the full range of trafficking “acts” (recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving persons); vigorously investigate and prosecute both sex trafficking and forced labor offenses; provide specialized training for managers in state-owned or controlled enterprises in identifying and protecting victims of forced labor; implement policies to prohibit force, fraud, or coercion in recruiting and retaining employees in such enterprises; train those responsible for enforcing the labor code to screen for trafficking indicators and educate workers about trafficking indicators and where to report trafficking-related violations; draft and adopt a comprehensive written national anti-trafficking action plan and dedicate resources to implement it in partnership with international organizations; provide specialized victim identification and referral training for first responders; establish formal policies and procedures to guide officials in the identification of all trafficking victims and their referral to appropriate services; adopt policies that provide trafficking-specific, specialized assistance for male and female trafficking victims, including measures to ensure identified sex and labor trafficking victims are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to sex trafficking or forced labor; and schedule a visit and cooperate with the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons.”

PROSECUTION: The government sustained law enforcement efforts by prosecuting and convicting sex traffickers, but took no action to address forced labor. The penal code does not criminalize all forms of trafficking, in particular forced labor and sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17. The government did not report any labor trafficking investigations, prosecutions, or convictions. In January 2016, the government reported it was in the process of amending the code, including submitting amendments to the National Assembly to raise the age of consent; it is unclear whether the government will make additional amendments to improve the legal framework to address trafficking. Cuba prohibits some forms of trafficking through several penal code provisions, including: article 302 (procuring and trafficking in persons); article 310.1 (corruption of minors younger than 16 for sexual purposes); article 312.1 (corruption of minors younger than 16 for begging); and article 316.1 (sale and trafficking of a child younger than 16). The penal code’s definition of sex trafficking conflates sex trafficking with prostitution and pimping. The law criminalizes inducement to or benefiting from prostitution, but treats force, coercion, and abuse of power or vulnerability as aggravating factors rather than an integral part of the crime. Legal provisions addressing “corruption of minors” criminalize many forms of child sex trafficking but define a child as an individual younger than 16 years of age; below the age set in international trafficking law, which is 18 years of age. Forced prostitution is illegal irrespective of the victim’s age, and the government has reportedly prosecuted individuals benefiting from child sex trafficking. Provisions for adult and child sex trafficking do not explicitly criminalize the acts of recruitment, transport, and receipt of persons for these purposes. In December 2013, the government amended article 346.1 of the criminal code to mandate sentences of five to 12 years’ imprisonment for various crimes, including for laundering funds obtained from trafficking in persons. Labor code article 116 prohibits entities from directly establishing labor relations with adolescents younger than age 17, even if adolescents may be authorized to join the work force.”

“In 2015, the government publicly presented official data on 147 prosecutions and convictions of sex traffickers during calendar year 2014, the most recent data available. Authorities reported 13 prosecutions and 18 convictions of sex traffickers, compared with 13 prosecutions and convictions in 2013. At least nine convictions in 2014 involved suspects accused of subjecting children to trafficking within Cuba, including the facilitation of child sex tourism in Cuba. The average sentence was seven years’ imprisonment. The government also identified a group of Cubans abroad recruiting and transporting women with false promises of employment and fraudulent work contracts in order to subject the victims to debt bondage and forced prostitution. The government has not sought extradition in this case, and therefore no prosecutions or convictions of suspected traffickers in Cuba have resulted. Students at the Ministry of Interior Academy and police assigned to tourist centers reportedly received specific anti-trafficking training and victim assistance. The government demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with other governments on investigations of possible traffickers. The government arranges for high school students in rural areas to harvest crops and allegedly forces or coerces participation in medical missions, but it denies such claims. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking in 2014.”

PROTECTION: The government sustained efforts to protect sex trafficking victims, but did not make efforts to identify or protect victims of forced labor. Authorities identified 11 child sex trafficking victims and four adult sex trafficking victims in 2014; it did not identify any labor trafficking victims or male sex trafficking victims. Identified sex trafficking victims received government assistance; detailed information on assistance provided to the 15 identified victims was unavailable. Other government-organized NGOs, like the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Prevention and Social Assistance Commission, and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution contributed by identifying victims of trafficking to state authorities and providing victim services. Independent members of civil society expressed concern about the government’s anti-trafficking efforts and  limited information on the scope of sex trafficking and forced labor in Cuba given sparse independent monitoring by NGOs and international organizations. The government reportedly developed procedures to proactively identify sex trafficking victims, whereby first responders work with social workers to identify potential cases and refer them to law enforcement.”

“The government did not report having procedures to proactively identify victims of forced labor. Some participants in foreign medical missions and other sources allege Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; however, the government and other participants have stated the postings are voluntary. In support of their applications to receive immigration benefits from the United States, some Cubans working in missions abroad have stated Cuban authorities withheld their passports and restricted their movements. At the same time, some participants who left medical missions abroad have been able to obtain new passports from their embassies in neighboring countries. There have also been reports that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program by allegedly threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members if participants leave the program. Reports of substandard working and living conditions and the presence of “minders” to monitor medical professionals outside of work also continued. Last year, Cuba reinstituted restrictions on travel for specialized doctors and some medical personnel, requiring them to obtain an exit permit from their superiors before leaving the island. On September 9, 2015, the government agreed to reinstitute medical personnel that left their positions while abroad. As of April 1, 2016, the Cuban authorities claimed that 274 medical professionals returned to Cuba and were rehired at the same salary and level of responsibility.”

“The FMC received funding from international organizations and operated centers for women and families nationwide to assist individuals harmed by violence, including victims of sex trafficking. These centers provided services such as psychological treatment, health care, skills training, and assistance in finding employment. The government reportedly developed a referral process to transfer trafficking victims to law enforcement custody, secure evidence for prosecutions, and provide victim services and follow-on care. Neither the government nor the government-organized NGOs operated shelters or provided services specifically for male trafficking victims. Police encouraged child sex trafficking victims younger than age 16 to assist in prosecutions of traffickers by gathering children’s testimony through psychologist-led videotaped interviewing, usually removing the need for children to appear in court. There were no reports of the government punishing sex trafficking victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. The government indirectly acknowledged the existence of some foreign trafficking victims in Cuba.”

PREVENTION: The government sustained prevention efforts to combat sex trafficking; however, authorities did not make efforts to prevent or address the demand for forced labor. The attorney general’s office continued to operate a 24-hour telephone line for individuals needing legal assistance, including sex trafficking victims, and received calls related to potential trafficking cases in 2015 that led to investigations. State media continued to produce newspaper articles and television and radio programs to raise public awareness about sex trafficking. Authorities maintained an office within the Ministry of Tourism charged with monitoring Cuba’s image as a tourism destination, combating sex tourism, and addressing the demand for commercial sex acts. The Cuban government cooperated with foreign law enforcement in investigating foreign citizens suspected of sexual crimes against children, including child sex trafficking. Under Cuban law, authorities may deny entry to suspected sex tourists and expel known sex offenders, but reported no related convictions in 2014. The government did not report whether it provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. The government publicly released a written report on its anti-trafficking efforts in October 2015. In March 2015, authorities invited the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons to visit, but the visit had not been scheduled by the end of the reporting period. The government did not report specialized training for labor inspectors to screen for indicators of potential forced labor.”

Reactions to the Report

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attended the State Department’s ceremony for launching the Report and afterwards stated, “ the committee will closely study the report to determine the integrity of the findings. . . . In order for the TIP report to be an effective tool for holding governments accountable, all judgments must be based on measurable progress on anti-trafficking efforts. Following what were clear flaws in last year’s TIP process, the committee will carefully examine the 2016 report and conduct public hearings [this July] to determine the integrity of the findings. Senator Ben Cardin, (Dem., MD), the committee’s Ranking Member, also issued a statement approving of the Report’s upgrading Thailand from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List and the downgrading of Uzbekistan from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3. He also expressed continuing concern about Malaysia. Neither of them said anything about Cuba.”[4]

Two other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), also issued statements. Menendez criticized the rankings for Malaysia, Cuba and unnamed other countries that “do not match the facts on the ground” and stated his expectation that “Congress . . . [will] be aggressive in its oversight and thoroughly investigate the methodology used to justify this year’s rankings.  Further, I am convinced that new legislation to reform the ranking process is the only way to restore credibility to this broken system and I plan on introducing a bill to do just that.” Rubio asserted that last year’s upgrade of Cuba to Tier 2 Watch List, and by implication its maintenance of that position in this Report, “was not justified by the facts on the ground.” He also criticized China’s maintenance on the Tier 2 Watch List and Thailand’s upgrading to that List.[5]

Conclusion

 The comments of Senators Corker, Menendez and Rubio allude to the Senate committee’s criticism of the prior report’s upgrading of Cuba and Malaysia from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List and to the Administration’s alleged political reasons for doing so, all of which was discussed in a prior post.

At the State Department’s recent ceremony to announce the release of the 2016 Report U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry anticipatorily tried to rebut similar criticisms against this Report. He said, “The tier rankings . . . reflect our department’s best assessment of a government’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking. They don’t take into account political and other factors. As I say, they’re based on . . . [established] criteria. And in addition to the rankings, the report outlines our specific concerns as well as the ways we can improve our efforts. This is not meant to be a dunning report; it is meant to be a demarcation, an encouragement process, a process of evaluation and work towards changing rankings.”[6]

We all will have to see what happens at the forthcoming February hearing to assess these criticisms.

In the meantime, we can, in my opinion, effectively rebut this Report’s half-hearted contention that Cuban medical professionals are engaged in forced labor when they work on the government’s foreign medical missions. Here are the bases for that conclusion:

  • First, the Report admits that there is conflicting information and allegations on the foreign medical mission work. Coercion is alleged by “some participants” and unnamed “other sources.” On the other hand, the Report admits, the Cuban government denies these allegations, and instead the Government and “some participants” assert the postings are “voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” The Report also concedes there is conflicting information on whether other means, including withholding Cuban passports, are used to coerce or force participants to remain in the program.
  • Second, there apparently has not been any fair adjudicative process to determine which of these conflicting sets of information is valid.
  • Third, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman. He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[7]
  • Fourth, According to Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party’s newspaper, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” The Granma article included the reflection of four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions and who treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[8]
  • Fifth, this Report does not cite to the relevant legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim. Most pertinent is Article 2(2) of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which states, in part, ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphasis added.)[9]

Moreover, as a previous post noted, a respected international journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, recently reported that Cuban medical doctors serving on the island now earn $67 per month, but $500 per month when serving on a foreign medical mission.

The $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.

Finally all of this discussion about Cuba’s foreign medical mission program is precipitated by the U.S. Cuban Medical Personnel Parole Program that allows such personnel to apply for parole into the U.S. For reasons previously provided, this program is unjustified and should be ended as soon as possible.[10]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 (June 30, 2016).

[2] U. S. State Dep’t, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Susan Coppedge on the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 30, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 : Country Narratives–Cuba, at 146-47 (June 30, 2016).

[4] Senator Corker, Corker: U.S. Must Lead Global Effort to End Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery (June 30, 2016). Senator Cardin, Cardin Statement on State Dept. Trafficking in Persons Report (June 30, 2016).

[5] Senator Menendez, Menendez Reacts to State Department 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 30, 2016); Senator Rubio, Rubio Comments On State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 30, 2016).

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, [Secretary Kerry’s] Remarks at the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report Ceremony (June 30, 2016).

[7] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies 269, 286-87 (2012).

[8] Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[9] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.

[10] New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 23, 2014); New York Times Calls for End to Special U.S. Immigration Programs for Cubans, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 21, 2015).

 

 

Update on Congressional Actions Regarding Cuba 

A June 12th post reviewed the status of appropriations bills relating to Cuba in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now we look at what happened last week in Congress on these and other measures.

National Defense Authorization Act FY 2016[1]

On June 18, the Senate passed its version of the spending authorization for the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2016.

The White House threatened to veto the bill. The main bone of contention is the bill’s continuation of sequestration of funds and use of so-called budget gimmicks. The White House opposes also opposes the bill because it contains language that it claims would make it hard to shutter the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It calls the process for winning congressional approval of closing Guantánamo “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”

The same day, however, Senator John McCain (Rep., AZ) said that Defense Secretary Aston Carter had pledged to come forward to Congress with a plan to close the Guantanamo prison facility. Even if the administration hands over a plan to close the facility, however, it’s unclear if it could get passed through Congress. McCain’s proposal divided Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he faces opposition from House lawmakers.

Now the Senate and House have to confer and negotiate a bill that can pass both chambers. One of the major challenges are the different provisions regarding the Guantanamo detention facility and detainees:

  • The Senate’s version of the bill provides the President with a path to close the prison in Guantanamo if Congress signs off on the plan.
  • The House version does not include an option for closing the prison, but instead would maintain restrictions on transferring prisoners. The House bill also adds additional certification requirements, bans detainees from being transferred to “combat zones” and blocks any transfers of prisoners to the United States including for medical purposes.

Intelligence Authorization Act, FY 2016 (H.R.2596)[2]

On June 16 the House passed, 247-178, the Intelligence Authorization Act FY 2016 (H.R.2596). It outlines policy for 16 federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and .the National Reconnaissance Agency. After the vote, John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House, said, “This bill sustains and strengthens our capabilities to combat terrorism, cyberattacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while making every taxpayer dollar count.”

The bill’s sections 321 would ban the transfer of certain Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.; section 322 would ban the construction or modification of U.S. facilities to house certain Guantanamo detainees; and section 323 would ban transfer of Guantanamo detainees to combat zones. Sections 331 and 333 would require certain reports to Congress regarding such detainees.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Dem., CA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, criticized the bill’s banning the government from transferring such detainees to the U.S. or a recognized “combat zone.” Schiff said, “We are not safer because of Guantanamo’s existence. In fact, it makes us more vulnerable by drawing more recruits to the jihad.” Moreover, the definition of “combat zone,” Schiff added, is “so broad as to include allies and partners such as Jordan.” An amendment from Schiff to eliminate the new restrictions failed 176-246.

Before the vote, the White House said, “While there are areas of agreement with the committee, the administration strongly objects to several provisions of the bill,” and “If this bill were presented to the president, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the president that he veto it.”

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016[3]

On June 17 the House Appropriations Committee approved the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016 on a straight party-line vote, 30 to 20.The Committee’s press release states the bill provides $20.2 billion in funding for “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws , maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow” while reducing or eliminating lower-priority programs and cutting “poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill was the temporary blocking of the newly implemented net neutrality rules, which was criticized by the White House without a threat of a veto.

As noted in a prior post, according to the Committee’s press release, the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I, however, am still unable to find these provisions in the bill. I solicit comments identifying these provisions.

In the Committee Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem., NY), the top Democrat of the full committee, offered an amendment that would have removed what she called “20 veto-bait riders” or policy provisions, including these Cuba-related measures. The proposal was blocked on a party-line vote.

Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (S.299)[4]

A prior post discussed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 that was introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ). In addition, it now has 44 cosponsors: 36 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 2 Independents.

A recent New York Times editorial endorsed the lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. It said, “The ban — the only travel prohibition American citizens are currently subjected to — never made sense, and it’s particularly misguided in an era of broadening engagement between the United States and Cuba.” Now, “the trajectory is unmistakable. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Cubans on the island and Americans favor engagement. Congress should wait no longer to do its part.”

Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489)[5]

On June 3 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) introduced the Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489) with seven cosponsors (Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Orrin Hatch (Rep., UT), Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), Ted Cruz (Rep., TX), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), David Vitter (Rep., LA), Mark Kirk (Rep., IL). It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

The bill would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transaction with or transfer of funds to: the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba or the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba (or any of their subdivisions); a senior member of such Ministries; any agency, instrumentality, or other entity that is more than 25% owned, or that is operated or controlled by, such a Ministry; or any individual or entity for the purpose of avoiding a prohibited financial transaction or transfer of funds that is for the benefit of that individual or entity. Excluded from these bans are the sale to Cuba of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices; remittances to an immediate family member; or assistance in furtherance of democracy-building efforts for Cuba.

The bill would also require (a) the U.S. Attorney General to coordinate with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in order to pursue the location and arrest of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, including current and former members of the Cuban military and (b) the U.S. President to provide reports on the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba and the return of property that has been confiscated by the Government of Cuba.

In his press release about the bill, Senator Rubio said, ““It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality. The Cuban Military Transparency Act would prevent U.S. dollars from getting into the hands of the Cuban military and would demand accountability from the Obama Administration regarding fugitives of American justice in Cuba, the return of stolen and uncompensated property and the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas opposes this bill. It admits “that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those . . . are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry. Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade [the U.S. Treasury agency] they spent their money in Cuba some other way.” But “how could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military?”

Therefore, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the true purpose of this bill is “to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.”

Conclusion

These latest congressional developments reinforce the need for continued vigilance by supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation to pay attention to what is happening in Congress and to continue to express their opinions on these issues to their representatives in that body and to the larger community.

I take pride in the strong support for such reconciliation in the State of Minnesota, so far away from Cuba. A recent article in MINNPOST explored this apparently strange phenomenon. Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a non-native Minnesotan, believes there are three main reasons for this fact. First, two of Minnesota’s biggest industries — agriculture and medical devices — have massive potential exports to Cuba. Second, Minnesota’s lack of a large Cuban-American community and its distance from the island mean our lawmakers are not subject to the same pressures as representatives from states like Florida and New Jersey. Third, many of Minnesota’s federal legislators are reasonable people.

I concur in that opinion, but believe Schwartz has missed the fundamental reason for strong Minnesota support for this reconciliation. Many people in this State are interested in what goes on in the world and are actively engaged with the rest of the world through their churches like Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Center for Victims of Torture, Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Cuba Committee and various programs at the University of Minnesota and through Minnesotans’ welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world, especially from Somalia, Viet Nam and Laos, and through major multinational corporations headquartered here like Cargill, which is leading the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba,3M, Medtronic and General Mills.

I was pleased to read about the change of heart of a prominent Cuban-American Republican who was U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush Administration, Carlos Gutierrez. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, he said,” it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.” He added, “Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy. I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

Gutierrez concluded, “America must look to the future instead — and pursue this opportunity to assist Cubans in building a new economy. There is a lot of work to do, and progress will be slow. However, the business community and my fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead. The Cuban people need and deserve our help.”

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[1] Matishak, White House threatens to veto Senate’s defense spending bill, The Hill (June 18, 2015); Carney, McCain expects Pentagon plan on closing Guantanamo, The Hill (June 18, 2015);Carney, Five challenges for the defense bill (June 21, 2015).

[2] This section of the post is based upon Hattem, House passes intel bill over White House objections, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[3] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (Jun 17, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Financial Services Appropriations Act FY 2016 (June 9?, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Report: Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, 2016, No. 114- —( 2015);Trujillo, House panel advances rider to block Internet rules, The Hill (June 7, 2015); Trujillo, Obama administration knocks net neutrality riders in funding bill, The Hill (June 17, 2015)  Shabad, Bill with $838M IRS cut advances in House, The Hill (June 17, 2015).

[4] Library of Congress THOMAS, S.299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (Cosponsors)

[5] This portion of the post is based upon the following: Library of Congress THOMAS, Cuban Military Transparency Act; Rubio, Press Release: Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro’s Military and Security Services (June 3, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act (June 19, 2015).

Minnesota Welcomes New U.S. Citizens  

The ultimate step in the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen that was discussed in a prior post is taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. This is usually done in a collective ceremony.

Such a ceremony was held on May 26, 2015, by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota when it welcomed 453 new U.S. citizens from the following regions of the world: Africa, 167; Asia, 160; Latin America, 56; Europe 43; Middle East, 20; and Other, 7. Of the 76 foreign countries represented, the largest numbers came from Somalia, 42; Ethiopia, 34; Liberia, 26; Burma (Myanmar), 24; Thailand, 23; Nigeria, 23; and Mexico, 22.

After everyone sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” an officer of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services collectively presented the new citizens to the court, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey J. Keyes administered the following Oath of Allegiance to the new citizens:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Judge Keyes then congratulated them. He said he saw the U.S. as a fabric or quilt of diverse elements that combined to create a beautiful whole that continuously is regenerated with new citizens. He urged the new citizens never to forget the poetry, the culture, the land and the ancestors of their homelands.

On a personal note, Keyes said his ancestors came from Ireland 150 years ago, and he was confident that they never imagined that someday an Irishman could become President of the United States. Yet in 1960 John F. Kennedy of Irish heritage was elected to that office. So too many people in this country could not have imagined that a black man could also be so elected, and yet Barack Obama was the victor in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.

With citizenship came many rights and responsibilities under our Bill of Rights, Keyes continued. There was freedom of speech and the responsibility to listen and understand the opinions of others. There was no established religion and the freedom to have or not have your own religious beliefs and the responsibility to understand and accept others’ religious beliefs. Another right was the freedom of assembly and the responsibility to engage in the political arena and to vote.

Other words of welcome were made in a videotape presentation by President Obama. One of his messages was in American no dream is impossible.

The ceremony concluded with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

One of the largest single naturalization ceremonies in Minnesota was on September 6, 2012, when 1,509 individuals from 100 countries became U.S. citizens; the largest numbers of these came from Somalia (344), Ethiopia (141), Laos (101), Liberia (95) and Mexico (84).

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Council Is Warned About Human Rights Violations

The U.N. Human Rights Council, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on the subject, [1] is in the midst of its 28th regular session at its headquarters in Geneva Switzerland with the session ending on March 27th. [2]

Zeid Ra-al Al Hussein
Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein

At the opening of the session on March 2 the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, [3] set forth his concerns on human rights. Three days later, on March 5th, he commented on his annual report on human rights. This post will examine both of these speeches.

From March 2 through 5, the Council conducted what it called its High Level Segment, in which national leaders addressed the Council on the overall subject of human rights. Two of those national leaders were U.S. Secretary of State john Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Their remarks will be covered in subsequent posts while another post will analyze those remarks and the speeches of the High Commissioner.

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 2nd [4]

The “cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists . . . continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily.”

“And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests. How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them.  For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed.”

“It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the [U.N.] was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.” By “ratifying the U.N. Charter, [states] have made a clear commitment [in the words of its Preamble] to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.’”

“And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.”

“States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. [U.S.?] Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. [Cuba?] A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

“In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by [the Council] as [its] independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies.  I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.”

“The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.”

“They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.”

“The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace.”

“Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed.  Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary.  Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighborhoods.”

“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees [U.S.?]; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. . . . [T]hey are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honors the dignity of its people.”

“The only real measure of a Government’s worth is . . . the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

“Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today:  ‘I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me.’ “

“I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalization, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth.  They are not new.”

“At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face.  We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.”

“What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity?  You must not make it so.  This is principally your burden, and ours.  Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally.  Let us make it so.”

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 5th [5]

The High Commissioner was “appalled by the massive suffering ISIL provokes [in Syria, Iraq and Libya]: from the murders, torture, rape and sale of children . . . ; to mass beheadings; burning people alive in cages; seemingly genocidal attacks on ethnic and religious groups; the obliteration of due process; torture; deprivation of income and every kind of service and resource; recruitment of children; the destruction of elements of the cultural heritage of humanity; and, not least, particularly vicious and comprehensive attacks on the rights of women and girls.” [Similar horrible actshe said, were perpetrated in Nigeria by Boko Haram and in Yemen and Somalia by other groups.]

“My Office strongly supports efforts by States around the world to prevent and combat terrorism, and to ensure that the perpetrators of terrorism, as well as their financiers and suppliers of arms, are brought to justice.”

“Terrorist attacks [,however,] cannot destroy the values on which our societies are grounded – but laws and policies can. Measures that build what has been termed the ‘national security state’ – such as arbitrary or prolonged detention; torture and ill-treatment; massive surveillance that contravenes the right to privacy; unfair trials; discriminatory policing; and the abusive use of legislation to curb legitimate rights to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression – are human rights violations. They generate legitimate resentment, harm social cohesion, and undermine the essential values of the international community.”

“There is real danger that in their reaction to extremist violence, opinion-leaders and decision-makers will lose their grasp of the deeper principles that underpin the system for global security which States built 70 years ago to ward off the horror of war. The fight against terror is a struggle to uphold the values of democracy and human rights – not undermine them. . . [C]ounter-terrorist operations that are non-specific, disproportionate, brutal and inadequately supervised violate the very norms that we seek to defend. They also risk handing the terrorists a propaganda tool – thus making our societies neither free nor safe. The use of torture, neglect of due process and collective punishment do not make the world any safer.”

“To be truly effective, any response to extremist violence must be targeted, proportionate, and legal. Military campaigns, financial sanctions and attempts to staunch the inflow of weapons – such as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty – may be part of the solution.”

“But other actions are needed to stem the root causes that feed into these conflicts. We must acknowledge that large numbers of people do not join such extremist movements en masse because they have been suddenly and inexplicably hypnotized. Extremism – however repugnant – is nurtured by ideology, and by alienation fed by years of tyranny, corruption, repression, discrimination, deprivation and neglect of the legitimate rights of communities.”

He especially was “disturbed by a continuing trend of harsh restrictions on public freedoms by States across all regions. I refer to military crackdowns on demonstrations; harsh sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents in politically motivated trials; brutal punishments for simple tweets; censorship; oppressive and illegitimate regulations of civil society movements; the use of new technologies to stifle human rights in the virtual space; and new security laws that are unjustly broad, endangering civil liberties and human rights.”

“And yet the great pillar of every resilient and participative society is freedom of expression. Freedom to formulate the ideas of equality led to the overthrow of colonialism, and has powered every movement against discrimination and injustice. To immunize against dictatorship or totalitarianism, to undo discrimination, to drive justice and accountability, we need freedom of expression – full and free and far-reaching. There is no good governance without free speech.”

The High Commissioner’s speech included specific criticisms of many countries. About the U.S., he said: “In the United States, the Senate report on torture in the context of counter-terrorism operations is courageous and commendable, but profoundly disturbing. For a country that believes so strongly in human rights to have swiftly abandoned their fundamentals at a time of crisis is as astonishing as it is deplorable. And yet few other countries have had the courage to likewise publicly investigate and publicly admit to rights abuses resulting from counter-terror operations – and many should.”

“Under international law, the [Senate] report’s recommendations must be followed through with real accountability. There is no prescription for torture, and torture cannot be amnestied. It should also lead to examination of the institutional and political causes that led the US to violate the absolute prohibition on torture, and measures to ensure this can never recur.”

“As the Senate report clearly demonstrates, the neglect of due process, use of torture and collective punishments that were permitted by US officials in the post-9/11 context did not make the world – or the US – any safer. On the contrary, they increased the threat of terrorism, by feeding into the grievances on which it thrives. The orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo are a recruitment tool for ISIL and other groups. As former President George W. Bush has conceded, Guantanamo became, I quote, ‘a propaganda tool for our enemies.’”

The High Commissioner also expressed regret at the renewed use of the death penalty in a number of countries – Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia – and “the continuing extensive use” of the death penalty in China, Iraq, Iran and the U.S.

In conclusion, he said, “It is the people who sustain government, create prosperity, heal and educate others and pay for governmental and other services with their labour. It is their struggles that have created and sustain States. Governments exist to serve the people – not the other way round.”

“Governments that protect human rights, combat discrimination and deprivation, and which are accountable to their people are more prosperous and more secure than those which stifle rights, hamper opportunities, and repress freedoms. When people’s rights are respected – when they are accorded dignity, have opportunities to express their skills and are given a fair share of resources – they form resilient societies. When they are wronged, their rights betrayed, there is a constant threat of turmoil. Respect for the human rights of the people is not destabilizing; but driving legitimate opposition underground is.”

 Conclusion

Speeches about human rights in international fora often are replete with platitudes. These speeches by the High Commissioner are not. While he condemns the horrible actions of ISIL and Boko Haram, these groups are not represented at the Council. Instead the countries that are represented are often the victims of their evil deeds. Therefore, the High Commissioner spent most of his time chastising the latter countries for failing to live up to the human rights commitments they have made as they are combatting terrorism. Moreover, these speeches address some countries by name and point our their failings.

In a later post we will look again at these speeches in the context of the issues of human rights in the process of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

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[1] The Human Rights Council has 47 member states elected by the U.N. General Assembly. Currently both the U.S. and Cuba are such members.

[2] Materials about the Council’s 28th session are available on its website.

[3] The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the U.N. and the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which “spearheads the [U.N.’s] human rights efforts . . . by strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan was unanimously elected the High Commissioner by the U.N. General Assembly in June 2014. His many years of diplomatic service include being Jordan’s Ambassador to the U.S., his country’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. and his serving as an officer of the International Criminal Court. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Cambridge University.

[4] Al Hussein, Opening Speech to the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council, U.N. (Mar. 2, 2015); UN Human rights Council, Human Rights council opens twenty-eighth session (Mar. 2, 2015); Schlein, UN Council: Rights Being Violated to ‘Shocking Degree,’ VOA (Mar. 2, 2015).

[5] Al Hussein, Opening Statement, Item 2, High Commissioner’s Annual Report, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015); Member States must enforce human rights amid rising tide of extremism—UN rights chief , UN News (Mar. 5, 2015); Human rights principles in struggle against extremism—Zaid, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015).

 

 

 

 

Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

 

All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.