Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

A prior post reviewed the limited public record (to date) of the first meeting on October 23 of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

To gain a better understanding of what to expect from the Commission, this blog will examine two recent commentaries on human rights by, and an interview of, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, the author of a major book about the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [1] and a prominent Roman Catholic who was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the George W. Bush Administration. The Conclusion will evaluate her comments and those made by others at the first meeting.

Reclaim Human Rights (August 2016) [2]

Glendon began this article by acknowledging that she had been a participant in the Ramsey Colloquium’s 1998 affirmation of the UDHR as “the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person” and as making “possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future.” [3] She also affirmed she was “a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses.”

Nevertheless, Glendon said that a 2016 criticism of human rights by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, [4] caused her to “ponder whether the noble post-World War II universal human rights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.”

According to Glendon, by “1998, governments and human-rights organizations alike were ignoring the fact that the UDHR was constructed as an integrated document whose core fundamental rights were meant to be ‘interdependent and indivisible.’ [However, by 1998, the] sense of the interdependence among rights and the connections between rights and responsibilities was fading.” Moreover, “a host of special-interest groups [were inspired] to capture the moral force and prestige of the human-rights project for their own purposes. . . .[The] core of basic human rights that might be said to be universal was being undermined by ‘multiplying the number of interests, goods, and desires that are elevated to the status of rights.”

As a result, by 2016, she argues, “the post-World War II dream of universal human rights risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy.”

Reno’s criticism of human rights, Glendon continues, emphasizes “the way that human rights as an ideology detracts from the difficult and demanding work of politics.” This is especially true in the U.S., she says, as “judicially-created rights have displaced political judgements that could and should have been left to the ordinary processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, and voting.” This has damaged “the American democratic experiment” by making it more difficult to correct an unwise judicial decision, intensifying “the politicization of the judicial selection process,” depriving “the country of the benefits of experimentation with different solutions to difficult problems” and accelerating “the flight from politics.”

Glendon concludes by urging “church leaders and people of good will to make every effort to connect the human-rights project to an affirmation of the essential interplay between individual rights and democratic values. We should insist on the connection between rights and responsibilities. And we should foster an appreciation of the ultimate dependence of rights upon the creation of rights-respecting cultures.”

 “Renewing Human Rights” (February 2019) [5]

“When Eleanor Roosevelt and a small group of people gathered at the behest of the U.N. in early 1947 to draft the world’s first ‘international bill of rights’” (the subsequent UDHR), the “idea that some rights could be universal—applicable across all the world’s different societies—was controversial.”

“Yet in the decades that followed, the UDHR . . . successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny.”

“But now . . . the international human rights idea is in crisis, losing support both at home and abroad. Good intentions, honest mistakes, power politics, and plain old opportunism have all played a role in a growing skepticism, and even a backlash.”

As Glendon sees it, “there were three stages” to this change: [1] a pick-and-choose attitude toward rights initiated by the two superpowers in the Cold War era [U.S. and U.S.S.R.]; [2] an over-extension of the concept once the human rights idea showed its moral force; and [3] a forgetfulness of the hard-won wisdom of the men and women who had lived through two world wars.”

“The end of the Cold War increased the influence of human rights. American predominance, Western ideological ascendancy, a series of atrocities and conflicts, and a growing role for the United Nations and other international actors spurred the rapid growth of human rights activism in the 1990s. By the 2000s, there were many human rights organizations, including specialists, activists, agencies for monitoring and enforcement, and academic journals.”

These changes brought about “an interventionist approach, backed by Western—especially American—power. . . .  The establishment of state-like institutions such as the International Criminal Court (which the United States ultimately did not endorse), and doctrines such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ reflected this shift. They increased the human rights field’s ability to frame the international agenda and set global standards. . . .  This encouraged an expansion in the number of basic rights.”

“Given that individual rights were gaining ascendancy, the role of social institutions and non-­individualistic values were deemphasized. A one-size-fits-all approach triumphed over the idea of a common standard that could be brought to life in a variety of legitimate ways. The indivisibility and inter­dependence of fundamental rights were ­forgotten.”

Some states now object to “uniform methods of interpreting and implementing” human rights treaties and to “supra­national institutions. They are remote from the people whose lives they affect. They lack public scrutiny and accountability, are susceptible to lobbying and political influence, and have no internal checks and balances.”

According to Glendon, the following “four major principles that the UDHR’s framers followed [in 1947-48] can reinvigorate the human rights idea in our own time:”

  • Modesty concerning universality. “The framers wisely confined themselves to a small set of principles so basic that no country or group would openly reject them. This was essential not only in order to gain broad political support within the U.N., but also to ensure that the Declaration would have deep and long-lasting support across vastly different cultures, belief systems, and political ideologies.”
  • Flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected.
  • Interdependence of basic rights.” The UDHR makes it clear “that everyone’s rights depend on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society. . . . The framers of the [UDHR] did not expect uniform management of tensions or conflicts between rights. . . . [and instead] assumed that communities must balance the weight of claims of one right versus another before determining the best course of action.” Only a few rights do not allow such variation: “protections for freedom of religion and conscience” as well as “prohibitions of torture, enslavement, degrading punishment, . . .retroactive penal measures, and other grave violations of human dignity.”
  • “Subsidiarity.” Emphasis on “the primacy of the lowest level of implementation that can do the job, reserving national or international actors for situations where smaller entitles are incapable.” This principle, as stated in the UDHR’s Proclamation, also calls on “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Glendon concludes by arguing for a new human rights goal: “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils for which a broad consensus exists across all societies. This would at least include “protections against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin; and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.”

Glendon Interview [6]

On August 3, 2019, Glendon was interviewed by Jack Goldsmith, another Harvard Law School professor of international law. Here are her comments that were not already expressed in the above articles.

She said there was confusion and crisis in human rights with roughly half of the world’s population without any rights and exasperated by disappointing performance of international human rights institutions.

Socrates said that definition of terms was the beginning of wisdom, and this is especially important since human rights are now important parts of U.S. foreign policy.

The concept of “unalienable rights,” which the printer of the original Declaration of Independence substituted for Thomas Jefferson’s draft’s use of “inalienable,” has evolved with the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the U.S. Declaration of Independence talked about “laws of nature” or pre-political rights, the UDHR is grounded in the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.

Glendon emphasized the civil and political rights in the UDHR were interdependent with economic and social rights and pointed to the New Deal and the preambles of many U.S. statutes on economic and social issues as expressing this interdependence. This also is stated in Article 22 of the UDHR: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’” (Emphasis added.) This provision rejected the Soviet Union’s position that the state was solely responsible for such rights with Eleanor Roosevelt saying during the deliberations over the UDHR that no one had figured out how to do that without loss of freedom.

Another emphasis of Glendon was on the UDHR Proclamation’s words: ‘every individual and every organ of society, Keeping the [UDHR] constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of [U.N.] Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” Or as Judge Learned Hand said, ‘The spirit of liberty will die if not in the hearts of the people.’

Reactions

 Glendon’s primary focus in these two articles and interview is the UDHR, which is mentioned as one of two  guiding authorities for the Commission on Unalienable Rights, but Glendon has less to say about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which is the other guiding authority for this Commission.

We all should seek to follow her emphasizing the UDHR’s interdependency of civil and political rights with economic and social rights and the importance of every individual and every organ of society striving by teaching and education to promote respect for human rights and freedoms.

The UDHR indeed is an important international human rights instrument. But it is a declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It does not by itself establish legal obligations on any nation state or other person.

In any event, Glendon says nothing about another provision of the UDHR’s Proclamation: “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR and, by implication, that these other measures will include “rights” language. Moreover, under the principle of “flexible universalism,” a developed and wealthy country like the U.S. could well find ways to secure the rights mentioned in the UDHR that are more complex than those in other countries.

A similar principle for the Commission exists in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  It says, as the Commission emphasizes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration says, but the Glendon and the Commission ignore, “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration.[7] These are not “ad hoc” rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say.

As a result, after the 1948 adoption of the UDHR, various U.N. organizations have drafted and adopted many international human rights treaties,[8] and the U.S. federal and state governments have adopted many human rights statutes and regulations.

This obvious point is surprisingly overlooked by Glendon when she lauds UDHR’s Article 14 on the right to asylum as an example of flexible universalism because it does not say how that right should be protected. But the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that entered into force on April 22, 1954, defines”refugee” and specifies many conditions for that protection while limiting reservations under Article 42. Presumably she is not arguing that this treaty was a mistake.

Indeed, we should all celebrate, not complain as Secretary Pompeo likes to do, that there has been such proliferation or in Glendon’s words, “too much contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’ language. These arguments by Pompeo and Glendon can be seen as underhanded ways to cut back or eliminate rights that they do not like, which I assume would include abortion and LGBQ rights. Such rights constantly are criticized by her church (Roman Catholic) and by the Commission’s creator, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and others in the State Department.[9]

Criticism of Glendon’s apparent adherence to traditional Roman Catholic teachings on some of these issues comes from her successor as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the Obama Administration, Miguel Diaz, along with 128 Catholic activists and leaders, in a letter opposing the Commission. [10] They said, “Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world. Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world,” they write. “Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Of most urgent concern is that the composition of the Commission indicates that it will lead our State Department to adopt policies that will harm people who are already vulnerable, especially poor women, children, LGBTI people, immigrants, refugees, and those in need of reproductive health services. This is being done “in the name of a very partial version of Christianity that is being promoted by the current Administration.” “All human beings,” however, “have been created in God’s image and all have been endowed by their Creator with the fundamental right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. No person speaking in the name of government or in the name of God can do so to undermine or to deny this right.”

Nor does Glendon discuss how to resolve conflicts among rights. For example, the U.S. Declaration’s mention of “life” as one of the “unalienable rights” is taken by some, and probably Glendon, as a basis for arguing there should be no right to an abortion. But an abortion may be necessary to protect an expectant woman’s right to “life” or her “pursuit of happiness.”  How are those conflicts resolved? That is why we have federal and state and international courts and agencies to resolve these conflicts or disputes.

The previously cited “four major principles” of the UDHR are worthy of remembering and guiding future human rights, internationally and domestically.

Glendon, however, fails to acknowledge the continued use of the “flexible universalism” principle in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. [11] Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. The same was done by the Council’s predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Committee.[12]

The words of Professor Michael McConnell from the Commission’s first meeting should also be remembered in this evaluation of its ongoing work. He warned that the term “‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

Andrea Schmitt of the Center for American Progress who attended  the Commission’s first meeting also had words of wisdom for the Commission. She said, “It is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world.”

We all should thank Professor Glendon for her expertise and willingness to serve as Chair of the Commission. Those of us interested in international human rights need to carefully follow the Commission’s deliberations and eventual reports and express our agreements and disagreements with respect and reasoned arguments.

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[1] Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[2] Glendon, Reclaim Human Rights, First Things (Aug. 2016).

[3] The Ramsey Colloquium apparently published reflections about early Christianity’s treatment of homosexuality. (Graeser, The Ramsey Colloquium and Other First Things Resources, Mars Hill Audio (June 29, 2001).

[4] Reno, Against Human Rights, First Things (May 2016). Reno is a former professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution until 2010 when he became the editor of First Things. In 2004 at age 45 he left the Episcopal Church to join the Roman Catholic Church and  describes himself as a theological and political conservative. First Things, which describes itself as“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be ‘naked,’ and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.” The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports: a religiously pluralistic society that defends human dignity from conception to natural death; a democratic, constitutionally ordered form of government supported by a religiously and morally serious culture; a vision of freedom that encourages a culture of personal and communal responsibility; and loyalty to the Western tradition that provides a basis for responsible global citizenship.”

[5]  Glendon & Kaplan, Renewing Human Rights, First Things (Feb. 2019) The co-author, Seth D. Kaplan, is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. He is a consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, United Nations and African Development Bank.

[6] Howell, The Lawfare Podcast: Mary Ann Glendon on Unalienable Rights, Lawfare (Aug. 3, 2019).

[7] See The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes, dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2019).

[8] As of 2009, there were at least the following significant multilateral human rights treaties: (1) U.N. Charter; (2) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (3) First Optional Covenant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (4) Covenant on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; (5) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; (6) Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; (7) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; (8) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; (9) Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; (10) Convention on the Rights of the Child; (11) Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the elimination of the death penalty; (12) International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; (13) Statute of the International Court; and (14) International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. (Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 33-35 (Lexis/Nexis 4th edition 2009).)

[9] See, e.g.,  U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[10] White, Former U.S. envoy to Vatican opposes new commission headed by predecessor, Crux (Jul. 23, 2019).

[11] Under international law, “A State may, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving, or acceding to a treaty, formulate a reservation unless (a) the reservation is prohibited by a treaty; (b) the treaty provides that only specified reservations, which do not include the reservation  in question, may be made; or (c) in cases not falling under sub-paragraphs (a) or (b), the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.” (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, arts. 19 (1980); id. Arts. 2(1) (d),20, 21, 22 )  See also,e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human Rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2013).

[12] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.H. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights (April 19, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings About U.S. Human Rights (April 21, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee‘s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights (April 24, 2014); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The Pre-Hearing Papers (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The UPR Hearing (June 16, 2018); U.N. Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review (Sept. 20, 2018).

 

 

 

Another U.N. Condemnation of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba

                                                                                       O

U.N. General Assembly
U.N. General Assembly

On October 26, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 191 to 0 (with two abstentions), to adopt a resolution proposed by Cuba to condemn the United States embargo of Cuba. For the first time in the 25-year history of the annual vote on such resolutions, the U.S, rather than opposing the text, cast an abstention, prompting Israel to do likewise.[1]

This post will examine the resolution’s text, its presentation by Cuba, its support by other countries and the arguments for abstention offered by the U.S. and Israel. This post will then conclude with a brief discussion of reaction to the abstention in the U.S. Prior posts discussed the similar General Assembly resolutions against the embargo that were adopted in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

The Actual Resolution

The actual resolution, “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” (A/RES/71/5 and A/71/L.3) had two principal operative paragraphs.

It reiterated “its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures [like the U.S. embargo against Cuba] . . . in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation (¶ 2). It also urged “States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures to take the steps necessary to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime (¶ 3).

The resolution’s preamble reaffirmed “the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs and freedom of international trade and navigation, which are also enshrined in many international legal instruments” and recited the previous General Assembly resolutions against the embargo. It then welcomed “the progress in the relations between the Governments of Cuba and the [U.S.] and, in that context, the visit of the President of the [U.S.], Barack Obama, to Cuba in March 2016” while also recognizing “the reiterated will of the President of the [U.S.] to work for the elimination of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba” and “the steps taken by the [U.S.] Administration towards modifying some aspects of the implementation of the embargo, which, although positive, are still limited in scope.”

Cuba’s Presentation of the Resolution

Bruno Rodriguez
Bruno Rodriguez

Speaking last in the debate, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, presented arguments for adopting the resolution. Here are extracts of that speech:

“[T]here has been progress [between Cuba and the U.S. since December 2014] in the dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest and a dozen agreements were signed [and] reciprocal benefits reported. Now just announced the vote of the US abstention on this draft resolution.”

“The [U.S.] president and other top officials have described [the embargo/blockade] as obsolete, useless to advance American’s interests, meaningless, unworkable, being a burden for [U.S.] citizens, . . . [harming] the Cuban people and [causing]. . . isolation to the [U.S.] and [have] called [for the embargo/blockade] to be lifted.”

“We recognize that executive measures [to reduce the scope of the embargo] adopted by the government of the [U.S.] are positive steps, but [have] very limited effect and scope. However, most of the executive regulations and laws establishing the blockade remain in force and are applied rigorously to this minute by U.S. government agencies.”

“Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has not approved any of the 20 amendments or legislative initiatives, with bipartisan support, . . . [for] eliminating some restrictions of the blockade or even all of this policy. [Moreover,] there have been more than 50 legislative initiatives that threaten to reinforce key aspects of the blockade, preventing the President [from] approving new executive or implementing measures already adopted.”

“It cannot be underestimated in any way the powerful political and ethical message that [action by this Assembly] . . . sends to the peoples of the world. The truth always [finds] its way. Ends of justice prevail. The abstention vote announced surely is a positive step in the future of improved relations between the[U.S.] and Cuba. I appreciate the words and the efforts of Ambassador Samantha Power.”

“[There] are incalculable human damages caused by the blockade. [There is no] Cuban family or industry in the country that does not suffer its effects on health, education, food, services, prices of goods, wages and pensions.” For example, the “imposition of discriminatory and onerous conditions attached to the deterrent effects of the blockade restrict food purchases and the acquisition in the U.S. market for drugs, reagents, spare parts for medical equipment and instruments and others.”

“The [embargo/] blockade also [adversely] affects the interests of American citizens themselves, who could benefit from various services in Cuba, including health [services].”

“The [embargo/] blockade remains a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights of all Cubans and qualifies as an act of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. It is an obstacle to cooperation [in] international humanitarian areas.”

“The blockade is the main obstacle to economic and social development of our people. It constitutes a flagrant violation to international law, the United Nations Charter and the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace. Its extraterritorial application adds further to its violation of international law nature of magnitude.”

“Other causes, in addition to [the blockade/embargo] . . . , determine our economic difficulties: the unjust international economic order; the global crisis; the historical distortions and structural weaknesses caused by underdevelopment; high dependence on energy and food imports; the effects of climate change and natural disasters; and also . . . our own mistakes.”

“Between April 2015 and March 2016, the direct economic damage to Cuba by the blockade amounted to $4.68 billion at current prices, calculated rigorously and prudently and conservatively. The damages accumulated over nearly six decades reach the figure of $753 billion, taking into account depreciation of gold. At current prices, [that is] equivalent to just over $125 billion.”

“On 16 April 2016 President Raul Castro Ruz said, ‘We are willing to develop a respectful dialogue and build a new relationship with the [U.S.], as that has never existed between the two countries, because we are convinced that this alone . . . [will provide] mutual benefits.’ And last September 17, he said ‘I reaffirm the will to sustain relations of civilized coexistence with the [U.S.], but Cuba will not give up one of its principles, or make concessions inherent in its sovereignty and independence.’”

“The government of the [U.S.] first proposed the annexation of Cuba and, failing that, to exercise their domination over it. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution . . . [prompted the U.S. adoption of the embargo whose purpose] was ‘to cause disappointment and discouragement through economic dissatisfaction and hardship … to deny Cuba money and supplies, in order to reduce nominal and real wages, with the aim of causing hunger, desperation and overthrow of government. ‘”

“The [new U.S.] Presidential Policy Directive [states] that the Government of the [U.S.] recognizes ‘the sovereignty and self-determination of Cuba’ and [the right of] the Cuban people to make their own decisions about their future.’” It also states “the U.S. will not seek a ‘change of regime in Cuba.’”[2]

But the Directive also says “’the [U.S.] will support the emerging civil society in Cuba and encourage partners and non-governmental actors to join us in advocating in favor of reforms. While the United States remain committed to supporting democratic activists, [we] also [will] participate with community leaders, bloggers, activists and other leaders on social issues that can contribute to the internal dialogue in Cuba on civic participation.’ The Directive goes on to say: “The [U.S.] will maintain our democracy programs and broadcasting, while we will protect our interests and values, such as Guantanamo Naval Base … The government of the United States has no intention of modifying the existing lease agreement and other related provisions.’”

The Directive also asserts that Cuba “remains indebted to the [U.S.] regarding bilateral debts before the Cuban Revolution.”

The U.S. needs to “recognize that change is a sovereign matter for Cubans alone and that Cuba is a truly independent country. It gained its independence by itself and has known and will know how to defend [its] greatest sacrifices and risks. We are proud of our history and our culture that are the most precious treasure. We never forget the past because it is the way never to return to it. And we decided our path to the future and we know that is long and difficult, but we will not deviate from it by ingenuity, by siren songs, or by mistake. No force in the world can force us to it. We will strive to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation. We will not return to capitalism.”

Other Countries’ Statements of Support[3]

During the debate the following 40 countries expressed their support of the resolution:

  • Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic (for Commonwealth of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)), Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica (for Caribbean Community (CARICOM)), Mexico, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Uruguay and Venezuela (for Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)).
  • Africa: Algeria, Angola, Libya, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger (for African States), South Africa, Sudan and Tonga.
  • Middle East: Egypt, Kuwait (for Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC)) and Syria.
  • Asia: Belarus, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], India, Indonesia, Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russian Federation, Singapore (for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)), Thailand (for Group of 77 and China) and Viet Nam.
  • Europe: Slovakia (for European Union (EU)).

U.S. Abstention[4]

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

The U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, announced the U.S. abstention before the debate and voting on the resolution. Here are extracts of her speech about that vote.

“For more than 50 years, the [U.S.] had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, U.N. Member States have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The [U.S.] has always voted against this resolution. Today the [U.S.] will abstain.”

“In December 2014, President Obama made clear his opposition to the embargo and called on our Congress to take action to lift it. Yet while the Obama Administration agrees that the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be lifted, . . . we don’t support the shift for the reason stated in this resolution. All actions of the [U.S.] with regard to Cuba have been and are fully in conformity with the U.N. Charter and international law, including applicable trade law and the customary law of the sea. We categorically reject the statements in the resolution that suggest otherwise.”

“But [today’s] resolution . . . is a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve. Instead of isolating Cuba, . . . our policy isolated the [U.S.], including right here at the [U.N.].”

“Under President Obama, we have adopted a new approach: rather than try to close off Cuba from the rest of the world, we want the world of opportunities and ideas open to the people of Cuba. After 50-plus years of pursuing the path of isolation, we have chosen to take the path of engagement. Because, as President Obama said in Havana, we recognize that the future of the island lies in the hands of the Cuban people.”[5]

“Abstaining on this resolution does not mean that the [U.S.] agrees with all of the policies and practices of the Cuban government. We do not. We are profoundly concerned by the serious human rights violations that the Cuban government continues to commit with impunity against its own people – including arbitrarily detaining those who criticize the government; threatening, intimidating, and, at times, physically assaulting citizens who take part in peaceful marches and meetings; and severely restricting the access that people on the island have to outside information.”

“We [,however,] recognize the areas in which the Cuban government has made significant progress in advancing the welfare of its people, from significantly reducing its child mortality rate, to ensuring that girls have the same access to primary and secondary school as boys.”

“But none of this should mean that we stay silent when the rights of Cuban people are violated, as Member States here at the [U.N.] have too often done. That is why the [U.S.] raised these concerns directly with the Cuban government during our [recent] historic dialogue on human rights . . ., which shows that, while our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights, we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.[6] We urge other Member States to speak up about these issues as well.”

“As President Obama made clear when he traveled to Havana, we believe that the Cuban people – like all people – are entitled to basic human rights, such as the right to speak their minds without fear, and the right to assemble, organize, and protest peacefully. Not because these reflect a U.S.-centric conception of rights, but rather because they are universal human rights – enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which all of our 193 Member States are supposed to respect and defend. Rights that are essential for the dignity of men, women, and children regardless of where they live or what kind of government they have.”

The U.S. concedes that it “has work to do in fulfilling these rights for our own citizens. And we know that at times in our history, U.S. leaders and citizens used the pretext of promoting democracy and human rights in the region to justify actions that have left a deep legacy of mistrust. We recognize that our history, in which there is so much that makes us proud, also gives us ample reason to be humble.”

“The [U.S.] believes that there is a great deal we can do together with Cuba to tackle global challenges. That includes here at the [U.N.], where the decades-long enmity between our nations has at best been a distraction – and at worst, an obstacle – to carrying out some of the most important work of this institution and helping the world’s most vulnerable people.”

U.S. Reactions[7]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. national coalition of private companies, organizations and state and local leaders working to lift the embargo, said, “Year after year, the international community has condemned our failed unilateral sanctions that have caused great economic hardship for the people of Cuba and continue to put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The fact that the Administration and Israel abstained from voting for the first time ever demonstrates the growing recognition that the U.S. embargo on Cuba is a failed, obsolete policy that has no place in today’s international affairs.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), on the other hand, blasted the abstention, saying the Obama administration had failed to honor and defend U.S. laws in an international forum. Similar negative reactions were registered by Senators Ted Cruz (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Republican Representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

As an U.S. citizen-advocate for ending the embargo as soon as possible, I am pleased with the U.S. abstention and agree with Ambassador Power that this vote does not mean the U.S. agrees with the resolution’s stated reasons.

Moreover, too many in the U.S. believe the Cuban damages claim from the embargo is just a crazy Cuban dream, but I disagree. Given the amount of the claim, Cuba will not someday tell the U.S. to forget it. A prior post, therefore, suggested that the two countries agree to submit this and any other damage claims by both countries for resolution by an independent international arbitration panel such as those provided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

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[1] U.N. Press Release, U.S. abstains for first time in annual UN vote on ending embargo against Cuba (Oct. 26, 2016).

[2] A prior post replicated the Presidential Policy Directive while another post provided reactions thereto.

[3] U.N. Press Release, General Assembly Plenary (Oct. 26, 2016); The defeat of the blockade is the world’s largest moral and political victory for the people of Cuba against the empire, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Venezuela’s statement); Today not only do we vote against the blockade, we voted for hope, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Bolivia’s statement).

[4] Ambassador Power, Remarks at a UN General Assembly Meeting on the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016).  Israel, which also abstained, merely said that it welcomed the improved U.S.-Cuba relations and hoped it would lead to a new era in the region.

[5] A prior post reviewed President Obama’s eloquent speech in Havana to the Cuban people.

[6] A prior post reviewed the limited public information about the recent human rights dialogue.

[7] Ordońez, For 1st time, U.S. changes its position on U.N. resolution blasting Cuba trade embargo, InCubaToday (Oct. 26, 2016); Engage Cuba, Press Release: Engage Cuba Praises First Ever Unanimous Passage of United Nations Resolution Condemning the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016); Lederer & Lee, US abstains in UN vote on Cuba embargo for the first time, Wash. Post (Oct. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: Obama Admin Ignoring U.S. Law on Cuba Embargo, Giving More Concessions to Castro Regime at U.N. (Oct. 26, 2016).

The Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies

On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event.[1]

This post will focus on the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy; subsequent posts will discuss the afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as well as reactions to the reopening of the embassies.

Opening of Cuba’s Embassy

Cuban Embassy
Cuban Embassy (Photo by Andrew Hamik)

Cuba’s opening was celebrated in the morning by the raising of its flag in front of its former Interests Section building. It was the same flag that was removed 54 years ago when the two countries severed diplomatic relations.

The event was attended by more than 500 people, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in negotiations with Cuba after the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement; Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the State Department, who has participated in those negotiations; Jeffrey DeLaurentis, current charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana; Ben Rhodes, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor who led 18 months of behind-the-scenes secret negotiations with Cuban officials with the aim of restoring diplomatic ties; Wayne Smith, a Cuban expert who was forced to leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 1961 when the two countries broke diplomatic ties; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) along with U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (Dem., CA), Donna Edwards (Dem., MD), Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), Karen Bass (Dem., CA) and Raul Grijalva (Dem., AZ).[2]

Afterwards Senator Klobuchar, the author of a bill to end the U.S. embargo (Freedom to Export to Cuba Act), said in a press release, “The opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC, marks an important step in modernizing our relationship with Cuba after more than 50 years of isolation. This evolution in our relationship with 11 million people 90 miles off of our shore was long overdue, and it is now time to not only open our own fully equipped and staffed embassy in Havana, but to lift the trade embargo once and for all. Passing my bipartisan bill to lift the embargo would benefit the people of both of our countries by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods.”[3]

Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s Speech

The attendees then went inside the Embassy, where they heard a speech by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez. Here are excerpts from those remarks.

The Cuban flag now flying in front of the Embassy “embodies the generous blood that was shed, the sacrifices made and the struggle waged for more than one hundred years by our people for their national independence and full self-determination, facing the most serious challenges and risks. Today we pay homage to all those who died in its defense and renew the commitment of the present generations, fully confident on the newer ones, to serve it with honor.”

“We evoke the memory of José Martí, who was fully devoted to the struggle for the freedom of Cuba and managed to get a profound knowledge about the United States: In his “North American Scenes” he made a vivid description of the great nation to the North and extolled its virtues. He also bequeathed to us a warning against its excessive craving for domination [over Cuba] which was confirmed by a long history of disagreements.”

“We’ve been able to make it through this date thanks to the firm and wise leadership of Fidel Castro Ruz, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, whose ideas we will always revere with utmost loyalty. We now recall his presence in this city, in April of 1959, with the purpose of promoting fair bilateral relations, as well as the sincere tribute he paid to Lincoln and Washington. The purposes that brought him to this country on such an early time [of the Cuban Revolution] are the same that have pursued throughout these decades and coincide exactly with the ones that we pursue today.”

“This ceremony has been possible thanks to the free and unshakable will, unity, sacrifice, selflessness, heroic resistance and work of our people and also the strength of the Cuban Nation and its culture.”

“I bring greetings from President Raúl Castro, as an expression of the good will and sound determination to move forward, through a dialogue based on mutual respect and sovereign equality, to a civilized coexistence, even despite the differences that exist between both governments, which makes it possible to solve bilateral problems and promote cooperation and the development of mutually beneficial relations, just as both peoples desire and deserve.”

“We know that this [rapprochement] would contribute to peace, development, equity and stability in the continent; the implementation of the purposes and principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, which was signed at the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States held in Havana.”

“Today, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of embassies complete the first stage of the bilateral dialogue and pave the way to the complex and certainly long process towards the normalization of bilateral relations.”

“The challenge is huge because there have never been normal relations between the United States of America and Cuba, in spite of the one and a half century of intensive and enriching links that have existed between both peoples.”

“The Platt Amendment, imposed [on Cuba by the U.S.] in 1902 under a military occupation, thwarted the liberation efforts that had counted on the participation or the sympathy of quite a few American citizens and led to the usurpation of a piece of Cuban territory in Guantánamo. Its nefarious consequences left an indelible mark in our common history.”

“In 1959, the [U.S.] refused to accept the existence of a fully independent small and neighboring island and much less, a few years later, a socialist Revolution that was forced to defend itself and has embodied, ever since then, our people’s will.”

“I have referred to history to reaffirm that today an opportunity has opened up to begin working in order to establish new bilateral relations, quite different from whatever existed in the past. The Cuban government is fully committed to that.”

“Only the lifting of the economic, commercial and financial blockade which has caused so much harm and suffering to our people; the return of the occupied territory in Guantánamo; and the respect for Cuba’s sovereignty will lend some meaning to the historic event that we are witnessing today.”

“Every step forward will receive the recognition and the favorable acceptance of our people and government, and most certainly the encouragement and approval of Latin America and the Caribbean and the entire world.

“We reaffirm Cuba’s willingness to move towards the normalization of relations with the [U.S.] in a constructive spirit, but without any prejudice whatsoever to our independence or any interference in the affairs that fall under the exclusive sovereignty of Cubans.”

[For the U.S.] to insist in the attainment of obsolete and unjust goals, only hoping for a mere change in the methods to achieve them will not legitimize them or favor the national interest of the [U.S.] or its citizens. However, should that be the case, we will be ready to face the challenge.”

“We will engage in this process, as was written by President Raúl Castro in his letter of July 1st to President Obama, “encouraged by the reciprocal intention of developing respectful and cooperative relations between our peoples and governments. From this Embassy, we will continue to work tirelessly to promote cultural, economic, scientific, academic and sports relations as well as friendly ties between our peoples.”

“We would like to convey the Cuban government’s respect and recognition to the President of the [U.S.] for urging the U.S. Congress to lift the blockade as well as for the change of policy that he has announced [last December], but in particular for the disposition he has showed to make use of his executive powers for that purpose.”

“We are particularly reminded of President Carter’s decision to open the respective Interests Sections back in September of 1977.” We also “express our gratitude to the members of Congress, scholars, religious leaders, activists, solidarity groups, business people and so many U.S. citizens who worked so hard for so many years so that this day would come.”

“To the majority of Cubans residing in the [U.S.] who have advocated and called for a different kind of relation of this country with our Nation, we would like to express our recognition. Deeply moved, they have told us that they would multiply their efforts and will remain faithful to the legacy of the patriotic emigration that supported the ideals of independence.”

“We would like to express our gratitude to our Latin American and Caribbean brothers and sisters who have resolutely supported our country and called for a new chapter in the relations between the [U.S.] and Cuba, as was done, with extraordinary perseverance, by a lot of friends from all over the world.”

“From this country José Martí organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party to conquer freedom, all the justice and the full dignity of human beings. His ideas, which were heroically vindicated in his centennial year, continue to be the main inspiration that moves us along the path that our people have sovereignly chosen.”

Opening of U.S. Embassy

 With the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana not happening until August 14, the changes there were subtler. There was no raising of the U.S. flag. There was no changing of the sign on the building. The U.S. diplomats who previously worked in the Interests Section now worked in the Embassy. A future post will review the ceremonial opening of the Embassy, now scheduled for August 14.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Ahmed & Davis, U.S. and Cuba Reopen Long-Closed Embassies, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015); Schwartz, Embassies Reopen, as U.S., Cuba Restore Ties, W.S.J. (July 20, 2015); Ayuso, ‘Mojito diplomacy’ as Cuba reboots US relations in reopened embassy, El Pais (July 21, 2015); Gómez, Cuban flag waves in U.S. capital, Granma (July 20, 2015); Gómez, The flag day, Granma (July 21, 2015).

[2] The famous Cuban-American jazz pianist and a resident of Minnesota, Nachito Herrera, was invited to attend the opening of the Cuban Embassy, but unfortunately had to decline because of previously scheduled performances at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis with his new group The Universals, featuring saxophonist Mike Phillips, who has worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder; Cuban drummer Raul Pineda; Senegal bassist Cheikh Ndoye; and violinist Karen Briggs. (Bream, On special day for Cuba, Nachito Herrera gets emotional at the Dakota, StarTribune (July 21, 2015).) As previously noted in this blog, Nachito has frequently performed at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[3] A similar press release was issued by Senator Leahy.

Cuba’s Explanation of Path to the Restoration of Cuba-U.S. Diplomatic Relations

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has published an article about its interpretation of the path to Cuba’s July 1, 2015, agreement with the United States to restore diplomatic relations. The author is one of its journalists, Sergio Alejandro Gómez.[1]

Gomez’ Interpretation

Despite the difficulties of finding a way to build a new relationship after 50-plus years of estrangement, the two countries found “an indispensable set of references regarding the way forward: the Charter of the United Nations and International Law, in particular the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and [the Vienna Convention] on Consular Relations.”

The Charter was “the result of four years of intense work with the view to avoid new wars that would put humanity on the brink of annihilation.” Among its “principles and purposes are the defense of sovereign equality, the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State and non-intervention in matters of domestic jurisdiction.”

“Similarly, the Charter promotes friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and the self-determination of peoples, cooperation in solving international problems and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all.”

The two Vienna Conventions “establish that the customary norms of international law continue to govern any questions not expressly addressed. . . . Customary international law is the set of “practices of international subjects that are generally accepted by them as Law,” As a result, says Gomez, “no practice outside the framework of the functions of diplomatic missions as established by the Vienna Convention[s] may be lawful unless it is covered by customary international Law, and this does not cover any illicit act, contrary to the norms of the receiving State.”

Cuba and the U.S.’ “compliance with the basic principles established for all nations, can help lay the foundation for progress in this long and complex road to the full normalization of relations [between the two countries].”

Conclusion

I agree. This is a concise statement of the international legal framework for peaceful and proper relations between countries. Amen!

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[1] Gómez, A guide to the complex road to normalization between Cuba and the United States, Granma (July 3, 2015).

Cuba Announces Agreement To Restore Diplomatic Relations with the United States

On July 1, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba announced an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. This post will discuss Cuba’s announcement and reactions.[1] A prior post did the same for the U.S. announcement and reactions.

The Cuban government’s announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations stated the following:

  • “The President of the Councils of State and Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, Army General Raúl Castro Ruz, and the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, exchanged letters through which they confirmed the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries and open permanent diplomatic missions in their respective capitals, from July 20, 2015.”
  • “By formalizing this step, Cuba and the United States ratified the intention to develop respectful and cooperative relations between both peoples and governments, based on the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and International Law, in particular the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations.”
  • “The Government of Cuba has decided to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States in full exercise of its sovereignty, invariably committed to the ideals of independence and social justice, and in solidarity with the just causes of the world, and reaffirming each of the principles for which our people have shed their blood and ran all risks, led by the historic leader of the Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz.”
  • “With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies, the first phase concludes of what will be a long and complex process towards the normalization of bilateral ties, as part of which a set of issues will have to be resolved arising from past policies, still in force, which affect the Cuban people and nation.”
  • “There can be no normal relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the economic, commercial and financial blockade that continues to be rigorously applied, causing damages and scarcities for the Cuban people, is maintained. It is the main obstacle to the development of our economy, constitutes a violation of International Law and affects the interests of all countries, including those of the United States.”
  • “To achieve normalization it will also be indispensable that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned, that radio and television transmissions to Cuba that are in violation of international norms and harmful to our sovereignty cease, that programs aimed at promoting subversion and internal destabilization are eliminated, and that the Cuban people are compensated for the human and economic damages caused by the policies of the United States.”
  • “In recalling the outstanding issues to be resolved between the two countries, the Cuban Government recognizes the decisions adopted thus far by President Obama, to exclude Cuba from the list of state sponsors of international terrorism, to urge the U.S. Congress to lift the blockade and to begin to take steps to modify the application of aspects of this policy in exercise of his executive powers.”
  • “As part of the process towards the normalization of relations, in turn, the foundations of ties that have not existed between our countries in all their history will need to be constructed, in particular, since the military intervention of the United States 117 years ago, in the independence war that Cuba fought for nearly three decades against Spanish colonialism.”
  • “These relations must be founded on absolute respect for our independence and sovereignty; the inalienable right of every State to choose its political, economic, social and cultural system, without interference in any form; and sovereign equality and reciprocity, which constitute inalienable principles of International Law.”
  • “The Government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to maintain a respectful dialogue with the Government of the United States and develop relations of civilized coexistence, based on respect for the differences between the two governments and cooperation on issues of mutual benefit.”
  • “Cuba will continue immersed in the process of updating its economic and social model, to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism, advance the development of the country and consolidate the achievements of the Revolution.”
Ramón Cabañas & Anthony Blinken
Ramón Cabañas & Anthony Blinken

That same day (July 1) Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, the Head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, delivered to Interim Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the U.S. State Department a letter from Raúl Castro to President Obama, confirming that “the Republic of Cuba has decided to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States of America and open permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries, on July 20, 2015.” That letter went on to say the following:

  • “Cuba makes this decision, motivated by the mutual intention to develop relations of respect and cooperation between both peoples and governments.”
  • “Cuba likewise draws inspiration from the principles and objectives established in the United Nations Charter and international law, namely, sovereign equality; the settlement of disputes by peaceful means; abstention from acts or threat of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any States, non-intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of any State, the promotion of friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and that of the people’s right to self-determination, and cooperation in solving international problems and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”
  • “The above stated principles are in accordance with the spirit and norms established in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18, 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of April 24, 1963, to which both the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America are parties, and will govern diplomatic and consular relations between the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America.”

Cuba also confirmed that on July 1 Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, had delivered to the Cuban Foreign Ministry a July 1 letter from President Obama to President Castro that was quoted in the prior post about the U.S. announcement of restoration of diplomatic relations.

Cuban Reaction

According to a U.S. reporter for the New York Times, Cubans in the streets of Havana welcomed the news about the resumption of diplomatic relations.

Roberto, a parking attendant who minds cars near the U.S. Interests Section on the Malecon, said, ““This will benefit the country. Maybe, I don’t know, it will eventually benefit me.”

Regina Coyula, a blogger who for several years worked for Cuban state security, commented, “People realize that the Americans aren’t going to solve their problems, and nor is the government” of Cuba. The reaction to the December 17th announcement of rapprochement was “like a firework display. Everyone watched them. Everyone thought they were beautiful. And then they went back to their lives.”

Coyula added that with American money being spent in private restaurants and homes and on car services, those Cubans who are doing well will do even better. “The difference between those Cubas is only going to grow.”

“We’ve been waiting all our lives for this, and it’s very welcome,” said Carmen Álvarez, 76, who was walking with friends near the Interests Section. “We’re waiting with our arms and our minds wide open.”

Yosvany Coca Montes de Oca, 38, who began listing his one-bedroom apartment in Havana with Airbnb, the online house-sharing service, in April, said, “Things are going really well.” He used to get four or five Americans staying at his house every month. For the past two months, he has had more than 15 and has been showered with reservations. But Mr. Coca acknowledged that he was part of a privileged economic circle that was feeling the immediate benefit of new American interest in Cuba. Many Cubans, he said, felt little change. “For ordinary people, it doesn’t have a direct impact. People are mainly concerned with getting by day to day.”

More generally, the U.S. reporter concluded,“The euphoria that prompted Cubans to toot their horns and wave flags [on December 17th] . . . has given way to a tempered hope that an influx of Americans, and the eventual end of the trade embargo, will help pry open the economy and the political system.”

Similar positive comments from people on the street in Havana were captured by Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party.

Other Reactions

Cuba’s Granma newspaper reported positive reactions to the restoration of diplomatic relations from China, Brazil, the European Union and the United Nations.

Conclusion

The Cuban announcement reiterated some of the issues that Cuba has raised before and after the December 17th announcement of rapprochement and that have been addressed in prior posts to this blog.

Foremost for Cuba is ending the U.S. embargo or blockade of Cuba. President Obama agrees that this should happen and again yesterday called on Congress to adopt legislation doing just that. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Jerry Moran and Angus King have introduced bills to that end, and in the House Charles Rangel, Bobby Rush and Jose Serano have authored similar bills. Now the relevant congressional committees need to hold hearings and report the bills to the floors of the respective chambers for voting them up or down.[2]

Related to ending the embargo or blockage is Cuba’s repeated allegation that it is illegal under international law and has damaged Cuba, allegedly $1.1 trillion as of last October. It is exceedingly unlikely that the U.S. will agree with these assertions and pay Cuba that sum of money. Therefore, this blogger has suggested that this Cuban claim, along with others by Cuba and the U.S., be submitted for resolution to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.[3]

The other significant issue for Cuba is ending the alleged U.S. illegal occupation of Guantanamo Bay and returning that territory to Cuba. Again it is exceedingly unlikely that the U.S. will agree with that allegation and demand. Remember that the Cuban government in 1906 leased that territory to the U.S. for use as a “coaling station” or “naval station” and that there are many problems with Cuba’s assertion that it has the right to terminate the lease. Therefore, this blogger has suggested that this Cuban claim and others relating to Guantanamo, including unpaid rent for the last 50-plus years, also be submitted for resolution to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.[4]

Cuba’s complaint about U.S. radio and television transmissions to Cuba (Radio and TV Marti), in this blogger’s opinion, is secondary. Again I see no U.S. acceptance of this complaint, and thus it too should be submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.[5]

The other secondary Cuban complaint concerns the U.S. “programs aimed at promoting subversion and internal destabilization.” This refers to the covert, secret or “discreet” programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), such as its social media program, the HIV workshop program and the hip-hop artist campaign. These programs, in this blogger’s opinion, are a stupid waste of U.S. taxpayers’ funds and should be terminated by the U.S. Any U.S. programs to promote democracy in Cuba should be joint ventures with the Cuban government.[6]

Now the more difficult work comes for the two countries’ diplomats to meet, discuss and negotiate to attempt to resolve or at least narrow these and many other issues. We wish them courage, persistence and humility in their work.

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[1] Statement by the Revolutionary Government, Granma (July 1, 2015); Letter from Cuban President Raúl Castro to Barack Obama (July 1, 2015); Interim Minister of Foreign Relations receives letter from U.S. President to Army General Raúl Castro Ruz, Granma (July 1, 2015); Cuba and the U.S. confirm reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Granma (July 1, 2015); Burnett, Cubans Greet Latest Step in U.S. Thaw With Hope Tempered by Reality,N.Y. Times (July 1, 2015).

[2] Prior posts have discussed bills to end the embargo in the U.S. House of Representatives and similar bills by Senators Klobuchar and Moran and King.

[3] A prior post concerned the October 2014 U.N. General Assembly’s overwhelming approval of a resolution condemning the embargo and Cuba’s allegation of $1.1 trillion of damages. Arbitration of Cuba’s alleged damages claim was suggested in another post.

[4] A post examined the 1906 lease of Guantanamo Bay; another, whether Cuba had a right to terminate the lease and another. arbitration of unresolved issues about the lease.

[5] One post looked at the status of Radio and TV Marti.

[6] Prior posts have covered USAID’s social media program; the U.S. Senate’s comments on that program; USAID’s HIV workshop program and reactions thereto by the U.S. government and by others; the New York Times’ criticism of the programs; criticism of the programs by the Latin American Working Group; and this bloggers’ open letter to President Obama complaining about the programs.

Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

Whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. is an important issue that has been addressed by Michael J. Strauss, an expert in international relations with a specialty in territorial leases by states. [1] A prior post referred to his 2013 article that touched on this topic, and this post is based upon his more extensive discussion of the issue in his 2009 book and a 2014 article. His book also helps clarify the history regarding the amount of the rent charged to the U.S. under the lease. [2]

Does Cuba have a legal right to terminate the lease?

As the lease does not grant Cuba an express right of termination and as there has been no decision by a court or arbitrator on the validity of any other purported termination right, no definitive answer can be given as to whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease. At least the following four theories have been suggested for such a result.

First, after the Revolution, Cuba asserted that the lease was perpetual and, therefore, invalid. For example, a 1970 book by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “The contract for the lease in perpetuity . . . lacks existence and juridical validity because it is faulty in its essential elements: a) radical incapacity of the government of Cuba to cede a piece of national territory in perpetuity; b) for the same reason, the object and the reason are illegal; c) consent was wrested through irresistible and unjust moral violence.” (Book at 104, 171.)

Strauss, however, rejects the notion that the lease is perpetual. As noted in the prior post, the lease does not have a set termination date, unlike most U.S. leases (commercial and residential) and most leases “at the state level” (or “are otherwise open to termination by various means”). (Book at 106.) The absence of a termination date, however, does not mean that the lease is perpetual as most perpetual “leases [at the state level] . . . tend to explicitly [so] specify.” (Book at 107.)

Moreover, “the lease has had clearly stated conditions by which it can be ended.” The original 1903 lease was for “the time required for the purposes of [U.S.] coaling and naval stations.” And the 1934 treaty, reconfirming the lease, provided that it could be terminated by U.S. abandonment of Guantanamo Bay or by mutual agreement. (Book at 108, 215, 233.)

In addition, on two occasions after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. has considered terminating the lease. One was in U.S. internal discussions about ways to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but that idea was rejected internally and not publicly disclosed. (Book at 109-12.) The second was the idea’s incorporation in section 201 of the Helms-Burton (Libertad) Act of 1996 requiring the U.S. in order to provide assistance to a hoped-for free and independent Cuba to “be prepared to enter into negotiations . . . to return the [U.S.] Naval Base at Guantanamo to Cuba or to renegotiate the present agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” (Book at 112-14, 249-50.)

A second legal theory for Cuba’s termination of the lease is a fundamental change in circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) from the lease’s negotiation and signing in 1903 to today. This theory is covered by Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and was discussed in the prior post. Strauss discusses the views on this issue by international legal scholars and notes the reluctance of international tribunals to invoke this ground. Another difficulty with this theory is the passage of time (over 112 years). As a result, Strauss does not see it as a winning approach for Cuba. (Book at 114-19.) Related to this theory is the 1970 argument by Cuba that the purpose of the lease had ceased to exist: the purpose of the 1903 lease (enable the U.S. to maintain Cuba’s independence and protect its people) was negated by the 1934 treaty’s emphasis on friendly relations between the two countries and that treaty’s purpose was negated by the hostile relations after the Cuban Revolution. (Book at 171.)

A third legal theory, also discussed in the prior post, would be the argument that the lease was procured by “the threat of force or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the [U.N.] Charter” under Article 52 of said Vienna Convention. That Convention, however, provides in Article 4 that it can be used only by states that are parties to the Convention and only after they became parties, and Cuba became such a party on September 9, 1998. Moreover, the U.N. was not in existence when the lease was signed in 1903. Nor, says Strauss, has “a new peremptory norm of general international law emerged” on this issue that could be a basis for a Cuban claim of a right to terminate the lease. (Book at 119-21.) This theory was put forward in 1970 as part of an argument advanced in a book by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. (Book at 171.)

The fourth legal theory for a Cuban claim to a right to terminate would be based on alleged U.S. breach of the lease. This is covered by Article 60 of said Vienna Convention and is limited to a “material breach,” which for present purposes is “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Strauss discussed two possible grounds for this theory:

  • The lease restricts U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay to a “coaling station” or a “naval station,” and Cuba would have to argue and prove that the U.S. has exceeded those uses. Strauss is skeptical of such a general argument because the U.S. consistently has opted for a broad interpretation of these limitations with Cuba’s tacit agreement and because it should be difficult to satisfy the definition of “material” breach. However, the U.S. use of Guantanamo as a facility for detention of alleged terrorists after 9/11 and the U.S.’ alleged violations of the human rights of such detainees would be a stronger claim reinforced by consistent Cuban objections to such uses and by the remote possibility that Cuba could be subject to liability for any human rights violations at the Base. (Book at 121-23, 144-55, 174; Cuba Responsibility.)
  • In Article III of the second part of the 1903 lease the U.S. “agrees that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within [Guantanamo].” The U.S. has clearly breached this provision by having a McDonald’s Restaurant and a bowling alley on the site, but it is difficult to see such ventures as a “material breach” of the lease. A stronger argument for such a claim could be built on the U.S.’ more recently having private-contractor employees participate in the interrogation and alleged abuse of detainees. Such an argument also ties in with the assertion that the U.S.’ use of Guantanamo as a detention facility and its alleged abuse of detainees constitutes a material breach of the lease. But do such breaches affect the object and purpose of the lease and thus constitute a material breech? (Book at 123; Private Sector; Cuba Responsibility.)

The Amount of the Rent

The original 1903 lease called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin for Guantanamo Bay and Bahía Honda without a breakdown for the two territories. Because the Guantanamo Bay territory constituted 94.5% of the total territory, the rent hypothetically could be divided on that basis, resulting in annual rent for Guantanamo of $1,890. This amount, argues Strauss, was “considerably higher than what any other party would have paid in 1903 for renting the same territory.” In other words, the rent was a material element, not a token or trivial amount. (Book at 126.)

In 1916, however, the U.S. presumably abandoned Bahía Honda, and the rent remained at $2,000 in gold coin, which in Strauss’ judgment was still in excess of the fair market value of the Guantanamo territory. (Book at 127.)

In 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, the U.S. left the gold standard, and the next year (1934), the U.S. Dollar was devalued with “the value of old U.S. gold dollars being fixed at $1.693125 in legal U.S. currency. The annual rent of $2,000 in gold for Guantanamo Bay, when converted at this rate, became $3,386.25. This was the amount the [U.S.] began paying annually to Cuba, by U.S. government check, starting in 1934.” This change was made unilaterally by the U.S. without a signed agreement with Cuba, which acquiesced in the change. (Book at 127-30.)

Similar changes were made unilaterally by the U.S. in 1973 with an increase of the annual rental check to $3,676.50 (based upon a 1972 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar) and in 1974 to $4,085 (based upon a 1973 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar). (Book at 130-31.) [3]

As mentioned in a prior post, since 1974 the $4,085 figure has continued to be used by the U.S. for the annual rental checks that have not been cashed by Cuba since the Cuban Revolution take-over of the government in 1959 (except for the first one in 1959). (Book at 136-37).

As Strauss recognizes, the rental amount has never been adjusted to reflect ever changing fair market values of the territory. As a result, the annual rental for at least the half-century after the Cuban Revolution has become a token payment. (Book at 131-32.)

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[1] Strauss is Lecturer in International Relations at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, Paris, specializing in territorial leases as phenomena of international relations and international law for resolving sovereignty disputes. Prior to entering academia, he was an international journalist and served as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse’s AFX News in Paris, Knight-Ridder Financial News in Madrid, and Dow Jones News Service in Geneva. He took his Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the above Centre and his M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow in the School of International Affairs. He is the author of The Viability of International Leases in Resolving International Sovereignty Disputes: A Comparative Study.

[2] The Strauss article that was cited in the prior post is Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013) [hereafter “Cuba Responsibility”].  This post is based upon Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay (Praeger International 2009) [hereafter “the Book”] and U.S. Socialism in Cuba: Implications of Prohibiting the Private Sector at Guantanamo Bay, 24 Am. Soc’y for Study of Cuban Economy 129 (2014) [hereafter “Private Sector”]

[3] The earlier post erroneously asserted the $4,085 rental fee started in the mid-1930’s.