U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

In July 2018, the U.S. State Department held the first ever Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.[1] At the event’s conclusion, the State Department issued various documents that are discussed below.

The Potomac Declaration [2]

After quoting Article 18 regarding religious freedom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Potomac Declaration asserted, “This right is under attack all around the world. Almost 80 percent of the global population reportedly experience severe limitations on this right. Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” Therefore, the Chairman of the Ministerial (Secretary Pompeo) declared: the following:

  • “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
  • Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
  • A person’s conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
  • Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person’s religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
  • Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
  • Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
  • Persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state’s establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination towards adherents of other religions or non-believers.
  • The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  • Religion plays an important role in humanity’s common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect.”

The Potomac Plan of Action [3]

The lengthier Plan of Action also was issued by the Chairman of the Ministerial. It states as follows:

Defending the Human Right of Freedom of Religion or Belief

States should increase collective advocacy and coordination to promote and protect religious freedom and to counter the persecution of individuals because of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Condemn strongly acts of discrimination and violence in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible for such violence, including state and non-state actors.
  • Protect members of religious communities, dissenting members, and non-believers from threats to their freedom, safety, livelihood, and security on account of their beliefs.
  • Respect the liberty of parents to provide their children religious and moral education in conformity with their own conscience and convictions and to ensure members of religious minority communities and non-believers are not forcibly indoctrinated into other faiths.
  • Protect the ability of religious adherents, institutions, and organizations to produce in quantities they desire religious publications and materials, as well as to import and disseminate such materials.
  • Increase international understanding of how suppression of religious freedom can contribute to violent extremism, sectarianism, conflict, insecurity, and instability.
  • Ensure false accusations of “extremism” are not used as a pretext to suppress the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice their faith, or otherwise limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
  • Eliminate restrictions unduly limiting the ability of believers and non-believers to manifest their faith or beliefs in observance and practice, either alone or in community with others, through peaceful assembly, worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Speak out bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora, against violations or abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Confronting Legal Limitations

States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and ensure individuals can freely change beliefs, or not believe, without penalty or fear of violence, and encourage the repeal of provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief.
  • Encourage any state-managed registration systems for official recognition of religious communities be optional (rather than mandatory) and not unduly burdensome, so as to help facilitate the free and legal practice of religion for communities of believers.
  • Allow religious communities to establish freely accessible places of worship or assembly in public or private, to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structures, to train their religious personnel and community members, and to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with their beliefs without government interference.
  • Repeal anti-blasphemy laws, which are inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.
  • Recognize that respect for religious freedom can afford space to religious actors to engage in constructive efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, terrorism and conflict, and to collaborate with non-religious actors on the same.
  • Encourage the development of conscientious objection laws and policies to accommodate the religious beliefs of military age persons and provide alternatives to military service.

Advocating for Equal Rights and Protections for All, Including Members of Religious Minorities

States should promote the human rights of members of religious minorities, dissenting members from the majority faith, and non-believers, including freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Treat all persons equally under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and ensure law enforcement officials take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minorities, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs.
  • Prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in access to justice, employment, education and housing, in personal status and family laws, and in access to opportunities for expression in public forums.
  • Ensure that all people, including religious minority community members, are free from forced conversions, and are entitled to and receive equal protection under the law without discrimination.
  • Respond quickly to physical assaults on persons and the destruction or vandalizing of holy sites or property based on religion or belief, and hold those responsible accountable.
  • Encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
  • Foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities, including migrant workers, to practice their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.
  • Encourage authorities to denounce and condemn public discrimination and crimes targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief or lack thereof.

Responding to Genocide and other Mass Atrocities

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Take immediate action to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.
  • Condemn messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of certain religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors.
  • Take steps to support investigative efforts and work to preserve evidence and document suspected crimes when reports of atrocities arise, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass atrocities, and ethnic cleansing and related crimes, and employ mechanisms to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Consider the needs of survivors and families of survivors of atrocities and provide them assistance and resources to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals in post-conflict areas.
  • Work with willing victims and survivors of mass atrocities to develop and disseminate communications and educational efforts about their experiences, recovery and resilience.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

States should increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of threatened minority religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, and to preserve cultural heritage sites, even those of communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated to other countries. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Adopt and implement policies that introduce or improve inventory lists of cultural sites and objects that promote respect for and protect heritage, including places of worship and religious sites, shrines, and cemeteries, and that take appropriate protective measures where such sites are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction by state or non-state actors.
  • Safeguard heritage sites, and help other governments do so, by offering technical assistance and professional training to relevant officials, as well as provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
  • Assist impacted communities to secure, protect, repair and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites.
  • Encourage participation by the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage, and engage members of religious communities and others, including their leadership, with training on ways to protect their cultural heritage from damage and/or looting.
  • Assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of significance to multiple communities in a conflict zone so as to foster intra- and inter-faith relations and rebuild trust.
  • Raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the significance and history of cultural heritage, by working with and through religious actors and other community leaders.

Strengthening the Response

States should take actions to respond to threats to religious freedom that continue to proliferate around the world. In that spirit, states should consider endorsing the Potomac Declaration and work to:

  • Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for their religious freedom advocacy, affiliation or practice, or for being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.
  • Strengthen rule-of-law, fair trial guarantees, and the institutional capacity to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
  • Provide additional diplomatic resources through the creation of special ambassadorial positions or focal points in foreign ministries, and support collective action through such groupings as the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
  • Train and equip diplomats in the meaning and value of religious freedom and how to advance it.
  • Recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all, by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS’s Sinjar massacre targeting Yezidis, as a nationally or internationally recognized day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution.
  • Allow and support civil society organizations and religious actors in their efforts to advocate for, and organize on behalf of, religious freedom, pluralism, peace and tolerance and related values.
  • Facilitate the creation of domestic forums, or utilize existing groups, where religious groups, faith-based organizations and civil society can meet to discuss concerns about religious freedom at home and abroad, as well as through bodies at the regional level.
  • Encourage government ministries and officials to engage with and listen to the domestic forums regularly, and implement relevant suggestions when possible.
  • Encourage national economic investment projects that foster collaboration and trust building across different communities and demonstrate the economic, societal and individual benefits of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.
  • Train and support religious community actors, including religious actors, to build resilience to and prevent violent extremism and terrorism, which negatively affect religious freedom, by disseminating alternative messages, engaging at-risk community members, and implementing intra- and inter-faith partnerships.

International Religious Freedom Fund [4]

With the U.S. providing coverage for all personnel, administrative and overhead expenses, all of the funds contributed by others would fund the following program activities:

  • Supporting initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief. This encompasses activities such as advocacy initiatives, awareness campaigns, public messaging, community inclusion efforts, conflict prevention
  • Providing assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief for individual needs including, assistance to address threats of violence; medical needs resulting from violent assault; and replacement of equipment damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

Other Actions of the Ministerial [5]

The Ministerial also issued statements about Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups; Iran; Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious freedom Repression; China; Burma; and Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws.

According to the Secretary of State before its convening, this Ministerial was to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial . . . . . . Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for. [The Ministerial] will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

At the conclusion of this Ministerial, the Secretary of State emphasized that “President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies. Ensuring religious freedom around the world is a key priority of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.”

After describing what happened at the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo complimented Vice President Pence’s announcement of the U.S. Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response, and the U.S. International Religious Freedom Fund. Pompeo also announced that the Department was creating a ten-day International Victor Leadership Program for those “working on the frontiers of religious freedom issues” around the world and a three-day workshop Boldline “to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships that promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” Also announced was the then upcoming Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action for religious freedom.

Conclusion

 Although as a member of a Presbyterian Church I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I approached the investigation of this Ministerial with some skepticism and fear that it was a device to promulgate what I would regard as a right-wing approach to religion and Christianity.

However, the above account of the work of the first Ministerial does not support such skepticism.Nor does the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom insofar as it cites to the relevant international standards on the subject. Whether or not its gathered “evidence” or analysis of same meets the same standard is another issue for another day. [6]

Later this month the State Department will hold its second such Ministerial [7] for like-minded governments that have a demonstrated record of advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or governments that have taken significant and meaningful steps to do so; and survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs. This Ministerial will have the following agenda:

  • Discuss opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally, including how such freedom, international development and humanitarian aid can work together.
  • Discuss best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.
  • Identify global challenges to religious freedom; develop innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and share new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Invitations will be extended to

This blog will examine this second Ministerial’s work to see if there is any reason to change a favorable opinion about its work. As always, this blog invites reasoned pro and con comments, especially for topics or perspectives that were overlooked.

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

[1] According to the State Department’s Diplomatic Dictionary, a “ministerial” is a “ formally arranged meeting of ministers of various states, such as the Defense or Foreign Ministers of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

[2] State Dep’t, Potomac Declaration (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, Potomac Plan of Action (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Fund: Fact Sheet (July 27, 2018).

[4] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Iran (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on China (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Burma (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws (July 26, 2018).

[5] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019).

[6] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019)

[7] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 16-18 July 2019 (June 21, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019).

 

U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force’s Final Report

On June 16, 2019, the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force released its Final Report.[1] It identified what it saw as the following four key challenges to Cuban access to the Internet along with recommendations for expanding such access and the unregulated flow of information on the island.

The Final Report

“I. LIMITED INFRASTRUCTURE, HIGH PRICES, LOW SPEED, AND GOVERNMENT-REGULATED ACCESS”

“Cuba’s Internet penetration rates and speed lag behind regional averages, and access is extremely restricted due to limited infrastructure, high prices, low speed, and Cuban-government regulated access points.”

“Recommendations”

Construction of a new submarine cable: Support efforts to enable construction of new submarine cables, as appropriate.”

Support organic network growth: Some entrepreneurial Cubans have built local-area networks to connect devices at home and in their neighborhoods. These local networks have the potential to support economic growth in the emerging private sector. Increased exportation of U.S. networking tools to private consumers in Cuba could support the organic growth of local networks.” (Emphasis added.)

 U.S. exchange programs: Promote [U.S.] exchange programs that permit Cuban students and faculty, who specialize in technology and computer science, to learn from top U.S. scholars and practitioners about network developments and technology.” (Emphasis added.)

“II. HIGHLY AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENT, CENSORSHIP, AND SURVEILLANCE”

“Cuba’s one-party communist state severely restricts freedoms of the press, assembly, speech, and association, and initiatives to promote Internet freedom and increase Internet access on the island are viewed with suspicion.”

“The Cuban government has tightened surveillance and persecution of Cubans who acquire their own satellite Internet stations or create their own networks to expand Internet service with imported technology. Surveillance of ICT [Information and Technology firms] in Cuba is widespread, and dissident bloggers are subject to punishments ranging from fines to confiscation of equipment and detentions. Anonymity and encryption technologies are strictly prohibited, and web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafés, and access centers are closely monitored. There are concerns that as Cuba acquires sophisticated technologies and increases Internet access, its surveillance and censorship tactics could potentially improve.”

“Recommendations”

Digital safety educationAll Cubans would benefit from educational initiatives that inform them how to keep their online activity and data secure. Support for educational and public awareness campaigns that introduce basic concepts on digital safety could help Cubans more effectively protect themselves from security threats online.”

 “Support Cubans’ unfettered access to the InternetSupport for initiatives that promote the free flow of information to, from, and within the island could make online media and private communication more readily available to the Cuban people amid government censorship of specific content.”

“III. UNLEASH THE POWER OF THE INTERNET: DIGITAL LITERACY”

“According to a June 2018 survey conducted by Freedom House, 80 percent of the 1,700 Cubans surveyed said they use the Internet mostly to communicate with friends and relatives and for entertainment. Very few said they used the Internet to exchange views on social and political issues, read about news and other developments, consume educational content, or to learn about topics of general interest (e.g. health, law, etc.). Increasing digital literacy in Cuba could transform the Internet in Cuba from a simple communication tool to a means through which Cubans can express social, economic, and political beliefs. Given the highly authoritarian political context, it is difficult to separate Internet freedom in Cuba from the broader quest for freedom of expression and human rights. Full access to free and unregulated information online will occur only if the Cuban government relaxes its tightly controlled grip on society and communications.”

“Recommendations”

ICT literacy: Collaborative educational initiatives hosted by academic institutions, foreign governments, and multilateral bodies could help expand ICT literacy in Cuba. The focus of such programs should be on using the Internet for education, civic engagement, community building, economic activity, and the free exchange of opinions.”

 Promote freedom of expressionSupport for independent stakeholders could help advance rights for all Cubans. That support could include the development of projects that train Internet users to produce compelling online content that encourages diverse perspectives on society, politics, and culture.” (Emphasis added.)

“IV. U.S. MARKET ENTRY”

“China dominates Cuba’s telecommunication sector and provides a challenge to U.S. firms looking to enter the sector. . . . [China] is able to offer robust financing packages to support its exports to Cubasomething the U.S. government is prohibited from doing and which presents a major obstacle for U.S. companies wishing to invest in ICT [information and technology firms] in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

U.S. companies informed the subcommittees they are often deterred from entering the market due to uncertainty caused by frequent changes to U.S. regulations concerning Cuba. Other [U.S.] companies have chosen not to offer key products and services, citing reasons ranging from regulatory ambiguity to banks’ reluctance to process payments originating in Cuba due to the U.S. embargo.” (Emphasis added.)

“Recommendations”

“Facilitate exports and servicesConsider expediting the review of National Security controlled encryption items, provided such treatment would be consistent with U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. In addition, review banking and financial regulations related to Cuba to ensure that Cubans can access paid applications and cloud-based technology.” (Emphasis added.)

Engage with U.S. private sectorThe U.S. Government could continue discussions with the U.S. private sector to clarify current regulations and seek feedback on how the regulations affect their ability to invest in ICT in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

Cuban Government’s Criticism of the Task Force

To date I have not found any Cuban comments about,  including criticism, of this Final Report. Therefore, here are previous criticisms upon the creation of the Task Force in January 2018.[2]

On January 31, 2018,  the Cuban Foreign Ministry sent a note protesting the U.S. recent creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force. It expressed Cuba’s “strong protest for the pretension of the US government to violate flagrant Cuban sovereignty, with respect to national competence to regulate the flow of information and the use of mass media, while rejecting the attempt to manipulate the Internet to carry out illegal programs for political purposes and subversion, as part of their actions aimed at altering or changing the constitutional order of the Republic of Cuba.”

This Task force has “the stated objective of promoting in Cuba the ‘free and unregulated flow of information.’ According to the announcement, this task force will ‘examine the technological challenges and opportunities to expand Internet access and independent media’ in Cuba.

Cuba again demands that the Government of the United States cease its subversive, interfering and illegal actions against Cuba, which undermine Cuban constitutional stability and order, and urges it to respect Cuban sovereignty, International Law and the purposes of and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The “Cuban Foreign Ministry reiterates the determination of the Government of Cuba not to tolerate any type of subversive activity or interference in its internal affairs and, as a sovereign country, to continue defending itself and denouncing the interfering nature of this type of action.”

“Cuba will continue to regulate the flow of information as is its sovereign right and as is practice in all countries, including the United States. Cuba will also continue advancing in the computerization of its society, as part of the development of the country and in terms of the social justice objectives that characterize its Revolution.”

Other Cuban Criticism of the Task Force

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, said, “In the past phrases like promoting ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘expanding access to the internet in Cuba’ have been used by Washington as a pretext for schemes to destabilize the country using new technologies.”

One of Granma’s journalists, Sergio Gómez, declared, “If the administration of President Donald Trump intends to use new technologies to impose changes in the internal order of Cuba, he chose very old roads that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness, without mentioning the obvious fact that they violate the laws of the affected country, even those of the United States.” Moreover, the “terrain chosen for the new aggression, Internet, clearly demonstrates what the true objectives of Washington are when it demands ‘free access’  to the network in the countries that oppose it, while in its territory it maintains a tracking system and accumulation of data about what citizens do on the web.”

Gómez also asserted that the U.S. “shows a clear pattern of the use of social networks and the internet with objectives geopolitical and domination. All part of a doctrine of unconventional war designed to destabilize nations without the direct use of military forces, which has taken root after the failures in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In another article, Gómez added details about Cuba’s expanded Internet access apparently to reject the implicit premise of the U.S. announcement that Cuba was continuing to suffer from lack of such access. Gomez said, “Cuba, by sovereign decision and to the extent of its economic possibilities, is increasing the access of its citizens to the network of networks. According to information provided by specialist Rosa Miriam Alizada, ‘2017 will be remembered as the boom in the expansion of access to the network in our country, with 40% of Cubans connected to the Internet, 37% more than in 2010, and for the naturalization of the internet connection in urban spaces from one end of the island to the other.’”

Gomez also said, “Although the State Department tries to camouflage its . . . [Task Force] as a philanthropic project to improve access to the network of networks in . . .  [Cuba], the list of participants in . . . [its] first meeting . . . betrays its true intentions.”

  • One participant, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, “is the umbrella of Radio and TV Martí, two relics of the Cold War designed to issue enemy propaganda and carry out psychological operations against Cuba. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers have been wasted in the failed projects of this organization, [which has been] subjected to several audits for corruption scandals and embezzlement.”
  • Another participant, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), ”is the public arm of the CIA and financier of subversive projects against Cuba such as ZunZuneo and Commotion, whose disclosure by the press was a shame for the US authorities due to its ineffectiveness and violation of international laws.”

Gomez and co-author Iramsy Peraza Forte added that “the U.S. has been using communications technologies to attack Cuba ever since the age of shortwave radios and the emergence of television.” Indeed, “From psychological warfare propagated by the mass media to unconventional warfare, which has been adapted to the internet age, Cuba has been a test site for U.S. schemes designed to overthrow governments which do not respond to its interests.”

Another Cuban journalist with a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Havana, Randy Alfonso Falcón, reported this was not the first time the U.S. had attempted to use the Internet regarding Cuba. On February 14, 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force for “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas, especially in Cuba, Iran and China.

Therefore, Falcón believes, “In the face of US action In the Cuban digital public space, our response cannot be merely defensive. We must look forward with a scientifically based vision that mobilizes responses and alternatives from Cuba to the extraordinary ideological and cultural confrontation that arises. Take by assault, from the knowledge, the tools of the new colonizers, build ours and endow them with symbols and emancipating essences.”

The day before the Task force’s inaugural meeting, Reuters reported from Havana that there are now “a handful of web-based news outlets in recent years in Cuba in the wake of the expansion of internet and broader social and economic freedoms. . . .These new outlets have been tolerated as long as they are not ‘counter-revolutionary’ and “have been chipping away at a half-century state monopoly, offering independent reporting and winning prestigious journalism prizes.”

Moreover, several representatives of these independent media, according to Reuters, have expressed opposition to the Task Force.

U.S. Criticism of This Task Force

The creation of the Task Force was criticized by Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He said, “By casting the issue of internet access in an explicitly political frame, it will only create greater obstacles for those U.S. telecom companies that have made inroads toward partnerships with the Cuban side. Measures like these strengthen the hand of those in Cuba for whom the prospect (and reality) of external meddling justifies maximum caution with respect to internal reform.”

Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, said, “”The solution proposed by the Trump administration is perhaps even worse than the disease. It will likely empower not the independent media or citizens but only the Cuban government to more easily justify the unjustifiable – more control and repression of independent media and unmediated access to information.”

Alan Gross, the previously mentioned U.S. citizen who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for illegally bringing communications equipment to the island, has objected to the Task Force.  “My first response was ‘Are you kidding me?’ We are supposed to learn from our mistakes. I learned the hard way that it’s illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that’s funded in full or part by the U.S. government. Until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there.”

Conclusion

The Task Force, from its creation to its Final Report, is based upon the false and illegal premise that the U.S. unilaterally may and should decide what Internet services Cuba or any other country should have and then take unilateral steps to provide those services and equipment. Instead the U.S. should politely ask Cuba or any other country whether there was any way the U.S. could assist in improving their Internet service.

In addition, the Cubans correctly point out that the U.S. through USAID and other means previously has attempted to change Cuban policies about free access to information with the U.S. intent of changing Cuba policies and even its political and economic system. Cuba has a right to be sceptical and hostile to any recommendations by this Task Force.

The Final Report also makes clear that a significant motivation of the Task Force was to improve U.S. private firms’ access to the Cuban market for Internet products and services, which is a legitimate U.S. interest. The Final Report also correctly, but somewhat surprisingly, points out that the U.S. embargo and changing policies about Cuba make that access more difficult. Therefore, the Task Force should have gone further and called for the end to the U.S. embargo of the island and other acts of hostility towards Cuba.

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

[1] State Dep’t, Cuba Internet Task Force: Final Report (June 16, 2019).

[2] See these posts to dwkcommentaries: State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property (Jan. 25, 2018); Cuba Protests U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force (Feb. 1, 2018); U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force Holds Inaugural Meeting (Feb. 8, 2018); Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force (Feb. 9, 2018).

 

State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom

On June 21, 2019, the U.S. State Department released its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom in every other country in the world in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-292). The Report’s stated focus is describing other government’s “policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.” [1]

Here is an overview of that report and a subsequent post will discuss its report on Cuban religious freedom.

Overview

The initial draft of the report for each country is prepared by the U.S. Embassy in that country “based on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, media, and others.”

That draft then is reviewed and modified by the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. based on additional information from “consultations with foreign government officials, domestic and foreign religious groups, domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, multilateral and other international and regional organizations, journalists, academic experts, community leaders, and other relevant U.S. government institutions.”

The Department says its “guiding principle is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible.  Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis in original.)

Appropriately annexed to the Report were the texts of the following documents on this subject:

  • [U.N. General Assembly]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 18 (1948) (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”) (App. A);
  • [U.N. General Assembly Resolution (1966)] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, App. B): Art. 18(1)(“ Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” Art 18(2)(“ No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Art. 18(3)(“ Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Art. 20(2)(“ Any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”)
  • [U.N. General Assembly] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief [Nov. 25, 1981](App. C)(reiteration of above Covenant with additional provisions).
  • Religious Freedom Commitments and Obligations From Regional Bodies and Instruments (European Union: Charter of Fundamental Rights; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Final Act; (App. D); OSCE, Vienna Concluding Document; OSCE, Copenhagen Concluding Document; African Union, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Organization of American States (OAS), American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man; OAS, American Convention on Human Rights).
  • Department of State Training Related to the International Religious Freedom Act—2018 (App. E).
  • Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act (App. F);
  • Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy (App. G).

“Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) & ”Special Watch List”[2]

 Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State (by presidential delegation) is required to designate as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) “each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In addition, under the Frank R. Wolf International Freedom Act of 2016, the Secretary (by presidential delegation) is required to designate a country to the Special Watch List if it does not meet “all of the CPC criteria but engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom.”

As of November 28, 2018, the Secretary designated as CPCs Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In addition, the Secretary designated Comoros and Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List.

The just released 2018 Report apparently does not have a separate section on CPCs, but an examination of its Country Reports for those just listed as CPCs reveals that all continue in that status. In addition, Comoros and Uzbekistan continue on the Special Watch List with the addition of Russia.

 Ambassador Sam Brownback’s Role and Remarks

This report was prepared under the direction of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback,[3] with guidance from officials in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

At the launch of this report, Ambassador Brownback provided a Special Briefing.[4] He started with this alarming comment, “The fight against religious freedom is mounting. There was a report that 80 percent of people live in places where religious freedom is under attack, yet most of the world organizes their life around a set of religious beliefs.”

As a result, he said, the U.S. is working to “see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences.”

The Ambassador then had critical comments about this freedom in Iran, China, Eritrea, Turkey and Nicaragua.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks[5]

Also at the launch of this report, Secretary of State Pompeo made remarks. He noted that Uzbekistan had made improvements and no longer was a “Country of Particular Concern.” Also complimented for specific improvements on this subject were Pakistan and Turkey. But the Secretary specifically criticized Iran, Russia, Burma and China. Finally he noted that the Department in mid-July will be hosting the second annual Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.

Conclusion

As noted above, a future post will examine how the above background was applied to the report about Cuban religious freedom.

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

[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019) This blog has commented on religious freedom in the “International Religious Freedom” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (RELIGION).

[2] State Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions: IRF Report and Countries of Particular Concern (circa Nov. 28, 2018).

[3] Ambassador Brownback, a Republican, is a former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture (1986-93), U.S. Representative (1995-96), U.S. Senator (1996-2011) and Governor (2011-18). (Sam Brownback, Wikipedia.)

[4] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (June 21, 2019).

[5] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Release of the 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019)

 

 

State Department Unjustly Downgrades Cuba in Annual Report on Human Trafficking

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. State Department released its 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, as required by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, as amended (TVPA).[1]

After examining this statute’s framework, we will look at the report’s flawed concentration of its discussion of Cuba on its  foreign medical mission program.

The Statutory Framework[2]

Severe forms of trafficking in persons.” That statute defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” 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.” (Emphasis added.)

Minimum Standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons.” This phrase in the statute is defined as follows:

  • “(1) The government of the country should prohibit severe forms of trafficking in persons and punish acts of such trafficking. “
  • “(2) For the knowing commission of any act of sex trafficking involving force, fraud, coercion, or in which the victim of sex trafficking is a child incapable of giving meaningful consent, or of trafficking which includes rape or kidnapping or which causes a death, the government of the country should prescribe punishment commensurate with that for grave crimes, such as forcible sexual assault.”
  • “(3) For the knowing commission of any act of a severe form of trafficking in persons, the government of the country should prescribe punishment that is sufficiently stringent to deter and that adequately reflects the heinous nature of the offense.”
  • “(4) The government of the country should make serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons.”

The statute then goes on with great detail on 12 indicia of “serious and sustained efforts” as used in the last of these four minimum standards.

Finally the statue sets forth the following four categories or “tiers” for ranking all countries of the world in the State Department’s annual reports:

  • Tier 1. “Countries whose governments fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
  • Tier 2. “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”
  • Tier 2 Watch List. “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards, and for which: 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 officials; or c) the determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional steps over the next year.”
  • Tier 3. “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. No tier ranking is permanent. Every country, including the United States, can do more. All countries must maintain and continually increase efforts to combat trafficking.”

2019 Report on Cuba (Tier 3)[3]

Preliminarily it should be noted that Inclusion in Tier 3 allows the president to introduce  restrictions on U.S. non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance, but the U.S. currently does not provide any such aid  to Cuba and there is no prospect of any such new aid being offered. [4]

The Report’s summary of the reasons for the 2019 ranking included the following: “The Government of Cuba does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore Cuba was downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including prosecuting sex traffickers and one labor trafficker and imprisoning sex tourists engaged in child sex trafficking. However, the government did not take action to address forced labor in the foreign medical mission program, despite persistent allegations Cuban officials threatened and coerced some participants to remain in the program.” (Emphasis added.)

The Report’s ”Prioritized Recommendations” for Cuba had two relevant points. First, :“Implement policies to prohibit force, fraud, or coercion by foreign labor recruiters and state-owned or controlled enterprises, including foreign medical missions in recruiting and retaining employees.” Second,  Ensure participants in the foreign medical missions program retain control of their passports.” (Emphases added.)

The final section of the report on Cuba (“Trafficking Profile”) was devoted almost entirely to its foreign medical mission program. It stated, “the government employed between 34,000-50,000 healthcare professionals in more than 60 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Portugal in foreign medical missions through contracts with foreign governments and, in some countries, with international organizations serving as intermediaries. In November 2018, Cuba ended the five-year-old “Mais Medicos” medical mission program in Brazil, which was facilitated by a UN-affiliated organization, following demands from Brazil’s then president-elect to improve the treatment and employment conditions of Cuban healthcare professionals after allegations of coercion, non-payment of wages, withholding of passports, and restrictions on their movement. In November 2018, Cuban healthcare workers filed a class action in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida under the Trafficking Victims Protection and the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Acts alleging the Cuban government profited from the export of healthcare professionals; the case remains pending. In Brazil, the Cuban government collected revenue for each professional’s services and paid the worker a fraction of the revenue depositing a large percentage of the worker’s wages in an account in Cuba only accessible upon completion of the mission and return to Cuba. The Cuban government collected approximately 7.2 billion pesos ($7.2 billion) in annual revenue from the export of services, including foreign medical missions in 2017. Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other sources allege Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well-paid compared to jobs within Cuba. Observers report the government does not inform participants of the terms of their contracts, making them more vulnerable to forced labor. The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela; the government provided identification cards to such personnel. Some Cuban medical personnel claim they work long hours without rest and face substandard working and living conditions in some countries, including a lack of hygienic conditions and privacy. Observers note Cuban authorities coerced some participants to remain in the program, including by withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to conduct surveillance of participants outside of work, threatening to revoke their medical licenses, retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program, or impose criminal penalties, exile, and family separation if participants do not return to Cuba as directed by government supervisors.” (Emphasis added.)

Reaction

The contention that Cuban medical personnel in Cuba’s foreign medical mission program are engaged in forced labor is meritless for at least the following reasons:

  • Medical education in Cuba is free and requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation.
  • International medical aid has been a significant part of the Cuban people’s tradition of international solidarity, and some Cuban medical personnel have said that such service had a major positive impact on their lives and medical careers.
  • The relevant standard for evaluating the allegation that Cuba’s international medical mission program violates international law is the International Labor Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, 1930.[5]
  • That multilateral Convention or treaty provides that “for the purposes of this Convention, 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.” (Art. 2(2)(b).)[6]
  • Although it is true that the Cuban government receives direct payment from other countries for the foreign medical mission program and that the Cuban government retains some of those payments before paying the Cuban medical professionals, it also is true that such payments to those professionals exceed what they would have earned for similar services in Cuba. In addition, some of the payments to the Cuban professionals are deposited in Cuban accounts only accessible upon their completion of service and return to Cuba. But such practices do not constute proof of forced labor.
  • While it also is true that some Cuban medical professionals who have participated or are now participating in the foreign medical mission program allege that they were coerced into doing so, the report indicates that the Cuban government and other participants deny that allegation and that there has been no independent adjudication of that allegation.
  • Also relevant to this allegation is Cuban medical professionals undoubted awareness of the significantly higher compensation they potentially could obtain if they were able to relocate in the U.S. or certain other countries.
  • A detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman, has rejected this accusation of forced labor.[7]

The latest report on Cuba also fails to mention that the U.S. and Cuba apparently had friendly bilateral discussions about human trafficking during the Obama Administration (2015 through January 17, 2017) and the Trump Administration (2017-2018).[8]

The hypocrisy of the State Department’s repeated assertion of this claim of forced labor without recognizing the Forced Labour Convention is shown by Secretary of State Pompeo’s congratulating the ILO on its centennial anniversary only one day after the release of the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report.[9] The Secretary said:

  • “The dignitaries that convened in Paris in 1919 to end the Great War knew that any lasting peace needed to be rooted in the protection of individual rights, including the rights of workers and employers to associate freely and bargain collectively. “
  • The United States proudly hosted the first International Labor Conference in 1919 and the “war-time conference that enshrined the ILO’s enduring founding principles and aims in the Declaration of Philadelphia.[ [10]] As strong supporters of the ILO and its mission, we reflect on the important role played by Americans to create and sustain this organization, including David Morse, who served as ILO Director-General for 22 years, and under whose leadership the ILO won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
  • “As the ILO enters its second century pursuing objectives critical to economic prosperity and security around the world, the United States recommits itself to advancing the rights of workers globally.

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

[1] State Dep’t, 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 20, 2019) [“2019 Report”]; State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report Launch Ceremony (June 20, 2019).

[2] Report at 36-37, 40-41, 48.

[3] Report at 162-64..

[4] Reuters, U.S. Human Trafficking Report Drops Child Separation Warning, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2019). Some of the State Department’s prior reports about trafficking in Cuba are discussed in the following posts to dwkcommentariess.com: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 7, 2015); Comment: Cuba’s International Medical Mission Doctors’ Reflections (Nov. 30, 2015); U.S. State Department’s 2015 Human Trafficking Report’s Objectivity About Cuba Is Still Unresolved (Nov. 16, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 2, 2016); U.S. Senate Hearing on 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 20, 2016); Cuba’s Unchanged Status in U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 13, 2017); Cuba Remains on “Tier 2 Watchlist” in U.S. State Department’s Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 1, 2018).

[5] ILO, Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). Cuba ratified the Convention on Forced Labour on October 8, 1953. The U.S., however, has not so ratified.

[6] The above provision of this Convention was reaffirmed in the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, (Art. 1(3) (“The definition of forced or compulsory labour contained in the Convention is reaffirmed. . . .”)

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

[8] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com.: This Week’s U.S.-Cuba Meetings in  Havana  (Jan. 18, 2015); U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission Sets Agenda for Future Discussions of Remaining Issues (Sept. 12, 2015); Results of Second Meeting of U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission (Nov. 11, 2015); United States-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meets To  Review Normalization Status (May 18, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Hold Another Meeting of the Bilateral Commission (Sept. 30, 2016);  U.S. and Cuba Continue To Implement Normalization of Relations (Jan. 17, 2017); U.S. and Cuba Hold Biannual Migration Talks (Dec. 12, 2017); U.S. and Cuba Hold Discussions About Human Trafficking and Migration Fraud (Dec. 15, 2017); U.S. and Cuba Continue To Confer Over Common Concerns (Feb.15, 2018).

[9] State Dep’t, On the Centenary of the Founding of the International Labor Organization (June 21, 2019).

[10] The Declaration of Philadelphia, was adopted in that city on May 10, 1944, by the ILO to restate its traditional objectives while also recognizing the centrality of human rights to social policy and the need for international economic planning. (Declaration of Philadelphia, Wikipedia.)

 

 

Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights?

Since the end of World War II, treaties and international institutions have defined and developed international human rights and institutions, as discussed in previous posts. [1]

Commission on Unalienable Rights [2]

Now with little fanfare the U.S. State Department recently announced the establishment of  the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are the key provisions of its Charter:

  • The Commission will provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).
  • The Commission’s advice and recommendations will help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Para. 4) (emphasis added).

The Commission will be composed of “no more than fifteen members who have distinguished backgrounds in international law, human rights, and religious liberties.” Its membership “will be a bipartisan, diverse group of men and women.”

The phrase “unalienable rights,” of course, comes from the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “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.” (Emphasis added.)

At first glance this may sound like an unobjectionable reference to an important document and concept of U.S. history. But it may be much more than that. It may be an attempt by the Trump Administration to redefine international human rights, as suggested by Eric Posner, Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Reactions of Professor Eric Posner [3]

Posner so far has been the only one to have noticed this Commission. He says “the significance of . . . [this Commission] should not be overlooked. It puts the government’s imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.”

This conclusion, Posner argues, follows from the Commission’s name, implicitly emphasizing that these rights are endowed ‘by their Creator” and come from “natural law” and “natural rights.” This interpretation, he claims, also is suggested by the Charter’s reference to “discourse,” implying that contemporary human rights is merely talk, not law. In short, this Charter is conservatives’ “declaration of intent. Its plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influence of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th-century natural law.”

In Posner’s opinion, the reference to natural law is an indirect endorsement of contemporary Roman “Catholic conservative intellectuals, who kept alive the academic tradition of natural law long after mainstream secular intellectuals forgot what it was —[and, therefore,] . . .  goodbye to reproductive rights and protections for sexual minorities.” Posner also claims that Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, natural-law theorist, and opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, played a role in the creation of the Commission. In other words, this new commission will provide “the ideological justification for the anti-abortion foreign policy that the Trump administration has undertaken”

Natural law, says Posner, can also be used by conservatives to argue for “expanded religious freedoms that override statutes with secular goals, and to push back against progressive government programs like universal health care. The ‘right to health,’ a centerpiece of ‘human rights law,’ is firmly rejected by natural-law theorists like George.

“But the mission of the commission may be even bolder,” in Posner’s opinion. ”If we take the idea of natural law seriously, it not only overrides statutes in foreign countries that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. It also overrides American laws that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. One can imagine a day when a Supreme Court justice, taking a page from [former Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy, invokes natural law — supposedly endorsed by the founders, after all, and embodied in the sacred Declaration — to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to prepare the path for an even holier grail, the abolition of state laws that grant abortion rights.”

“Liberals hoped that human rights, sanctified by the sacrifices of the victims of totalitarianism, would provide common ground in a world of competing ideologies. But what human rights actually helped produce was a liberal international order that has offended a great many people who do not share liberal values. The backlash began years ago in authoritarian countries, in developing countries that saw human rights as an affront to their traditions and as a mask for imperialist goals, and in highly religious countries. These countries advanced interpretations of human rights law that conform with their values or interests but made little headway against dominant elite opinion. What is new is that the government of the world’s most powerful nation [the U.S.], long acknowledged (if grudgingly) as the leader of the international human rights regime, has officially signed on to that backlash.”

Presumably this Posner argument is expanded in his recent book, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.[4]

Conclusion

Although noted author and commentator George Will is not a fan of President Trump, he probably is sympathetic to the recent trumpeting of “ unalienable rights” and “natural law” and “natural rights.” In the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, Will says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr.Will, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals..”

In retrospect, perhaps the Trump Administration has been dropping hints that something like the Commission might be coming by the State Department’s using the phrase “unalienable rights” in various statements and documents.[5]

Although this blogger has no objection to contemporary references to the language of our Declaration of Independence, he does object to the notion that this new Commission is an underhanded way to implement current political preferences of this Administration. Moreover, this blogger suggests that it is too simplistic to use notions of natural law to preempt the decisions on the previously mentioned contemporary issues.

After all, natural rights and human rights treaties can be seen as compatible allies, just as English and American common law are compatible with their respective statutes. Such multilateral treaties with provisions for implementation and amendment are drafted by committees and individual nation states are not bound by the treaties unless and until they ratify the treaties. Similarly domestic statues in the U.S. and U.K. are prepared and adopted by legislatures, often as a result of common law developments, and always are subject to subsequent amendment.

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

[1]  See posts listed in the following: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (REFUGEE & ASYLUM)List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law: U.S. (ALIEN TORT STATUTE); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law U.S. (TORTURE VICTIMS  PROTECTION ACT).

[2] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[3] Posner, The administration’s plan to redefine ‘human rights’ along conservative lines, Wash. Post (June 14, 2019).

[4] Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014-).

[5]  State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson’s Testimony before Senate Appropriations Committee (June  13, 2017) (“Our mission is at all times guided by our longstanding values of freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity. The conviction of our country’s founders is enduring: that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks With Secretary General of the Community of Democracies Thomas Garrett (Sept. 17, 2017) (“In our Declaration of Independence, our founders boldly stated that all are endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks at the “Conversation on the Value of Respect” Event (Jan. 12, 2018) (“It was the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who wrote that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018) (these annual reports “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad”); State Dep’t, The State Department Role in Countering Violent Extremism (May 30, 2018) (“America is committed to individual rights, and we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We are all, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Mar. 13, 2019) ((Secretary Pompeo’s Preface :”The United States was founded on the premise that all persons “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. Our Constitution secures these unalienable rights . . . in the First [and Fifth] amendments.” ((emphasis added); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo At the Celebration of Israel’s 71st Independence Day (May 22, 2019) (both the Israel Declaration of Independence of 1948 and the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 “speak of central ideas that are ‘self-evident’ – In the American case, it’s the truth that men are created equal and have rights that are unalienable”) (Emphasis added).

 

 

 

Did State Department Ineptly Investigate the Medical Problems of Some U.S. Diplomats in Cuba?

According to  Dan Vergano of BuzzFeed,News, the U.S. State Department has mismanaged its investigation of the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana since December 2016.[1]

This report says, “much of the early research into the mystery may have been botched or biased. The initial investigation was confined to two competing sets of researchers, both eager to publish studies on their own work, and whose findings have been at odds with each other. In one case, researchers were also seeking to promote their own newly approved medical device as a diagnostic tool. And until now, the effort has lacked broader oversight by an institution capable of cross-disciplinary research.”

The initial two medical teams “diagnosed the diplomats with injuries centered on their own respective areas of research expertise: inner ear damage and concussions.” Another team from the Center for Disease Control was asked to investigate over a year ago and has not yet submitted a report. Now the U.S. National Academy of Sciences will be starting yet another investigation, but there is concern this may be too late.

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

[1] Vergano, The US Government Botched Its Investigation Into The Mysterious “Sonic Attack” in Cuba, Emails Reveal, BussFeed.News (May 29, 2019).  This blog has published many posts on this situation. See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Still Uncertainty Over What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

A lengthy New York Times article reviews the different theories that have been offered about what happened to some U.S. diplomats in Cuba starting in December 2016. The article then concludes by saying that to this date no one really knows the cause(s).[1]

The article, however, presses the question of whether the diplomats symptoms “are primarily psychogenic — or ‘functional’ — in nature. If true, it would mean that the symptoms were caused not by a secret high-tech weapon but by the same confluence of psychological and neurological processes — entirely subconscious yet remarkably powerful — underlying hypnosis and the placebo effect. They are disorders, in other words, not of the brain’s hardware but of its software; not of objective injuries to the brain’s structure but of chronic alterations to how the brain functions, typically following exposure to an illness, a physical injury or stress. . . . [Such disorders are] the most misunderstood, debilitating and denigrated ailments known to medicine.”

Nevertheless, the State Department and the diplomats themselves have rejected this theory.

According to the article, one of the leading experts on such disorders is Dr.Mark Hallett, “who is the Chief of the Medical Neurology Branch and the Human Motor Control Section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. He  obtained his A.B. and M.D. at Harvard University, had his internship in Medicine at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and his Neurology training at Massachusetts General Hospital plus fellowships in neurophysiology at the NIH and in the Department of Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry in London.”

Last year the National Institutes of Health asked Dr. Hallett to examine the diplomats, but the State Department did not appoint him to the task force for such examinations, and that  Department and NINDS have instructed De. Hallett not to speak with the author of the Times article.

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

[1]  Hurley, Was It an Invisible Attack on U.S. diplomats, or Something Stranger?, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2019). This blog has many posts about the issues posed by the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats in Cuba (and more recently in China). See the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016–??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.