Continuing Controversy Over Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (and China)

Since late 2016 some U.S. diplomats (now 26 in number) have complained about various medical problems that surfaced while they were serving in Cuba.[1]

The U.S., however, continues to assert publicly that despite subsequent investigations the U.S. does not know what or who caused the problems. Most recently, on September 6, 2018, at a House hearing, Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” At the same hearing, Charles Rosenfarb, the State Department’s Medical Director, testified, “We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause.”[2] (Emphases added.)

Cuba, on the other hand, continues to assert that it did not cause the problems and indeed that there is no scientific basis for any contention that the diplomats suffered any kind of medical issues. For example, in June 2018, a Cuban diplomatic official said that Cuba had “challenged the U.S. on the use of the word ‘attack.’ “There is no evidence of a weapon, there is no evidence of a source, nobody can point to motivation and yet they continue to use the word ‘attack.’ We see it as politically motivated.’” He also noted that neither American nor Cuban experts had been able to determine what caused the symptoms. He renewed concerns that the Trump administration is using the incidents as an excuse to roll back U.S.-Cuba rapprochement started under the Obama administration.[3]

In the meantime, at least the following four theories about causation of the medical problems have emerged.

University of Pennsylvania Theory[4]

Physicians at the University of Pennsylvania examined the affected diplomats and in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) asserted the following key findings:

  1. The patients “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.”
  2. The patients have experienced “persisting disability of a significant nature” involving “hearing, vision, balance and brain symptoms similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions, but without histories of head trauma.”
  3. In most cases, the affected diplomats reported hearing a loud, painful noise that they later associated with their symptoms, but the physicians concluded, “There is no known mechanism for audible sound to injure the brain” and “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.”
  4. “Viruses or chemical exposures are unlikely,” but could not be “systematically excluded.”
  5. “Advanced MRI scans spotted a few changes in some patients in what are called white matter tracts,” but these might be attributed to previous events.
  6. “Several of the objective manifestations consistently found in this cohort,” including vision and balance abnormalities, “could not have been consciously or unconsciously manipulated.”

In August 2018 JAMA published letters from 10 neurologists and doctors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany that questioned the conclusions of the University of Pennsylvania report. They said it could have misinterpreted the result of medical tests or ignored disorders that cause symptoms among a large group of people, as psychological factors.

Smith and two colleagues published a response that said they are performing “advanced neuroimaging studies” of the patients and are “hoping to identify structural brain changes that may underlie the neurological manifestations.”

University of Michigan Theory[5]

A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan’s Security and Privacy Research Group in March 2018 concluded that “if ultrasound played a role in harming diplomats in Cuba, then a plausible cause is intermodulation distortion between ultrasonic signals that unintentionally synthesize audible tones. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.” The conclusion of the research paper itself also states, “our experiments do not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent to harm diplomats.” (Emphasis added.)

If I correctly understand this theory, the audible sound similar to that heard in Cuba requires at least two ultrasound sources that interfere with each other and this suggests that the audible sound was accidental and not intended. This supports Cuba’s consistent assertion that it did not intend to do anything to harm the American diplomats, an assertion that makes obvious sense from Cuba’s own self-interest of avoiding antagonizing the U.S.

Microwave Theory[6]

The lead physician and author of the University of Pennsylvania report, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, recently told the New York Times that “microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.” He added, ““Everybody was relatively skeptical at first [but] everyone now agrees there’s something there.”

According to the Times, “Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety. In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.” Moreover, “scientists have known for decades that the brain can perceive some microwaves as sound.” Indeed, “The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.”

Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, is a leading proponent of the theory that pulsed microwaves could explain the symptoms. She has authored a paper that will be published in coming days in the journal Neural Computation.  The symptoms experienced by the Cuba patients match symptoms in other people who are “electrosensitive,” according to her analysis, which relies on the JAMA study and news reports.

Asked about the microwave theory, the State Department said the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. And the F.B.I. declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any theories. In addition, In addition, members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.

James C. Lin of the University of Illinois, a leading investigator of the Frey effect, described the diplomatic ills as plausibly arising from microwave beams. Dr. Lin is the editor-in-chief of Bio Electro Magnetics, a peer-reviewed journal that explores the effects of radio waves and electromagnetic fields on living things. In his paper, Dr. Lin said high-intensity beams of microwaves could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury. The beams, he added, could be fired covertly, hitting “only the intended target.”

In February, ProPublica in a lengthy investigation mentioned that federal investigators were weighing the microwave theory. This article also mentioned that a wife of a member of the embassy staff had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and had seen a van speeding away.

Kenneth R. Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied microwave phenomena while working at the Naval Medical Research Center in Bethesda. Foster, who was not involved in examining the diplomatic personnel, said that the reported illnesses remain mysterious and that he doesn’t have an explanation.

Nevertheless, Foster said, “But it’s sure as heck not microwaves.” Such a theory is “wildly impossible.” According to Dr. Foster, “to actually damage the brain, the microwaves would have to be so intense they would actually burn the subject, which has never happened in any of these incidents.” Foster added that there is no technology capable of using microwaves to produce the kinds of symptoms that the U.S. diplomats have experienced — and not for lack of trying. “Actually the Navy was interested in seeing whether this could be used as a weapon, and we spent a lot of time thinking about it, but the phenomenon was simply too weak to be of any conceivable use.”

A rejection of this theory also was voiced by University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto J. Espay, who said, “Microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news.”

A Cuban diplomat, Fernández de Cossío, Director for United States at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, insisted that the microwave theory cannot explain the symptoms suffered by the U.S. diplomats in Havana. Mr. Fernández de Cossío accused the U.S. of carrying a deliberate political manipulation. On Monday, CNN reported that Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a neurologist investigating on behalf of the Cuban government, also dismissed this theory.

The strangest reaction to the microwave theory came in  a Washington Post editorial. After reviewing the pros and cons of the theory, it concluded, “the microwave explanation has again raised a question about whether the United States has discovered more than is being said about the perpetrators. If there are known culprits, they should be identified and held to account.”

Neuro-Weapon Theory[7]

A team put together by the State Department to investigate this problem consisted of Dr. Michael Hoffer of the University of Miami and an expert in brain trauma and otolaryngology; Dr. Carey Balaban, professor of otolaryngology, bioengineering and neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh; and Dr. James Giordano, professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert in “neurotechnology” and its use in the military.

This team independently studied the first tests taken of  those affected. And  this team believes that the patients likely were hit by  a weapon that uses directed energy and is capable of causing a “cavitation” effect or air pockets, in fluids near the inner ear. The bubbles can travel quickly through two pathways that carry blood to the brain from the inner ear — the cochlear and the vestibular — and “function as a stroke,” Giordano said.

Such “neuro-weapons” can be biological, chemical, or in the case of the incidents in Havana, “directed energy weapons.”  The team was unable to conclude exactly what method the perpetrators of the attacks used but reduced it to the following possibilities:

▪ Ultrasonic (acoustic) exposures were considered “very possible and probable.”

▪ Electromagnetic pulsing was also described as “very possible and probable.”

▪ The team reported that the use of microwave energy was possible, but “unlikely.”

Conclusion

I am not a scientist or medical doctor and am unable to evaluate the merits and demerits of the above theories. I, therefore, specifically invite comments with additional information or thoughts.

But I also confess that I am amazed that after nearly two years the official U.S. public position is an inability to identify the cause or perpetrator.

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[1]  Previous posts about these issues are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of Lists of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] U.S. House Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Affairs Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba  (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[3] Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2018), Cuba Still Baffled by Illness of U.S. Diplomats, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2018).

[4] Swanson, et al., Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel  Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba, JAMA (Mar. 20, 2018); Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2018); What affected the US diplomats in Cuba? Ten scientists question the ‘attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 15, 2018); Gianoli, et al., Neurological Symptoms in US  Government Personnel in Cuba, JAMA (Aug. 14, 2018); Mojena, The truth is that they do not want to listen, Granma (Aug. 17, 2018); Do ‘Sonic Weapons’ Adequately Explain ‘Health Attacks’ on Diplomats in Cuba?  Snopes (updated Sept. 4, 2018); Rasenick, et al., Letter: Cuba ‘sonic attack’ conspiracy theories and flawed science, Guardian (June 1, 2018); Sample, Cuban ‘acoustic attack’ report on US diplomats flawed, say neurologists, Guardian (Aug. 14, 2018).

[5] Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 4, 2018).

[6] Broad, Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2018); Kaplan & Achenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuba diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018); Could ‘Microwave Weapon Really Have Caused US Embassy Workers’ ‘Bizarre Symptoms? LiveScience (Sept/ 5, 2018); Foster, Cuba’s “Sonic Attack” on the U.S. Embassy Could Have Been Merely Sounds Emitted by a Listening Device, Scientific American (Sept. 7, 2018); Editorial, A literal secret weapon is hurting U.S. diplomats abroad. What is it? Wash. Post (Sept. 7, 2018).

[7] Gámez, Doctors reveal possible ‘neuro-weapon’ used in alleged attacks in Cuba, Miami Herald (Sept. 7, 2018).

 

U.N. Official’s Report About  U.S. Poverty Is Criticized by U.S. 

On June 22, Philip G. Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights,[1] presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland his final report criticizing certain U.S. poverty policies. It immediately was condemned by U.S.  Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley with a  prompt retort by Mr. Alston. We will examine these developments and then analyze this controversy.

Special Rapporteur’s Report on U.S.[2]

In his oral summary of the report, the Special Rapporteur made the following overall findings:

  • “[T]he combination of extreme inequality and extreme poverty generally create ideal conditions for small elites to trample on the human rights of minorities, and sometimes even of majorities. The [U.S.] has the highest income inequality in the Western world, and this can only be made worse by the massive new tax cuts overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 millions of those live in extreme poverty.  In addition, vast numbers of middle class Americans are perched on the edge, with 40% of the adult population saying they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense.”
  • “In response, the Trump administration has pursued a welfare policy that consists primarily of (i) steadily diminishing the number of Americans with health insurance (‘Obamacare’); (ii) stigmatizing those receiving government benefits by arguing that most of them could and should work, despite evidence to the contrary; and (iii) adding ever more restrictive conditions to social safety net protections such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and cash transfers, each of which will push millions off existing benefits.”
  • “My report demonstrates that growing inequality, and widespread poverty which afflicts almost one child out of every five, has deeply negative implications for the enjoyment of civil and political rights by many millions of Americans. I document the ways in which democracy is being undermined, the poor and homeless are being criminalized for being poor, and the criminal justice system is being privatized in ways that work well for the rich but that seriously disadvantage the poor.  Underlying all of these developments is persistent and chronic racial bias.  That bias also helps to explain the abysmal situation in which the people of Puerto Rico find themselves.  It is the poorest non-state in the Union, without a vote in Congress, at the mercy of an unelected and omnipotent oversight board, and suffering from record poverty levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.”
  • In many cities and counties, “state and county taxes are capped; public budgets are slashed; governments are left without essential resources; they instruct their police departments to impose and collect more fines to fund the general budget; these fines fall overwhelmingly upon the poor; the victims cannot pay the fines and so additional penalties and fees accumulate; most scrimp and pay but some default and are imprisoned; when they are in prison their economic and family situations collapse; and when they emerge from prison they are even less unemployable because they have a conviction.”

Based upon these finding, the Special Rapporteur made these recommendations for the U.S.: (1) “acknowledge that America’s proudest achievement –a vibrant democracy – is in peril unless steps are taken to restore the fabric from which it was crafted, including the adage that ‘all are created equal.’” (2) “Stop irrationally demonizing taxation and begin exploring how reasonable taxes can dramatically increase the social well-being of Americans and the country’s economic competitiveness.” (3) Provide “universal healthcare [that] . . . would rescue millions from misery, save money on emergency care, increase employment, and generate a healthier and more productive workforce.”

Ambassador Haley’s Criticism of the Report[3]

 On June 21 (the day before the official release of the report), Ambassador Haley in a letter to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind., VT), said. “ I am deeply disappointed that the Special Rapporteur used his platform to make misleading and politically motivated statements about American domestic policy issues. Regrettably, his report is an all too common example of the misplaced priorities and poor use of funds proven to be rampant throughout the UN system. The report categorically misstated the progress the [U.S.] has made in addressing poverty and purposely used misleading facts and figures in its biased reporting.”

“It is patently ridiculous for the [U.N.] to examine poverty in America. In our country, the President, Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, and City Council members actively engage on poverty issues every day. Compare that to the many countries around the world, whose governments knowingly abuse human rights and cause pain and suffering.”

“Rather than using his voice to shine a light on those vulnerable populations [in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo], and so many others, the Special Rapporteur wasted the UN’s time and resources, deflecting attention from the world’ s worst human rights abusers and focusing instead on the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”

U.S. Mission to Geneva’s Criticism[4]

“The right to property, the right to pursue one’s own livelihood, and the right of free association are core economic and social rights by any reasonable definition, and have been core rights of the United States since its founding. The world knows that the U.S. economy is the largest, the most influential, and the most innovative on the planet.”

“Indeed, the U.S. is entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity.  Strong gross domestic product growth and increasing investment have already created 3.4 million new jobs, brought 900,000 workers off the sidelines since the President took office, and lowered unemployment to its lowest point in nearly 50 years.  The administration is fighting for American jobs and American workers, and standing strong with those that are standing strong for a more prosperous American economy. Sadly, Mr. Alston’s report does not give due credit to current policies enacted by this administration to spur economic growth and the prosperity it brings for all Americans.”

“We note that U.S. federal, state, and local governments guarantee emergency health care, a right to equal access to education, pursue policies that promote access to food, and support the need to promote, protect, and respect human rights in carrying out housing policies.  For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies support communities that establish centralized or coordinated assessment systems, emphasizing that coordinated entry processes to ensure all people experiencing a housing crisis in a community have fair and equal access and are connected to available housing and related assistance based on their strengths and needs.  Across the nation, local homelessness provider organizations under a consortium called “Continuums of Care” support persons in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs as well as those living unsheltered on the streets through grants providing critically needed support to local programs on the front lines of serving individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  In January of this year, the ‘Continuums of Care’ provided a record $2 billion to support more than 7,300 local homeless assistance programs across the nation.  There is also robust funding for programs such as Emergency Shelter Grants and other programs like Community Development Block Grants that can be used to assist homeless.  This U.S. administration stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners to support real housing solutions for those who may otherwise be living in our shelters or on our streets.”

“Furthermore, the [U.S.] has robust legal protections to prohibit discrimination in the enjoyment of rights that are provided by domestic law.  For example, in the area of housing, HUD actively monitors and enforces laws prohibiting discrimination.  In 2016, HUD, along with its state and local partners, investigated more than 8,300 housing discrimination complaints and obtained over $25.2 million in compensation; through its Fair Housing Assistance Program, HUD paid state and local government partners more than $24.6 million to support local enforcement activities and outreach activities.  That same year, HUD also awarded through its Fair Housing Initiatives Program $38 million in grants to 155 organizations for private enforcement to prevent or eliminate discriminatory housing practices and for educational initiatives to inform individuals of their rights and responsibilities.”

“It is regrettable that the Special Rapporteur, while acknowledging that the political status of Puerto Rico is beyond his mandate, nevertheless chose to opine on the matte. Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States that achieved self-determination in 1952. In successive referenda, the residents of Puerto Rico have made the democratic choice to maintain the island’s current status or to pursue statehood, with a very small fraction opting for independence. Like the states of our federal system, the vast majority of Puerto Rico’s affairs are governed by a popularly elected governor and legislature, and disputes are settled by Puerto Rico’s independent judiciary.  It is baseless to argue, as the Special Rapporteur does, that Puerto Rico “is no longer a self-governing territory” when in fact its residents enjoy and exercise extensive democratic rights.  Furthermore, the U.S. administration is awarding over $18 billion in disaster recovery and mitigation funds to Puerto Rico, through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery Program.”

“Accusations that the [U.S.] shows ‘contempt and hatred’ for the poor, including accusations of a criminal justice system designed to keep low income persons in poverty while generating public revenue, are inaccurate, inflammatory, and irresponsible.  The U.S. funds large public assistance programs designed to help low-income Americans, including $565.5 billion for Medicaid, $63 billion for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and $42.5 billion for housing assistance programs.  In fact, more than $1 trillion dollars in means-tested benefits are provided to the poor annually by federal and state governments.  Based on some measures of consumption, poverty is down by 77 percent since 1980.  Recent studies using the Consumer Expenditure Survey suggest that only 175 of 222,170 surveyed American households reported spending less than an extreme poverty threshold figure of $4.00 a day, which implies that there are only approximately 250,000 persons in “extreme poverty” circumstances, rather than the exaggerated figure cited by the Special Rapporteur.  Regardless, any number of Americans with this severe level of economic difficulties should not be ignored, and a stronger focus of the Special Rapporteur on the problems and remedies for this population would have been welcome.”

Special Rapporteur’s Response[5]

“The suggestion that this Council should only consist of rights-respecting States was made long ago by the US and others, but abandoned because there are no workable criteria to determine who should qualify under such a test, and because a body composed only of self-appointed good guys would not only be tiny but would be talking unproductively among themselves.  Human rights promotion requires robust engagement, not behaving like the kid who takes his football and goes home.”

“Ambassador Haley complained that the Council has done nothing about countries like Venezuela.  In fact I and several other special rapporteurs reported earlier this year that ‘vast numbers of Venezuelans are starving, deprived of essential medicines, and trying to survive in a situation that is spiraling downwards with no end in sight.’  We warned of ‘an unfolding tragedy of immense proportions.’”

Moreover, “this Council has published many report detailing the situations in [Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo].” And “when [the U.S.,] one of the world’s wealthiest countries, does very little about the fact that 40 millions of its citizens live in poverty, it is entirely appropriate for the reasons to be scrutinized.”

“If this Council stands for anything, it is the principle of accountability – the preparedness of States to respond in constructive and meaningful ways to allegations that they have not honored their human rights commitments. The United States position, expressed by Ambassador Haley, [erroneously] seems to be that this Council should do far more to hold certain states to account, but that it should exempt the [U.S.] and its key allies from such accountability.”

“Ambassador Haley called my report ‘misleading and politically motivated.’ She didn’t spell out what was misleading but other stories from the same media outlet emphasized two issues.”

“The first is that my report uses official data from 2016, before President Trump came to office.  That is true, for the simple reason that there will be no Census Bureau data on the Trump era until September this year.  But these data provide the best available official baseline, and my report then factors in the effects of the combination of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and systematic slashing of benefits for the less well-off.”

“The second criticism . . . is that the US ‘economy continues to roar to life under President Trump.’ Indeed, the US economy is currently booming, but the question is who is benefiting. Last week’s official statistics show that hourly wages for workers in “production and nonsupervisory” positions, who make up 80% of the private workforce, actually fell in 2017.  Expanding employment has created many jobs with no security, no health care, and often with below-subsistence wages.  The benefits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the wealthy. Average pre-tax national income per adult in the US has stagnated at $16,000 since 1980 for the bottom 50% of the income distribution, while it has really boomed for the top 1%, a trajectory that has been quite different from that in most European countries. Even the IMF has warned that in the US “prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy”. In other words, the American dream of mobility, is turning into the American illusion, in which the rich get ever richer, and the middle classes don’t move.”

U.S. Withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council[6]

 As reported in a prior post, on June 19, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, and on June 22, a spokesman for Ambassador Haley said that the Alston report had nothing to do with that decision. However, when Alston arrived in the U.S. last year, as noted above, he recently said, “A senior official said . . .my report could be a factor in whether the U.S. decided or not to stay in the council. I think I was being sent a message.”

Conclusion

There are many reasons why Ambassador Haley’s criticism of this report is unwarranted. Here are some.

First, the U.S. in June 2017 apparently joined other Council members in approving the resolution extending the mandate for the Special Rapporteur to, among other things, “(a) Further examine the relationship between the enjoyment of human rights and extreme poverty; [and] (b) Identify alternative approaches to the removal of all obstacles, including institutional ones, at the regional, national and international, public, corporate and societal levels, to the full enjoyment of human rights for all people living in extreme poverty.” That resolution also called “upon all Governments to cooperate with and assist the independent expert in his or her task, to supply all necessary information requested by him or her and to give serious consideration to responding favorably to the requests of the independent expert to visit their countries, to enable him or her to fulfil his or her mandate effectively.”[7]

Second, the U.S. invited the Special Rapporteur to visit the U.S., initially by the Obama Administration and then by the Trump Administration on June 8, 2017, at a Human Rights Council meeting.

Third, on November 29, 2017, a Human Rights Council Press Release announced that the Special Rapporteur would be visiting the U.S. in December 2017 with a detailed itinerary “to examine government efforts to eradicate poverty in the country, and how they relate to US obligations under international human rights law.” Mr. Alston said, “Some might ask why a UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality.”[8]

Fourth, on December 15, 2017, at the conclusion of his visit to the U.S., the Special Rapporteur released a statement on his visit with the following comments that later turned out to be a preview of the final report the following June:[9]

  • The U.S. is harnessing “neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology . . . to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.
  • He provided some details on both the negative and positive things he had witnessed as well as statistical comparisons of the U.S. with other countries. “American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations.  But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.  As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
  • The then “proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans.  The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes.”
  • The “indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed to eliminate poverty. . . include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality and respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice. Currently, the United States falls far short on each of these issues” while providing further details.

Fifth, the Special Rapporteur, as of June 2018, has visited or plans to visit or has made comments about other wealthy countries (United Kingdom, and Japan), developing countries (China and Brazil)  and poorer countries (Ghana and Venezuela). [10]

Sixth, the Special Rapporteur correctly observes that human rights obligations are imposed on every country, regardless of its wealth.

Finally, recall that Ambassador Haley first criticized human rights groups for their failure to support U.S. efforts to reform the Human Rights Council as a contributing cause for the U.S. withdrawal from the Council.

The short response to the Ambassador is Shakespeare’s line in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

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[1] Alston is an Australian citizen and John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, New York University and Director of NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Here is the website for the Special Rapporteur.

[2] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Oral Statement by Mr. Philip Alston Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (June 22, 2018); Assoc. Press, UN Expert Slams US on Poverty, Quitting Global Rights Body, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2018).

[3]  Haley, Letter to Sen. Sanders (June 21, 2018); Stein, Nikki Haley: ‘It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in the United States, Wash. Post (June 22, 2018).

[4] U.S. Mission to Geneva, Country Concerned Statement in Response to SR Alston’s report on the United States (June 22, 2018).

[5] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council,  Oral Statement by Mr. Philip Alston Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (June 22, 2018).

[6] Stein, ‘I think I was being sent a message’: U.S. warned U.N. official about report on poverty in America, Wash. Post (June 22, 2018).

[7]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, HRC/RES/35/19 Human rights and extreme poverty (June 22, 2017); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, HRC/RES/8/11, Human rights and extreme poverty (June 18, 2008).

[8] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press release, UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights  to visit USA, one of the wealthiest countries in the world (Nov. 29, 2017).

[9] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights* (Dec. 15, 2017); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Special Rapporteur, Press Conference, Washington, D.C. (Dec. 15, 2017).

[10] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Venezuela: Dire living conditions worsening by the day, UN human rights experts warn (Feb. 9, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, China: UN experts concerned about health of jailed rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (Mar. 23, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Brazil: UN experts alarmed by killing of Rio human rights defender who decried military intervention (Mar. 26, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Japan: Benefit cuts threaten social protection of the poor, UN rights experts warn (May 24, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Ghana’s main economic initiatives will do little to reduce poverty, warns UN expert (June 20, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The UPR Hearing                    

This year Cameroon’s human rights record is the subject of its third  Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior posts reviewed the nature of the UPR process and the pre-hearing papers for this UPR. Now we review Cameroon’s May 16 UPR hearing with a focus on the various comments made about the current conflict between the majority Francophones and the minority Anglophones.[1]

This hearing was limited to 3 ½ hours (210 minutes) and each of the 76 countries was limited to 1 minute 25 seconds (85 seconds).

Cameroon Government’s Comments

The Cameroon Government opened the hearing with comments by H.E. Mr. Mbella Mbella, its Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Near the end of his remarks, he said, “The social crisis in the North-West and South-West (Anglophone regions) began at the end of 2015 with strikes of lawyers and teachers. In response the government created the National Commission of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism to protect and ensure the balance of security and freedom.”

Earlier he laboriously discussed the process of preparing this national report, the implementation of recommendations from the prior UPR, the ratification of various human rights treaties, the adoption of the National Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and the records of prosecutions and convictions for violations of human rights.

U.N.  Members’ Comments

There were 76 governments that made comments at the hearing (32 of whom were also Human Rights Council members plus 44 other U.N. members). Most of the comments and recommendations concerned Cameroon’s ratifying and enforcing various international human rights treaties, protecting the rights of children, women and LGBTQ people and other topics.

However, only the following 14 countries specifically addressed the current conflict between the Francophone-Anglophone communities:

  • Australia. Concerned about “recent violence between Cameroon security forces and protesting minority groups in [its] South-West and North-West [regions].” Recommends Cameroon “lift unnecessary restrictions on freedom of assembly, investigate alleged excessive use of force in disbursing demonstrators and assure arrested protestors receive fair trials.”
  • Austria. Concerned about “deterioration of the situation of the communities in the Anglophone regions of the country.” Recommended “ending the practice of secret detentions and ensure that no one is detained in a secret site, including unregistered military detention sites.” Recommended Cameroon “engage in a dialogue at the policy level with representatives of the Anglophone communities so as to identify appropriate measures to adequately respond to the violence affecting the South-West and North-West regions.”
  • Belgium. Concerned about “repressive approach in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon that runs the risk of exacerbating violent tendencies when there is a need for dialogue.” Recommended that Cameroon “take appropriate measures to ensure that the security forces act in compliance with laws and international human rights standards, conduct “independent and transparent inquiries on allegations of excessive use of force and bring perpetrators to justice.”
  • Canada.. Expressed “condolences to families of victims of violence… especially … as a result of tensions linked to claims of Anglophone community in North-West and South-West. Recommended that Cameroon “engage in sustained dialogue with representatives of the Anglophone community in North-West and South-West so as to provide consensus-based solutions while upholding human rights.”
  • Chile. Concerned with “general crime environment that exists in the English-speaking areas of the country as well as the accepted use of force against protestors in these regions.”
  • Czech Republic. Recommended “investigation of alleged torture and other ill treatment of other detained persons and incommunicado detainees.” Recommended “recognition of the right of citizens to express their views in dealing with programs of the English-speaking provinces.”
  • Germany. Concerned about reports of “violations of freedom of press and assembly, especially in the English-speaking areas of the country.”
  • Haiti. Recommended “effective implementation of the official Bilingualism Policy in consultation with all stakeholders to ensure equal treatment of the English-speaking minority.”
  • Honduras. Recommended “effective implementation of the Bilingualism Policy so as to ensure the English-speaking population does not suffer discrimination in employment, education and access to legal services.”
  • Republic of Korea. Recommended that Cameroon “redouble its efforts for the full and effective implementation of the official bilingual policy and ensure that the Anglophone minority are not subject to inequality in access to public services, administration of justice and freedom of speech. “
  • Slovakia. Concerned by “reports of human rights violations and abuses such as arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial executions by government forces and armed forces against members of the country’s Anglophone minority.”
  • Switzerland. Concerned by “violations of fundamental freedoms in the framework of the Anglophone crisis and anti-terrorism efforts. Demonstrations have been violently repressed and arbitrary arrests and detentions in difficult conditions have been made. “ Recommended that Cameroon’s “anti-terrorism law be reviewed and amended to ensure it is not used to restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly. “Recommended that “any reported cases of violations or abuses by Cameroon’s security forces are subjected to independent inquiry and prosecution.”
  • United Kingdom. Noted that “the Anglophone crisis has led to violence and disruption to many people and urged the government and all parties to fully respect and guard human rights.” Recommended that the government “allow various international agencies to have access to Anglophone separatists leaders extradited by Nigeria and held incommunicado by Cameroon since January 2018.”
  • United States. U.S. expressed concern overcredible allegations of human rights violations and abuses by security forces.  We call on the government to credibly investigate these allegations and hold those responsible to account.  We are also concerned by reports of harassment and intimidation of youth, civil society, journalists, and opposition leaders, particularly in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, as well as restrictions on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression.” (Emphases added.)

The U.S. also called on the Cameroon government “to respect the human rights of everyone, including the 47 [Anglophone] Cameroonians forcibly returned from Nigerian custody to Cameroonian authorities in January.  We expect the government of Cameroon to afford all individuals detained all of the rights and protections provided under domestic and international law.” (Emphasis added.)

 Finally the U.S. made these recommendations: “(1) Acknowledge and investigate credible allegations of human rights violations and abuses, and hold those responsible to account.(2) Respect the rights of peaceful assembly, and freedoms of association and expression, including when exercised online, and afford all of those detained all the rights enshrined in Cameroon’s constitution and under international law. (3) Decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations and immediately cease targeted discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons.”[2]

It also is noteworthy that France, which governed what is now the Francophone area of Cameroon after World War I until 1960, made comments without saying anything about the current Francophone-Anglophone conflict. Nor did two members of the troika for this UPR—Iraq and South Africa—while the third member of that group—United Kingdom—did as noted above.

Cameroon Government’s Response

At the end of the hearing, Cameroon’s Foreign Minister made a lengthy response to the many comments made by the other countries. He ended those remarks with the following extensive comments about the “Anglophone problem.”

“After World War II, under U.N. supervision, we obtained independence from France and the United Kingdom and created a single country by merging the two colonial states. There were not separate English-speaking and French-speaking countries, and now these linguistic groups have merged and are mixed and cannot be separated.”

“At the end of 2016 there was a corporate clamor by lawyers and teachers’ unions in the South-West and North-West. The government responded to these claims, and now no unions are making claims.”

“Some extremists used the unions claims to question the structure of the state by arguing for federalism. But the Constitution did not permit federalism. Instead the President asked for dialogue. Thus, the Prime Minister and Head of government intervened to conduct dialogue with the North-West and South-West. This resulted in a major decision to create the Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, which recognized the country was a multi-ethnic state with different linguistic communications.”

“Nevertheless, the extremists continued to commit acts of violence—burning houses, kidnapping, rape and destructive calls for hatred of communities.”

“But there is no Anglophone problem as such. Instead the government is working for some decentralization without giving in to the violence. There has been progress in these efforts. Not all are asking for a separate country.”

“The states in the North-West and South-West maintain law and order and seek to protect the people against abuses and to assure freedom of expression and movement without violence.”

“Some of the protesters have treated law enforcement officers like animals by cutting off their arms and feet. No one will tolerate this.”

“There are no extrajudicial executions.”

“Pursuant to Cameroon’s extradition treaty with Nigeria, Cameroon requested, and Nigeria granted, extradition of 47 Cameroonians who had committed acts of terrorism in Cameroon. They are not refugees. In Cameroon they are properly housed and will answer to the rule of law with assistance of counsel. They were not arbitrarily arrested. Instead they were arrested in Nigeria pursuant to international arrest warrants.”

“There is freedom of expression in Cameroon marked by openness in media. There are 1,200 publications, 25 private television channels, 25 private cable channels and 107 private radio stations. This freedom of expression has been enhanced by a 2015 law about electronic communications and the creation of a special fund for audio-visual communications.”

“In 2017 there was a temporary suspension of the internet in the North-West and South-West due to some messages promoting violence. On April 20, 2017 the Minister of Communications advised global operators to reset connections.”

Conclusion

The final stage of the Cameroon UPR will take place in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

The comments about the Francophone-Anglophone conflict by 14 countries and by the Foreign Minister’s concluding comments will be discussed in a future post. Another post will address this blogger’s general reactions to the UPR process that are raised by his review of the recent UPR process for Cameroon and for Cuba.

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[1] U.N. Human Rts. Council,  Cameroon Review—30th Session of Universal Periodic Review (May 16, 2018)  The following quotations and analysis of the comments by the Cameroon Foreign Minister and by U.N. members are based upon listening to their recorded comments in English or translated into English by U.N. interpreters when some of their voices were difficult to hear or understand. Thus, there may be errors in the following account of their comments. The exception is the U.S. which published its comments on the website for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., Geneva.

[2] U.S. Mission, Geneva Switzerland, U.S. Statement at the UPR of Cameroon (May 16, 2018).

 

Advance Questions for Cuba in Its Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council

As summarized in a previous post, Cuba’s human rights record is now undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. That post also discussed Cuba’s national report, submissions by stakeholders (NGO’s and others), a summary of U.N. information about Cuba and information about a pre-session hearing. Now we look at the questions submitted to Cuba in advance of the Council’s hearing on May 16 and an unusual criticism of Cuba by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights along with additional background information about the Council and the UPR.

Advance Questions for Cuba[1]

 The following advance questions were submitted by other Council members:

Member Questions
Belgium 1. When does the Cuban government plan to ratify human rights conventions to which it is not yet party?

2. Does Cuba plan to extend an open invitation to the special procedures of the Human Rights Council?

3. Will Cuba respond favorably to requests for visits by the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and Freedom of Expression, which have been pending since 2015 and 2016?

4. Does Cuba now guarantee access to independent lawyers to all persons deprived of their liberty?

5. What concrete actions has Cuba taken to release persons deprived of their liberty for political reasons.?

Brazil 1.How does Cuba guarantee the rights of the LGBTI?

2.How does Cuba ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary?

Germany 1.Does Cuba plan to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

2.What will Cuba do to enable independent journalism?

3.Identify blogs and websites currently blocked and the reasons for same.

4.Will Cuba abolish travel restrictions for persons on parole or for those in certain professions, including the medical sector?

5.Will Cuba establish an independent national human rights institution?

Liechtenstein 1.Will Cuba ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court in its 2010 version?

2.Will Cuba join the Code of Conduct for U.N. Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes?

Malta 1.What steps has Cuba taken to increase the effectiveness of control by the people of the activities of States bodies, elected representatives and civil servants.?
Portugal 1.How does Cuba coordinate the implementation of UPR recommendations that it accepts?

2.How does Cuba coordinate the implementation of recommendations/observations by U.N. human-rights Treaty bodies and Special Procedures and by regional mechanisms?

Slovenia 1.Provide more information on how non-governmental organizations operate in Cuba and details on any consultation process with them.
Spain 1. Is Cuba reforming its Law on Associations and the Electoral Law to promote a higher level of inclusion and social participation?

2. Which multilateral instruments on Human Rights does Cuba plan to sign and/or ratify?

Sweden 1.Provide more information on Cuba’s prevention of trafficking in persons.

2.Provide more information on Cuba’s effort to improve internet access.

3.Has Cuba denied exit visas for human rights defenders and ndependent civil society members?

4.How will Cuba secure free and unrestricted travel for all of its citizens?

Switzerland 1.What did Cuba do to guarantee free and open participation of all citizens in its last election?

2.How many Cuban citizens were candidates in the election “without being a member of an officially recognized Cuban institution [e.g. Communist Party]?

3.Is Cuba broadening the list of legal private businesses (cuentapropistas)? Is Cuba reviewing the definition of cuentapropistas to include self-declared human rights organizations, independent journalists and bloggers and community-based organizations?

4.Will Cuba amend its constitution to eliminate the subordination of the Supreme court to the National Assembly and to the Council of Ministers?

5.How is the Cuban Criminal Code’s concept of “pre-criminal social dangerousness” interpreted?

6.How do families have transparent and open information about a family member who is a temporarily detained as an alleged criminal?

United Kingdom 1.Will Cuba allow the development of independent political parties, including their legal registration and participation in future elections?

2.How does Cuba ensure that all Cubans are able to participate fully in political and electoral processes?

3.Will Cuba end laws and policies that apparently give primacy to the principle of national unity?

4.Will Cuba move towards international independent verification of the condition of its prisons and detention facilities?

5.Will Cuba bring its laws into compliance with international human rights standards on freedom of expression, association and assembly?

U.S.A. 1. Will Cuba ensure that members of the political opposition, including independent candidates, can participate freely and without threats?

2. When will Cuba allow members of Ladies in White and all other citizens to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, religion and association?

3. How does Cuba ensure that those responsible for violations and abuses of human rights and labor rights (including members of the police, military and security services) are investigated and held responsible?

4. Will Cuba respect the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of assembly, expression and association of members of the Independent Union Association of Cuba and all other workers and representatives?

5. How is Cuba promoting access to information and access to an Internet that is open, interoperable, reliable,  secure and affordable to its citizens?

 

U.N. High Commissioner’s Criticism of Cuba[2]

At a May 11 press briefing, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released statements of concerns about human rights in Cuba and four other countries. Here is what was said about Cuba:

“There are deeply worrying reports that officials in Cuba have prevented a number of human rights defenders and civil society representatives from boarding flights to travel to meetings abroad on the pretext of requiring more detailed identity checks. These measures have resulted in passengers missing their flights and therefore the meetings, which in some cases were organised by a UN entity.”

“So far this year, the UN Human Rights Office has received direct information relating to 14 cases of Cubans being told by officials that the computer system required extra screening. We are also aware of reports that dozens of other people may have been stopped in this way from travelling, allegedly with no explanation by the Cuban authorities as to why they were held up nor on whose orders”

“These cases suggest that these additional checks are being used deliberately as a form of intimidation, pressure and harassment against certain individuals. Civil society organizations have also told us that they were informed verbally by the authorities that their representatives would not be allowed to leave the island before June.”

“We have previously expressed our concern at the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Cuba, including the arbitrary arrest and short-term detention of individuals, particularly before, during and just after demonstrations. “

“We call on the Cuban authorities to respect everyone’s right to freedom of expression and to freedom of movement, and to ensure that human rights defenders and civil society representatives are not unjustifiably prevented from travelling, including those planning to attend UN meetings, in particular the Universal Periodic Review of Cuba on 16 May in Geneva.”

“Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”’Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”

“The UN Secretary-General presents an annual report to the Human Rights Council on intimidation and reprisals, and in October 2016 the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, was designated to lead the monitoring and response to reprisals for cooperation or intimidation, including that which aims to discourage or prevent future co-operation with the UN system. Cuba was among the countries named in the last two reports.”

“The UN Human Rights Office will continue to monitor such cases to ascertain whether they merit inclusion in the next report.”

U.N. Human Rights Council Membership[3]

The Council is made of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.

The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The seats are allocated on the following geographical basis:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

The current members include Cuba and the United States, both of whose terms expire on December 31, 2019, while Venezuela is also a member with its term expiring on December 31, 2018.

Council’s UPR Working Group for Cuba’s UPR[4]

The UPRs are conducted by the Council’s 47 members acting as an UPR Working Group. In addition, any other U.N. Member State can take part in the review.

Each State’s review is assisted by a groups of three States, known as a “troika,” who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly

For Cuba’s third UPR the Troika members are Egypt, Nepal and Peru.

The May 16 hearing will last three and a half hours, during which the state under review is given 70 minutes to present its report, as well as answer questions made by other states and present concluding remarks. The remaining 140 minutes are allocated to states participating in the review to ask questions, make comments and recommendations to the state under review.

The second stage of the process will be take place during the Council’s 39th period of sessions in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

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

[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (First Batch); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (Second Batch); Hum. Rts. Council, Advance Questions for Cuba (Third Batch).

[2] U.N. High Comm. Hum. Rts., Press briefing note on Yemen, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Montenegro (May 11, 2018); The UN denounces the blockade of the Cuban regime on the departure of human rights defenders, Diario de Cuba (May 11, 2018).

[3] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Background on Council Membership; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Current Council Members.

[4] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic facts about the UPR; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, List of Troikas (20th Session).

 

 

 

 

 

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict

Disputes over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, have followed its 1975 annexation by Morocco in opposition to competing claims by the Polisario Front. In 1991 the U.N. brokered a cease-fire and established a peacekeeping monitoring mission and to help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place. So far the parties have been unable to agree upon how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty while Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence. Below is a map of the Western Sahara.

Western_sahara_map_showing_morocco_and_polisaro.gif

On April 28, 2017, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2351 extending the mandate of the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2018 and calling on the parties to that conflict to resume negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith, in order to facilitate a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution.[1]

Other provisions of the resolution called on the parties to cooperate fully with the operations of MINURSO, to take the necessary steps to ensure unhindered movement for U.N. and associated personnel in carrying out their mandate, to demonstrate the political will to work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to resume negotiations, to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions, to resume cooperation with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure that the humanitarian needs of refugees were adequately addressed.  It also supported an increase in the ratio of medical personnel within the current uniformed authorization, as requested in the Secretary-General’s most recent report to address MINURSO’s severely overstretched medical capacity. Yet another part of the resolution noted that both sides had withdrawn troops from the Guerguerat area of the territory, a vast swath of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean that has been contested since 1975.

In support of the resolution, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Michele Sisson, emphasized hat peacekeeping missions should support political solutions, said that postponing the [referendum] had been the key to allowing MINURSO to close out the 2016 chapter in the territory.  The U.S. was pleased with the mandate renewal, which helped in returning the Council’s attention where it belonged — supporting a political process to resolve the situation on the ground.  Emphasizing that the situation must change, she said the Council must look at the “big picture” in Western Sahara, including the absence of any political process for many years, she said.  The resolution demonstrated the importance of the parties working with the U.N. to return to the table.  The Mission must be able to hire the right staff in order to be as effective as possible, and to adjust components that were not working, as well as they should.  The U.S. would watch closely to see what happened on the ground, she said.

Also speaking in support of the resolution were the other Security Council members: Uruguay, Sweden, Senegal, Ethiopia, China, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Bolivia, Japan, Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Although the resolution was passed unanimously, France, a permanent Council member, backs Morocco, its former colony, while Polisario has been supported by some non-permanent council members and by South Africa.

Afterwards Morocco’s foreign ministry said the kingdom was satisfied with the resolution and hoped for a “real process” toward a solution, which it said should be on its autonomy initiative. Morocco also called for neighboring Mauritania and Algeria, the latter of which backs Polisario and maintains tense relations with Morocco, to be involved in negotiations. Algeria, on the other hand, called the resolution a victory for the Sahrawi cause that put the process “back on track.”

Morocco recently has made at least two diplomatic moves that may be related to enhancing its position in such negotiations.

First, on January 31, 2017, the African Union (AU) at its Summit, 39 to 9, approved Morocco’s request for readmission after having left the AU in 1984 in response to a majority of its members recognizing the disputed territory in the Western Sahara.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in his speech at this year’s AU Summit emphasized “how indispensable Africa is to Morocco and how indispensable Morocco is to Africa.” As evidence he mentioned that “since 2000, Morocco has [signed] nearly a thousand agreements with African countries, in various fields of cooperation,” including providing scholarships for Africans to attend Moroccan universities, launching the African Atlantic Gas Pipeline, creating a regional electricity market, constructing fertilizer production plants, creating the Adaptation of African Agriculture program to respond to climate change. These actions, he asserted, demonstrated Morocco’s “commitment to the development and prosperity of African citizens, [who] have the means and the genius; [so that] together, we can fulfill the aspirations of our peoples.”

This readmission, say analysts, also enhances Morocco’s status in upcoming negotiations over the Western Sahara although the King did not mention this in his speech. Instead, he made a modest allusion to this conflict when he said, “We know that we do not have unanimous backing from this prestigious assembly. Far be it from us to spark off a sterile debate! We have absolutely no intention of causing division, as some would like to insinuate!”[2]

The other diplomatic move that can be seen as an attempt to soften resistance towards Morocco’s position in negotiations over the Western Sahara was its re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, as discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Mission (April 28, 2017); U.S. Mission to the U.N., Ambassador Sisson Remarks at the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2351 on the [U.N.] Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) (April 28, 2017); U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Secretary-General Welcomes Withdrawal of Moroccan, Frente Polisario Elements from Western Sahara’s Guerguerat Area, Urging Adherence to Cease Fire (Apr. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.N. Security Council Backs New Western Sahara Talks Push, N.Y. Times (Apr. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, UN Council Backs New Effort to End Western Sahara Conflict, N.Y. Times (Apr. 28, 2017).

[2] Quinn, Morocco rejoins African Union after more than 30 years, Guardian (Jan. 31, 2017); Morocco Ministry of Foreign Affairs, His Majesty the King delivers a speech at the 28th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa (Jan. 31, 2017); Abubeker, Why Has Morocco Rejoined the African Union After 33 Years, Newsweek Feb. 2, 2017).