U.S. Authorizes U.S. Litigation Against Entities on Cuba Restricted List

On January 16, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended for 45 days the right to bring certain lawsuits in U.S. federal courts  by Americans who owned property in Cuba that was confiscated by its government. The stated reasons for this 45-day extension, instead of the long-standing practice of granting six-month extensions was to “permit us to conduct a careful review of the right to bring action under Title III [of the Helms-Burton or LIBERTAD Act] in light of the national interests of the United States and efforts to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba and include factors such as the Cuban regime’s brutal oppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms and its indefensible support for increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.”  [1]

Secretary Pompeo’s New Statement [2]

On March 3, Secretary Pompeo issued another statement on this subject with two parts.

The first part granted “an additional suspension for 30 days through April 17, 2019, of the right to bring an action under Title III [of this federal statute as] necessary to the national interests of the United States and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.” with the below exception. Beginning March 19, suspension shall not apply to:

The second part of this statement, however, contained an exception to this further suspension. Beginning March 19, this suspension will not apply to the “right to bring an action against a Cuban entity or sub-entity identified by name on the State Department’s List of Restricted Entities and Sub-entities Associated with Cuba (known as the Cuba Restricted List), as may be updated from time to time.” This exception protects, for now any foreign firm from such U.S. litigation.

The Cuba Restricted List [3]

This statement explained that the “Cuba Restricted List identifies entities and sub-entities under the control of Cuban military, intelligence, or security services. These security services are directly responsible for the repression of the Cuban people. We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting the Cuban dictatorship.”

The first such Restricted List was promulgated by the State Department in November 2017,, with a list of 180 entities and subentities that the Department had determined were owned or controlled by “the large military-run corporations that dominate the Cuban economy. These include GAESA and CIMEX, the holding companies that control most retail business on the island; Gaviota, the largest tourism company; and Habaguanex, the firm that runs Old Havana.

This list was amplified on November 14,  2018, with the addition of 26 subentities. According to the State Department, “direct financial transactions [by U.S. nationals] with these entities are generally prohibited because they would disproportionately benefit those entities or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.”

Cuba’s Reaction  [4]

Also on March 4 the Cuba’s foreign Ministry issued the following lengthy rejection of this U.S. move:

  • “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects in the strongest terms the new escalation in the US aggressive behavior against Cuba.”
  • “Since its entry into force in 1996, the Helms-Burton Act has sought to universalize the economic blockade through brutal and illegal pressures exerted by the United States against third countries, their governments and companies.  It is intended to suffocate the Cuban economy and generate or increase shortages among the population with the purpose of imposing in Cuba a government that serves the interests of the US.”
  • “Given the illegitimate character of the goals they pursue, which are contrary to International Law, the Helms-Burton Act and the blockade arouse universal rejection, which has been reiterated for almost three decades at the most important regional and international fora.  The most recent example of that was the United Nations General Assembly meeting held on November 1, [2018] when said policy was rejected through 10 consecutive votes, thus leaving the US in complete isolation.”
  • “Title II of the Helms-Burton Act states that the overthrowing of the revolutionary government, the subsequent tutelage by a US intervenor and the ultimate establishment of a counterrevolutionary government subordinated to Washington would unequivocally pursue the return or compensation to former owners for all the properties they or their descendants might claim, regardless of whether or not they were US citizens at the moment when nationalizations took place or the fact that they abandoned them. During all that period, the economic blockade would continue to be fully implemented.”
  • “Consequently, Cubans would be forced to return, reimburse or pay to US claimants for the house where they live, the area on which their communities are built, the arable land  where they farm  their products, the school where their children are educated, the hospital or polyclinic where  they receive medical assistance, the place where their workplace is located or where they have a private business, and also for subsidized services such as electricity, water, and communications enjoyed by the population.”
  • “This is an aspiration that can only be conceived by the minds of those who identify Cuba s a colonial possession.  According to the Helms-Burton Act, the economic blockade would be lifted only when that ambition is fulfilled.”
  • “This law relies on two fundamental lies: the notion that nationalizations carried out soon after the triumph of the Revolutionary were illegitimate or inappropriate and that Cuba is a threat to the US national security.”
  • “Cuban nationalizations were carried out in accordance with the law, strictly abiding by the Constitution and in conformity with International Law. All nationalizations included processes of fair and appropriate compensation, something that the US government refused to consider.  Cuba reached and honored global compensation agreements with other nations which are today investing in Cuba, such as Spain, Switzerland, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and France.”
  • The real threat against regional peace and security are the irresponsible declarations and actions of the US government as well as the destabilizing plans against Latin America and the Caribbean aimed at pursuing the stated purpose of imposing the Monroe Doctrine.”
  • [Cuba’s] Reaffirmation of   Cuban Dignity and Sovereignty Act of December 24, 1996, states that the Helms-Burton Act is illegal, inapplicable and has no legal value or effect whatsoever. It considers null and void any claim under that law by any natural or juridical person.”
  • “According to that [Cuban] law, claims for compensation for nationalized properties could be part of a process of negotiation on the based on equality, mutual respect between the governments of Cuba and the United States, and be “reviewed together with the indemnifications the Cuban State and people are entitled to as a result of the damages caused by the blockade and   aggressions of every sort, of which the US government is responsible”. It also makes it clear that those who resort to procedures or mechanisms under the Helms-Burton Act to the detriment of others shall be excluded from possible future negotiations.”
  • “The Cuban Government reiterates to all economic partners and foreign companies operating in Cuba that full guarantees will be granted to foreign investments and joint projects. Article 28 of the Cuban Constitution, which was ratified by an overwhelming majority on February 24, 2019, also recognizes those guarantees, which are also included in [Cuban] Law No. 118 on Foreign Investments of March 29, 2014.”
  • “Today’s [U.S.] decision imposes additional obstacles to our economic development and progress goals, but the United States will keep on failing to achieve its main purpose of submitting by force the sovereign will of Cubans and our determination to build socialism. The majority feelings of the peoples of Cuba and the United States in favor of improving relations and establishing a civilized and respectful coexistence shall prevail.”

Other Reactions

John Bolton, U.S. National Security Advisor commented the same day in the following tweet: “Cuba’s role in usurping democracy and fomenting repression in Venezuela is clear. That’s why the U.S. will continue to tighten financial restrictions on Cuba’s military and intel services. The region’s democracies should condemn the Cuba regime.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) had a similar tweet: “Today expect the United States to take the first in a series of steps to hold the regime in #Cuba accountable for its 60 years of crimes & illegality which includes its support for the murderous #MaduroCrimeFamily. Justice is coming. And more to come.”

Rubio also joined with U.S. Senator Rick Scott (Rep., FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) in issuing the following lengthier statement supporting this Trump Administration move. [5]

Senator Rubio made the initial comments of the Press Release,“‘President Trump is sending a strong message that the United States will not sit idly by while the Cuban regime continues to support the Maduro crime family at the expense of the Venezuelan people,’ Rubio said. ‘For 60 years, the Cuban regime has forced millions into exile, destabilized neighboring countries, given safe harbor to fugitives from justice and to international terrorists, and made millions trafficking in stolen property. By beginning the process of implementing Title III of the Helms-Burton Libertad Act, the United States is holding the Cuban regime accountable for its crimes, including its support for the murderous Maduro crime family. Justice is coming — and it is just getting started.’”

Senator Scott added, “The Administration’s plan to fully and immediately implement Title III and IV of the Libertad Act signals to the international community that the United States is serious about its commitment to freedom and democracy in Cuba. Allowing American citizens to sue for stolen property in Cuba and denying foreign nationals involved in trafficking stolen property entry into the United States is a huge step toward cutting off the money supply to the Castro Regime. It is clear that where we see instability, chaos and violence in Latin America, we also see the fingerprints of the Castro regime and their money – and this action by the administration is an important step in stabilizing the entire region. President Trump’s strong action on the Libertad Act will further hold the Cuban regime accountable. I urge him to continue with the planned implementation this month so we can help begin a new day of freedom and democracy for Cuba and its people.”

Representative Diaz-Balart stated, “Today, the Trump Administration took another important step toward righting some of the wrongs perpetrated by a dictatorship that brutally oppresses its people and opposes U.S. interests at every opportunity. Shamefully, for nearly twenty-two years since the LIBERTAD Act’s enactment, unscrupulous businesses have ignored this important provision in U.S. law and have chosen to partner with tyrants. This is just the first action of many regarding the Administration’s actions on Title III. Justice for the victims of the Castro regime’s confiscations is long overdue. Years of consecutive extensions may have lulled some into a false sense of impunity. Yet now companies which willingly entangle themselves in partnerships with the anti-American, illegitimate, and oppressive regime in Cuba are on notice that they will be held responsible for their part in callously benefiting from the extensive losses suffered by victims of the regime. I will continue to work with the Administration, Senator Rubio, and my congressional colleagues to ensure the United States continues to pressure the Castro regime and move forward with the full implementation of Title III.”

 Conclusion

This U.S. announcement may have only symbolic significance.

First, according to the Associated Press, “virtually none of the businesses [on the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List has] . . . any links to the U.S. legal or financial systems, meaning the ability to sue [in the U.S.] is unlikely to have any effect on the Cuban economy or foreign businesses that work with the socialist government.” In lawyer’s language, any lawsuit in a U.S. court against an entity on the Cuba Restricted List should be subject to a very strong objection for lack of personal jurisdiction over the Cuban entity, meaning any such case very likely would be dismissed at the commencement of the case. [6]

Second, another potential defense to a U.S. lawsuit might be sovereign immunity.

Third, it would be insane for any U.S. claimant to sue any of the Cuban entities in a Cuban court, which would throw out any such case and perhaps impose some penalty on the claimant for bringing such a case.

Fourth, if any of the Cuban entities are present in other countries of the world, a lawsuit there by a U.S. claimant presumably would not be subject to a lack of personal jurisdiction defense, but other defenses might be available plus other countries’ possible hostility to the overall purposes of the Helms-Burton Act and U.S. policies towards Cuba.

Finally Cuba correctly observes that it recognizes that it has an international legal obligation to compensate foreign owners of expropriated property and that it has settled many (all?) such claims by non-U.S. persons. Moreover, under the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement in 2015-16 the two counties had discussions about the U.S. claims although the details have not been publicly released. A major impediment to such a negotiated settlement is Cuba’s lack of financial resources for such payments. Therefore, this blogger has suggested in another post that the only realistic result is for the two countries to reach an overall settlement, including Cuba’s claims against the U..S., which would have the net effect of the U.S. government’s paying the U.S. claims for expropriated property,   =================================

[1] Update on Trump Administration’s Threat To Allow U.S. Litigation Over Cuba’s Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 30, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary Enacts 30-Day Suspension of Title III (LIBERTAD Act) With an Exception (Mar. 3, 2019); Reuters, Foreign Partners Excluded From U.S. Lawsuits Against Cuban Firms: Official, N.Y. times (Mar. 4, 2019). 

[3] New Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Certain Cuban Entities, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 8, 2017);More Cuban Businesses Forbidden to U.S. Visitors, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 16, 2018).

[4] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Cuba Strongly Rejects New Aggressive Escalation by the United States (Mar. 4, 2019).

[5] Press Release: Rubio, Scott, & Diaz-Balart Commend Trump Administration’s Decision to Hold the Communist Cuban Regime Accountable for Crimes (Mar. 4, 2019).

[6] Assoc. Press, Trump Symbolically Tightens Embargo on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Mar. 4, 2019). See The Personal Jurisdiction Requirement for Civil Lawsuits in U.S. Courts, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 8, 2011).

Professor LeoGrande’s Argument Against U.S. Litigation Over Cuban Expropriated Property

Senator Patrick Leahy in his lengthy February 15 speech on the Senate floor, which was repeated in a prior post, had appended to his remarks an article about Cuba by a noted U.S. expert on the country, Professor William L. LeoGrande of American University. Here is the text of that article, “President Trump Risks Alienating Allies Over Cuban American Property Claims” from OnCubaNews (2/13/19).

“The Trump administration is seriously considering whether to allow Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helms-Burton) to go into effect in March, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton. On January 16, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was suspending Title III for just 45 days instead of the usual six months while the administration reviews whether its implementation would promote democracy in Cuba. He warned foreign companies doing business on the island that they had better ‘reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.’”

“Title III allows U.S. nationals to file suit in U.S. courts against anyone ‘trafficking’ in their confiscated property in Cuba—that is, anyone profiting from it. If President Trump allows Title III to go fully into effect, he will open the door to as many as 200,000 law suits by U.S. nationals, most of them Cuban Americans, whose property was taken by the Cuban government after 1959. U.S. courts would be swamped, the ability of U.S. companies to do business on the island would be crippled, and allies abroad might retaliate for U.S. suits brought against their companies in Cuba. Once the suits have been filed, there will be no way to undo the resulting legal chaos and the tangle of resulting litigation could take years to unwind.”

“The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified 5,913 claims of U.S. nationals whose property was seized. These are the claims that Cuba recognizes and that the United States and Cuba had begun to discuss during the Obama administration. But Title III takes the unusual position of allowing naturalized Cuban Americans who lost property to also file suit against alleged traffickers. Normally, international law recognizes the sovereign right of governments to dispose of the property of their own citizens. According to the Department of State, by including Cuban Americans who were not U.S. citizens when their property was taken, Title III creates the potential for an estimated 75,000-200,000 claims worth ‘tens of billions of dollars.’”

“Back in 1996, when the law was being debated in Congress, angry opposition from U.S. allies Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, whose companies doing business in Cuba would be the targets of Title III law suits, led President Bill Clinton to insist on a presidential waiver provision in Title III. As a result, the president has the authority to suspend for six months the right to file Title III law suits, and he can renew that suspension indefinitely. Every six months since the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act was passed, successive presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have continued the suspension of Title III.”

“U.S. allies have denounced Title III’s extraterritorial reach. Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all passed laws prohibiting compliance with it. The European Union also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, which it did not pursue after President Clinton suspended Title III. In fact, the principal justification both President Clinton and President George W. Bush offered for continuing the suspension was the need to maintain cooperation with European allies.”

“If President Trump does not renew the suspension, all these old wounds with allies will be reopened as U.S. claimants try to haul foreign companies into U.S. courts for doing business in Cuba. We already have enough tough issues on our agenda with Mexico, Canada, and Europe without adding another one. At this very moment, Washington is trying to muster their support in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, support that could be endangered if the administration picks a fight with them over Title III.”

“U.S. businesses would not be exempt from potential liability. A Cuban American family in Miami claims to have owned the land on which José Martí International Airport was built, so any U.S. carrier using the air field could conceivably be sued under Title III. Another family that owned the Port of Santiago could file suit against U.S. cruise ships docking there.”

“Moreover, it would be almost impossible for a U.S. or foreign company to know in advance whether a proposed business opportunity in Cuba might become the subject of Title III litigation. “This will effectively end for decades any attempt to restore trade between the U.S. and Cuba,” attorney Robert Muse told the Tampa Bay Times.”

“When President Trump announced new sanctions on Cuba back in June 2017, senior administration officials said they were designed “to not disrupt existing business” that U.S. companies were doing in Cuba. If the president fails to continue the suspension of Title III, business relations will be disrupted far more severely and irreparably than they would be by any regulatory change.”

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

Leahy, Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export To Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019); LeoGrande, Trump and Cuban-American property claims, OnCubaNews (Feb. 11, 2019). See also President Trump Considering Another Hostile Action Against Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2019); Update on Trump Administration’s Threat To Allow U.S. Litigation Over Cuba’s Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 30, 2019).

U.S. Urges U.N. Security Council To Reject Venezuela’s Maduro and Embrace Guaido

On January 26 the U.N. Security Council met to debate action on the crisis in Venezuela.[1]

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after giving examples of the despair of ordinary Venezuelans, asserted that the U.S. was there “ to urge all nations to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people as they try to free themselves from former President Maduro’s illegitimate mafia state. . . .The humanitarian situation demands action now; it demands action today.”

As a result, the U.S. “ stands with the Venezuelan people. So far, many other nations have chosen to do the same and they too have recognized the legitimate government of interim President Guaidó. The United States stands proudly with you as we stand together in support of Venezuela. You knew the Venezuelan people did not have a moment to spare.”

After criticizing China and Russia for supporting Maduro, Pompeo said, “But no regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish condition of the Venezuelan people than the regime in Havana. For years, Cuban security and intelligence thugs, invited into Venezuela by Maduro himself and those around him, have sustained this illegitimate rule. They have trained Maduro’s security and intelligence henchmen in Cuba’s own worst practices. Cuba’s interior ministry even provides a former – provides former President Maduro’s personal security. Members of this body often use their microphones here to condemn foreign interference in internal affairs. Let’s be crystal clear: the foreign power meddling in Venezuela today is Cuba. Cuba has directly made matters worse and the United States and our partners are the true friends of the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis added.)

Elliott Abrams, the new U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela, following Secretary Pompeo, noted that every criticism [of the U.S.] came from a country that is not democratic. And he accused Venezuela of being a “satellite” of Cuba and Russia. “This is not about foreign intervention in Venezuela,. It is not an attempt to impose a result on the Venezuelan people. Democracy never needs to be imposed. It is tyranny that has to be imposed.”

The ambassadors of Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, said they considered the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela an internal matter and urged the United States to stop meddling. The Russian ambassador said, “If anything represents a threat to peace and security, it is the shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and their allies to oust a legitimately elected president of Venezuela.” The U.S., he said, was trying “to engineer a coup d’etat in Venezuela.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza then took a personal swipe at Abrams, noting that he had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Reagan administration’s support for contra rebels fighting the government in Nicaragua,

UN Under Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding, Rosemary DiCarlo, made a logical, but unpersuasive suggestion: “We must try to help bring about a political solution that will allow the country’s citizens to enjoy peace, prosperity and all their human rights,”  This essentially reiterated the plea earlier in the week by U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres  urging all parties to “lower tensions and calling for all relevant actors to commit to inclusive and credible political dialogue. Concerned by reports of casualties in the context of demonstrations and unrest in and around the capital Caracas, the UN chief also called for a transparent and independent investigation of those incidents.

The Security Council, however, took no vote on the situation in Venezuela under the threat of vetoes by permanent members Russia and China. This was presaged by the vote to consider the Venezuela crisis: nine in favor (Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, United Kingdom, United States) to four against (China, Equatorial Guinea, Russian Federation, South Africa) with two abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia).

The next day, January 27, U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, tweeted, “ “Any violence and intimidation against U.S. diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guiado (sic), or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response,” Bolton also noted Cuba’s support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s paramilitary forces.

Other Commentary[2]

After the Council’s meeting, Cuba Foreign Secretary, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted, “”I categorically reject slanderous accusations against #Cuba from the US Secretary of State in the Security Council of @ONU_es. His assault on #Venezuela constitutionality, orchestrated from Washington, will fail despite the lies.” Another of his tweets stated, “Secretary of State slanders Cuba to justify a coup against the constitutional power in #Venezuela. Washington designed, financed and managed the alleged usurpation of the Venezuelan Presidency,” The U.S. was doing so “”on the basis of unfounded accusations, false data and masking role of his Government in orchestrating that assault on regional peace. ”

In addition to the above developments,  the U.K. joined the U.S., Germany, France and Spain in backing  Guaidó. The U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said, ““After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply-flawed election it is clear Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela.”  Therefore, the U.K. would recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president unless Maduro within the next eight days called for a new election. [3]

Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, claims that “every sensible observer agrees that Latin America’s once-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.” Moreover, he argues, “Twenty years of socialism . . . led to the ruin of a nation.” In short, according to Stephens, “Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, ‘eventually you run out of other people’s money.’”[4]

All of these developments pose many questions to ponder as we go forward or backward.

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[1]  Brokaw, Pompeo confronts U.N. Security Council on Venezuela, UPI (Jan. 26, 20190; State Dep’t, [{Pompeo] Remarks at United Nations Security Council Meeting on Venezuela (Jan. 26, 2019); U.N., UN political chief  calls for dialogue to ease tensions in Venezuela; Security Council divided over path to end crisis (Jan. 26, 209); Reuters, White House Promises “Significant Response’ to Any Venezuelan Violence, N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2019).

[2]  Cuban Foreign Minister rejects accusation by the United States against Cuba, Granma (Jan. 26, 2019); Semple, With Spies and Other Operatives, A Nation Looms Over Venezuela’s Crisis: Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2019); Baker & Wong, On Venezuela, Rubio Assumes U.S. Role of Ouster in Chief, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2019); Morelio, Pompeo presses U.N. Security Council to ‘pick a side’ in Venezuela’s crisis, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2019).

[3] Doward, UK tells Venezuelan president: call fair election or stand down, Guardian (Jan. 26, 2019).

[4] Stephens, Yes, Venezuela Ia a Socialist Catastrophe, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2019).

U.N. Security Council Discusses Cameroon’s Anglophone-Francophone Conflict

On December 13, the United Nations Security Council heard reports from two U.N. officials about various issues in the Central African Region, including the Anglophone-Francophone conflict in Cameroon. Two of the 15 Council members (the United States and the United Kingdom) expressed the strongest concern about that conflict; eight others had varying degrees of alarm (Sweden, Netherlands, France, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Kuwait and Bolivia). Only one (Russia) had hostile or skeptical remarks while four others () apparently had nothing to say on the matter. [1]

U.N. Officials’ Reports

François Louncény Fall, Special Representative of the Secretary‑General and Head of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA), expressed “concern over the situation in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon.” He said that “violence has not diminished and there are reports of alleged human rights violations by all sides.” Recalling his November visit to Cameroon and his meetings with key Government officials, he encouraged the national authorities to address the root causes of the crisis, including by accelerating decentralization.

Reena Ghelani, Director of the Operations and Advocacy Division in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), noted  that internal displacement has tripled in Cameroon’s south‑west and north‑west regions in the past six months and that the situation amounts to one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa.  Noting with great concern the deteriorating protection of civilians in those regions, she said humanitarian partners are scaling up their presence despite limited access.  However, severe underfunding has a significant impact on their ability to respond, she added, pointing out that every single humanitarian response plan in Central Africa was funded at less than the global average in 2018, Cameroon being the least funded.  Calling upon Member States for support, she stressed that the situation must change for the humanitarian response to be fully effective.

Ms. Ghelani emphasized the majority of the internally displaced Cameroonians “are hiding in dense forests, without adequate shelter and lacking food, water and basic services. Schools and markets are also disrupted and there are alarming health needs.” She also expressed “great concern [over] the deteriorating situation with respect to the protection of civilians, including reported killings, burning of homes and villages, extortion and kidnappings in the South West and North West regions [along with ]multiple attacks on schools and threats to students and teachers.”

Council Members’ Strongest Statements,of Concern About Cameroon

The two strongest statement of concern over the Anglophone-Francophone dispute at this session of the Council came from U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and U.K. Ambassador Jonathan Allen, the .U.K. Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N.

U.S. Ambassador Cohen’s Statement

“The security and humanitarian conditions in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions have significantly deteriorated since the last UNOCA briefing to the Security Council in June. Violence continues to escalate, obstructing vital humanitarian aid delivery to over 430,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] and blocking health and education services to rural children.”

“October was the most violent month on record in Cameroon in recent years, and judging from anecdotal reports, we fear that November will surpass October as the bloodiest month on record. We don’t want to see that horrible trend continue again this month, December. The violence must stop now.”

“Violence between government and Anglophone separatists has resulted in killings and abductions of civilians, including a U.S. missionary who was killed on October 30. Faced with mounting insecurity, tens of thousands of Cameroonians have fled to neighboring Nigeria, as we’ve heard, while hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced and need humanitarian assistance.”

“The stakes in Cameroon are too high for this crisis to continue unaddressed. Cameroon remains an essential security partner in the fight against Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, including as a member of the Multi-National Joint Task Force. The continuing crisis threatens to detract from our mutual security objectives in the Lake Chad Basin.”

The “United States calls for an immediate and broad-based reconciliatory dialogue, without pre-conditions, between the Government of Cameroon and separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions. We urge all sides to forswear violence, to restore peace, and to resolve their grievances through political dialogue.”

“We note that in his inaugural address on November 6, President Biya expressed confidence that ‘there is an honorable way out in everyone’s interest.’  We encourage President Biya to make good on his commitment to accelerate the decentralization process and adopt the recommendations of the Cameroonian Commission on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.”

“The creation of a government-led humanitarian assistance coordination center is a promising development. However, the government has done little to address concerns over its own lack of respect for humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and the guarantees of unhindered access to conflict-affected populations. We urge the Government of Cameroon to prioritize respect for humanitarian principles and to ensure unobstructed access for UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs assisting conflict-affected populations.”

The ”United States believes that UNOCA – through the good offices of Special Representative Fall – could provide technical assistance and mediation support to facilitate a broad-based reconciliatory dialogue without pre-conditions. We hope that ECCAS [Economic Community of Central African States], the [African Union (AU’s] Peace and Security Council, and the AU Commission will enhance their efforts to support the peace process, and we encourage them to coordinate with UNOCA in this effort.”

“A peaceful and stable Cameroon is critical to regional stability in Central Africa and both deserves and requires the continued and close attention of this Council. As noted by our Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs last week, the last thing we need, given the challenges in the region, is for a disproportionate response by security forces to result in the growing radicalization and hardening of separatist groups.”[2]

U.K. Ambassador Allen’s Statement

The “United Kingdom recognises the many positive contributions Cameroon is making to stability in the region, including their continued commitment to the fight against Boko Haram and the sanctuary that Cameroon offers to refugees from Nigeria and the Central African Republic. However, we are concerned by the reality of the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon.”

“In particular, we are concerned about high levels of displacement and take very seriously Reena Ghelani’s warning that this is now one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa and reports of human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by armed separatist groups and Government forces, including extra-judicial killings, other killings, abductions, restrictions of movement and access to health and education as described in the Secretary-General’s report. We must always be alert, colleagues, to the risk that the situation escalates, affecting the broader peace and stability of the Central African region, and we have already seen over 30,000 Cameroonians flee into Nigeria. If grievances are not addressed, tensions are likely to increase further.”

“[These] concerns are not new – I raised them in the Council’s discussions in March, as did others. Unfortunately, we have not seen the action needed to address the situation and since March, it has deteriorated further.”

  • “We welcome President Biya’s recent pledge to address the situation but words alone will not improve things. We strongly urge the Government of Cameroon to take urgent action, including by:actively addressing the situation through inclusive dialogue with the Anglophone leadership to address the underlying issues;
  • undertaking confidence-building measures in order to diffuse tensions and build conditions for dialogue. This includes the release of political detainees, and implementing the Government’s own commitments on decentralisation, and the recommendations of the Commission on Bilingualism;
  • allowing full humanitarian access and access to human rights monitors to all parts of the country – and I would also hope and expect that our own SRSG would have access wherever he wanted to go; and
  • ensuring accountability for all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses.”

“And clearly . . . we also call on the armed groups involved to cease their attacks on civilians, allow full humanitarian access, and access to human rights monitors, and to engage with the Government on these issues.”

“The UK, for its part, is committed to supporting Cameroon and I am pleased to announce today that the United Kingdom is contributing $3.1 million to the UN’s response in the Anglophone regions – that’s equivalent to 20% of this year’s flash appeal for the Anglophone crisis – to address immediate humanitarian and medical needs. We strongly encourage other Member States to fund this as an important part of the conflict prevention effort. Preventing a crisis costs significantly less than resolving one.”

“[We] have raised our concerns quietly so far and directly with the Government and we are committed to working with the Government of Cameroon in every way we can to help resolve this situation. But I fear, unless action is taken and the situation improves, concern over the situation in Cameroon is likely to increase amongst Security Council Members and become a more prominent part of our discussions.

Other Council Members’ Statements of Concern About the Cameroon Conflict

Olof Skoog (Sweden) “deplored the acute humanitarian situation [in Cameroon] and the massive displacement in the north‑west and south‑west regions, noting reports of abductions and extrajudicial killings.  The crisis may drive regional instability, affecting the fight against terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin and peace-building in the Central African Republic, he warned, urging all parties to end the violence immediately.  He encouraged the Government of Cameroon to seek support from the United Nations and regional actors.

Lise Gregoire Van Haaren (Netherlands) noted that indiscriminate violence by the army and armed groups in Cameroon has displaced more than 437,000 people and risks spilling over into the wider region.  Expressing support for the country’s territorial integrity, she called upon the Government of Cameroon to begin meaningful, inclusive dialogue with all parties, including female representatives.  Human rights violations by all parties must be investigated and perpetrators held to account, she emphasized.

Anne Gueguen (France) expressed alarm at the situation in parts of Cameroon and pledged further efforts to encourage the Government to foster dialogue, decentralize power and hold violators of human rights accountable.  However, the U.N. summary did not indicate any comments by France directed at the actions of the Francophone majority in Cameroon.

Kacou Houadja Lkéon Adom (Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony)), Council President for December, discussed the threat of Boko Haram and its devastating repercussions, especially for children and women in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. He apparently said nothing about the Anglophone-Francophone conflict.

Anatolio Ndong Mba (Equatorial Guinea) appealed for greater international support for dialogue and political stability in neighboring Cameroon.

Pawel Radomski (Poland) called upon the authorities in Cameroon to engage mediation efforts and resolve the crisis in its western region.

Mansour Ayyad Sh. A. Alotaibi (Kuwait) expressed concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cameroon.

Verónica Cordova Soria (Bolivia) affirmed [Cameroon] Government’s primary role in tackling challenges through inclusive dialogue.

Russia’s Negative Statement About Cameroon’s Conflict

Dimitry A. Polyanskiy (Russian Federation) said the available information with respect to Cameroon was “contradictory, emphasizing that the Council must not take any hasty decisions.  Citing concerns over rights violations in that country, he expressed hope that ‘London and Washington will adopt equally principled positions on the rights of Russian speakers in the Balkans and Ukraine.’ Underlining the importance of not breaching the line between prevention and intervention, he expressed his country’s willingness to offer assistance if Cameroon deems it necessary.

.Conclusion

 It is important to remember that at this session there was no resolution for any U.N. action to be taken regarding Cameroon.

Was it mere happenstance or an attempt to counter some of the talk at the Security Council that on the same day, December 13, the Cameroon government announced that it had ordered the country’s military tribunal to stop legal proceedings against 289 people who had been accused of taking part in the separatist movement? The announcement said that President Biya “had listened to the people” in making this decision to “maintain the country as a peace heaven.” [3]

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

[1] U.N., Special Representative  Stresses Need for New Strategies to Tackle root Causes of Insurgency, as Security Council Considers  Situation in Central Africa (Dec. 13, 2018); U.S. Mission to U.N., Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Central African Region (Dec. 13, 2018); U.K. Mission to U.N., Preventing further conflict in Cameroon and the Lake Chad Basin (Dec. 13, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Demands Immediate End to Violence, Talks in Cameroon, N.Y. Times (Dec. 13, 2018).

[2] See U.S. Warns Cameroon Internal Conflict Could Get Much Worse, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 8, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, Cameroon Leader Halts Cases Against 289  Alleged Separatists, N.Y. Times (Dec. 13, 2018).

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

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

Preparing for the Word

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

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

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

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

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

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

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

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

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

The Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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

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

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

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

 

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).