Bills To End U.S. Embargo of Cuba Introduced in House of Representatives

Two bills to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba have been filed in the House of Representatives, but so far nothing in the Senate. [1] This post will examine the status of those two bills and the positions on the embargo of Minnesota’s U.S. Senators and Representatives

 The Current Bills To End the Embargo

 On January 15th three Minnesota Congressmen—Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan, all Democrats—announced that they are co-sponsoring a bill to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba (H.R. 403) that was introduced on January 16th by Representative Charles Rangel (Dem., NY).[1] Titled “To lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and for other purposes,” neither its text nor its summary is currently available on the Library of Congress’ website for pending legislation. [2]

This bill along with another bill to the same effect (H.R. 274 by Congressman Bobby Rush (Dem., IL)) have been assigned for consideration to the following seven House committees, whose membership is listed in the hyperlinked websites:

  • Agriculture, whose members include Collin Peterson (the Ranking-Member), a co-author of the Rangel bill; Tom Emmer (Rep., MN); and Rodney Davis (Rep., IL), who earlier this month spoke in favor of ending the embargo at the launch of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.
  • Energy and Commerce, whose members include Bobby Rush (Dem., IL), the author of one of the bills to end the embargo, and Peter Welch (Dem., VT), who just visited Cuba with the group led by Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT).
  • Financial Services, whose members include Representative Keith Ellison, a co-author of the Rangel bill to end the embargo (Dem., MN);
  • Foreign Affairs, whose members include Tom Emmer (Rep., MN) and Ileana Ros-Leltinen (Rep., FL), a vocal Cuban-American opponent of reconciliation;
  • Judiciary;
  • Oversight and Government Reform, one of whose members is the previously mentioned Peter Welch (Dem., VT); and
  • Ways and Means, whose members include Erik Paulson (Rep., MN) and the previously mentioned Peter Welch.

Those interested In repealing the embargo should examine the lists of the committees’ members and deciding whether and how to contact them to urge support for the Rangel bill (H.R. 403).

Minnesota Representatives and Senators’ Positions on the Embargo

One of the co-sponsors of H.R. 403, Congressman Keith Ellison, is on the Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over some of the issues raised by H.R. 403. As co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, on December 17th (the day of the announcement of normalization between the two countries) Ellison released a statement congratulating President Obama for the normalization of our relations with Cuba. It stated, “Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart.” He repeated those sentiments on January 11th at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s celebratory concert with Cuban-American jazz pianist, Nachito Herrera.

Also on December 17th Representative Rick Nolan, another co-sponsor of H.R. 403, issued a statement lauding “President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba” and to obtain the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison. This was “a monumental step forward for both nations, allowing us to resume exports and trade, create more good paying jobs in the United States and move forward in our relationships with the entire Western Hemisphere.” This was “especially good news for farmers in Minnesota and around the nation, as well as for our manufacturing and high technology industries that will soon enjoy access to new markets in a nation that hungers for U.S. products and services.”

More recently the other Minnesota co-sponsor of the bill, Representative Collin Peterson, said the current restrictions against U.S. trade with Cuba “don’t do anything but give business to our competitors.” However, he added, “The question is what are the Republicans [in the House and Senate] going to allow to happen. They could well bottle these bills up.” Peterson, as mentioned, is the Ranking-Member on the Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over some of the issues raised by H.R. 403.

Another Minnesota Democratic Representative, Betty McCollum, also is supportive of ending the embargo. On December 17th, she congratulated President Obama “for his efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and to begin easing the trade restrictions between our countries. . . .[and] for his efforts to secure the release of USAID worker Alan Gross from prison in Cuba.” She added, “I will continue to work to end the trade embargo between our two countries as I have done since I came to Congress in 2001.  Ending the embargo and normalizing trade relations is good for Minnesota businesses and good for the people of Cuba.”

The other Minnesota Democratic Congressman, Tim Walz, has nothing about Cuba on his website, but in a December 18th interview by a Mankato, Minnesota television station he said he was cautiously optimistic about the White House’s changing policy toward Cuba. He said expanding trade is a good idea, but the U.S. needs to be cautious. “I think there needs to be accountability for what this regime has done,” he said, “and I’m glad this is Congress’ role to be involved, of looking at how this evolves, but I do think it’s an important step. As I’ve said, the status quo has been that way since before I was born, and it’s time to re–look at how we do business.”

Minnesota’s three Republican Congressmen—Erik Paulsen, John Kline and Tom Emmer—do not have any statements about Cuba on their websites

Congressman Erik Paulsen is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over some of the issues raised by H.R. 403. In addition, on October 8, 2009, as a guest blogger on a Heritage Foundation website Paulsen made comments that could reflect his attitude on ending the embargo. He said, “There is another approach to stimulating the economy – a proven method to increase prosperity, grow our economy and create jobs: expansion of free trade. . . . We must make international markets more available to our exporters to help them grow. . . . In my own district, there are countless businesses, small and large, that benefit from free trade. . . . Unfortunately, there are consumers and markets across the globe that still cannot be accessed by American sellers because of high tariffs, quotas and other barriers to international trade. It’s time to knock down those barriers. . . . I have long advocated for increased trade and strong global relationships between the U.S. and nations abroad. I’ve visited India, China and several nations in Africa and the Middle East. In every country, free trade is essential for their own growth and prosperity, as well as the growth and vitality of the United States.”

I have not found anything by or about Congressman John Kline indicating his views on U.S. relations with Cuba, in general, or on ending the embargo, in particular. I especially solicit comments by anyone with more knowledge about his positions on these issues.

Minnesota’s newest Congressman and now in his very first Session, Tom Emmer, as mentioned is on the House Foreign Affairs and Agriculture Committees, each of which has jurisdiction over issues raised by H.R. 403. Moreover, his new website‘s page on “Foreign Affairs” states, “Regions such as Latin America, Africa and Asia present us with emerging opportunities to increase trade and diplomatic relations.” Maybe this is a hopeful sign for his favoring ending the embargo. Emmer also is on the Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over some of the issues raised by H.R. 403.

Minnesota’s Senators

One of Minnesota’s Senators, Amy Klobuchar, favors ending the embargo and is willing to offer a bill to do just that, but wants to wait until after the Senate confirms the President’s future nomination of an ambassador to Cuba. She said, “Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. And part of that is legislation to remove the embargo. Some of this can be done by tying it to changes we want [Cuba] to make on human rights and other things. The timing is the question. We want this to be bipartisan.” In addition, as mentioned in a prior post, she was a speaker in favor of ending the embargo at the January 8th launch of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.

A prior post about Cuba’s perspective on this week’s diplomatic meetings in Havana suggests that there will not be a formal re-establishment of diplomatic relations, including appointments of ambassadors, until after the U.S. repeals its embargo of the island. Therefore, Senator Klobuchar may have to abandon her strategy of postponing Senate consideration of the embargo until after the Senate confirms the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba.

Our other Senator, Democrat Al Franken, does not have anything about Cuba on his website, but he has supported legislation calling for the normalizing of relationships with Cuba and is a co-sponsor of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

Conclusion

Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C. international trade lawyer with substantial experience in U.S. laws relating to Cuba, recently told Minnesota’s StarTribune that “a majority of members of Congress do not support the embargo, but will not do so publicly until Cuban-American legislators come out against the embargo.” Nevertheless, he opined, “There is zero possibility of the embargo being lifted [in 2015].”[3]

This, however, is only one opinion albeit from someone with extensive experience of dealing with Congress on Cuba issues. It merely accentuates the need for citizens to increase their advocacy of ending the embargo.

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

[1] To determine whether any other bills to end the embargo have been introduced in this Session of Congress, just go to the THOMAS legislative service provided by the Library of Congress [http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php] and enter “Cuba” in the search box; that will retrieve all introduced bills that mention “Cuba.”

[2] H.R. 403 has 14 other co-sponsors from California, New York, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

[3] Before the announcement of normalization, Muse wrote an article about the various actions the president could take regarding Cuba without prior congressional authorization.

 

Cuba’s Perspective on This Week’s U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Meetings in Havana

As mentioned in another post, the U.S. and Cuba will hold diplomatic meetings in Havana on January 21 and 22, 2014.

According to Granma, Cuba’s official and only newspaper, an unnamed source at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Cuba “is going to these meetings with the constructive spirit to sustain a respectful dialogue, based on sovereign equality and reciprocity, without undermining national independence and self-determination of the Cuban people.”

“We should not pretend that everything is solved in one meeting,” the source said. “Normalization is a much longer and complex process where you have to address issues of interest to both parties.”

Migration Issues

On January 21st, the focus will be migration, and the unnamed source said Cuba will report on “the progress of the measures taken in January 2013 to update the Cuban immigration policy and its impact on the flow of people between the two countries,” and the two countries will discuss ways to confront “illegal immigration, smuggling and document fraud.”

In addition, Cuba will express “its deep concern at the continuing [U.S.] policy of ‘wet foot/dry foot’ and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which is the main stimulus to illegal emigration.” Cuba also will complain about the U.S. policy “to grant parole [to] Cuban professionals and health technicians to abandon their mission in third countries.”

Normalization Issues

On January 22nd the focus will be the many issues surrounding the December 17th decision of the two countries to re-establish diplomatic relations. As previously mentioned, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead the U.S. delegation at this session.[1]

The unnamed Cuban source said there would be discussion about certain levels of existing coordination in dealing with illegal immigration, including border troops and the coastguard; drug interdiction; oil spills; and search and rescue in case of air and maritime accidents. They also “are beginning to talk about monitoring earthquakes.”

Cuba will “reiterate the proposal made last year by U.S. government to hold a respectful dialogue on the basis of reciprocity with regard to the exercise of human rights.” The source promised “a dialogue on a reciprocal basis and on an equal footing” regarding human rights. Cuba has “legitimate concerns about the exercise of human rights in the [U.S.],” including controversies over police shootings and killings of black men in Ferguson Missouri and New York City, which are “situations that do not happen in [Cuba].” The source says his country welcomes the U.S. to meet “with the recognized organizations that make up a vibrant civil society in Cuba: students, women, farmers, professionals, disabled, unions, among others.” [2]

According to this source, Cuba will emphasize “the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies in both capitals should be based on the principles of international law enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations and Consular Relations.”

“Compliance with these documents, to which both countries are signatories, means mutual respect for political and economic system of each country and to avoid any interference in the internal affairs of our nations. These principles are essentially sovereign equality, the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, as well as equal rights, self-determination of peoples and non-intervention in matters which are domestic jurisdiction of states.”

In this context, Cuba will raise the following issues:

  • Solving the inability of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. to obtain banking services;
  • Ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor or Terrorism;”
  • Ending the U.S. blockade [or embargo] of Cuba and providing Cuba with “compensation for damages for a policy that has been in place for over 50 years.” (At the U.N. General Assembly meeting in October 2014, Cuba claimed that the damages were $1.1 trillion.)

These issues, the source admitted, obviously cannot be resolved at the one-day meeting this week.

Reactions

I agree that certain U.S. laws relating to Cubans’ ability to gain legal immigration status in the U.S. need to be changed if there is to be full normalization and reconciliation. This includes the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban who is on U.S. land is entitled to such legal status, but if a Cuban is apprehended by U.S. authorities on the high seas, he is not so entitled. So too the U.S. program for granting immigration parole to Cuban professional medical personnel needs to be ended, as recommended by a New York Times editorial and by this blogger last November. (Whether these changes may be done by the President’s executive order or whether it takes congressional action has not been investigated by this blogger.)

The U.S. repeatedly has insisted that issues of Cuban human rights and civil society need to be addressed, and the Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesperson said his country was prepared to do that so long as Cuba’s concerns about human rights in the U.S. are addressed. I agree that there should be mutuality in any such discussion.

I also agree that the restoration of normal diplomatic relations needs to be based on what should be the following noncontroversial principles of the U.N. Charter and the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations:

  • The U.N. Charter provides that it is “based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its members” (Art. 2(1)), that “[a]ll Members shall settle their disputes by peaceful means” (Art. 2(3)) and that “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the [U.N.]” (Art. 2(4)).
  • The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provides that “The establishment of diplomatic relations between States, and of permanent diplomatic missions, takes place by mutual consent” (Art. 2) and sets forth many details on the agreed-upon ways of implementing such relations. There are 190 states that are parties to this treaty, including Cuba and the U.S.
  • Similarly the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations says “The establishment of consular relations between States takes place by mutual consent” (Art. 2(1)) and provides many details on the agreed-upon ways of implementing such relations. There are 177 parties to this treaty, including Cuba and the U.S.

Other points of agreement with the Cuban spokesperson are enabling the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. to obtain banking services in the U.S.; ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism;”[3] and ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.[4] As discussed in an earlier post, the U.S. already has started the process under U.S. law for rescinding the unjustified “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation, and I anticipate that this summer there will be such a rescission. President Obama already has decided that the embargo should end, but that requires congressional action, and the process for doing just that has commenced and will not be politically easy to accomplish

The issue of compensation, if any, for Cuba for its alleged damages of $1.1 trillion from the embargo, however, is another matter.[5] This is but one of several damage claims that need to be resolved. Others include U.S. compensation to Cuba for the U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay for at least the last 56 years; [6] Cuba’s compensating U.S. interests for expropriation of their property after 1959; and Cuba’s paying a December 1997 default judgment by a U.S. district court for $197 million (plus interest) for the deaths of three of the four pilots in the February 1966 Cuban shooting down of a private “Brothers to the Rescue” plane over international waters.

One way to resolve these claims would be an agreement by the two countries to submit all of these disputes to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands, which was established by a multilateral treaty, to which both Cuba and the U.S. are parties. Other ways would be the two countries creating a special claims commission to hear and resolve all of these claims or agreeing to settle all or some of the claims.

Resolving these competing claims, however, has to recognize the economic reality, in my judgment, that Cuba does not have the financial resources to pay any large amount of money. Therefore, compensating U.S. interests for expropriation of their property in Cuba, as I see it, would have to come out of any U.S. compensation of Cuba for its claims.

What do all of these points mean for the timing of full restoration of diplomatic relations? Cuba seems to be saying that ending the embargo and the “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation have to happen first before restoring full diplomatic relations. In the best of all possible worlds from the U.S. perspective that would be sometime this summer. An agreement on how to resolve the damage claims would be another important accomplishment that should, in my judgment, lead to the restoration of diplomatic relations and perhaps that could happen this year, but the actual resolution of the damage claims would take several years to happen absent a settlement of the claims, which seems unlikely.

In the meantime, the parties could and should agree to a process for the restoring of diplomatic relations.

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

[1] Today Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American and the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Jacobson, saying “it is imperative” that she demand “unconditional freedom of the [previously released] 53 political prisoners and demand an end to politically motivated arrests of peaceful democracy and human rights activists.” (Emphasis added.) Menendez also urged pressing “Cuba on a commitment to permit visits to all prisons and prisoners by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and to begin to demand action on fugitives from U.S. justice and American citizen compensation claims for property nationalized by the Cuban government in past decades.” The U.S., according to Menendez, “must prioritize the interests of American citizens and businesses that have suffered at the hands of the Castro regime before providing additional economic and political concessions to a government that remains hostile to U.S. interests.”

[2] The Washington Post reports that on Friday Jacobson will host a breakfast meeting with Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents before she returns to Washington.

[3] Prior posts have articulated the statutory process for rescission and why the Designation should be rescinded.

[4] Prior posts have stated why the embargo should be ended, a conclusion also endorsed by New York Times editorial in October 2014.

[5] From my experience as a litigator of business disputes, I anticipate that any such damage claim would be subjected to rigorous examination and rebuttal by the U.S., including the undoubted U.S. argument that all or some of the alleged damages were not caused by the embargo, but rather by Cuban economic ineptitude. Of course, the U.S. would probably argue that the major premise of Cuba’s claim—the illegality of the embargo—is invalid despite the U.N. General Assembly’s condemning the embargo by overwhelming margins for 23 consecutive years. (I have not examined the merits of this legal issue.)

[6] Cuba’s original February 23, 1903, and July 2, 1903, lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for a naval coaling station called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin, but this was changed to $4,085 in U.S. Dollars (the gold equivalent at the time) in a treaty of May 29, 1934. After the Cuban Revolution’s assuming power on January 1, 1959, the Cuban Government has refused to cash all of the U.S. annual checks for that amount except for one that was cashed by mistake. Although the fair market value of the lease for the last 56 years has not been determined, there could be no legitimate argument that it is not substantially in excess of $4,085. Other potential issues are (a) whether the original lease of 1903 and the 1934 amendment are subject to a claim that they are invalid because of alleged duress or undue influence by the U.S. when Cuba was a de facto U.S. protectorate; (b) whether the lease should be terminated with Cuba paying for the improvements made by the U.S.; or (c) whether there should be a new lease of this land to the U.S. under totally different conditions.

U.S. Congressional Meetings in Havana

A prior post reported about the planned meetings in Havana of a delegation of congressional Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy. Now we have news of what happened on their three-day trip.

Leahy in cuba

Here is a photo of the delegation in Havana (left to right): Representative Chris Van Hollen, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Peter Welch and Senator Patrick Leahy. (Senator Richard Durbin is the other member of the delegation.)

On Saturday, January 17th, they “met with officials from Cuba’s Culture Ministry in order to discuss possible Cuban participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, a summer celebration of traditional art and culture on Washington’s National Mall.

On Sunday, January 18th, they met with more than a dozen dissidents including critics of the 18-month-old secret negotiations that led to last month’s announcement. All but two of them expressed support for the opening.

One of these two, Antonio Rodiles, said it “was a friendly meeting, they heard the different positions, but the senators are very much in favor of Obama’s measures and want to hear that we agree.” Rodiles, however, criticized the Obama administration for failing to win enough guarantees of reform from the Cuban government. “I said the process [of negotiating the U.S.-Cuba accords] took place without transparency or taking the full range of opinions into account.”

Another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a Cuban non-governmental organization tracking political detentions, said that the Cubans at the meeting “had delivered a list of 24 long-term prisoners whom they wanted to see released in addition to the 53 on the Obama administration’s list.”

US-Cuba mtg

On Monday, January 19th, the U.S. delegation met “for several hours with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who told the legislators that Cuba welcomed President Obama’s loosening of the U.S. trade embargo, which would permit more travel to Cuba and economic links including exports of telecommunications equipment and wholesale goods for use by the country’s small private sector.” According to Leahy, Rodriguez is “open to every issue from trade to communications. He talked about the travel back and forth, medical issues. Name an issue, he’s involved.” (To the right is a photo of this meeting.)

Also participating in this meeting were Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, and Cuba’ chief diplomat at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, the latter of whom visited Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church last October.

The U.S. legislators also had hoped to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro, but that did not happen apparently because the Americans had met with Cuban dissidents on Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

This Week’s U.S.-Cuba Meetings in Havana

The U.S. and Cuba are holding two sets of meetings in Havana this week. One involves U.S. Senators and Representatives. The other is a conference of diplomats of the two counties.

Meetings of U.S. Legislators

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) [1] has organized a trip to Havana, January 17-19, with Democratic colleagues from the Senate–Richard Durbin (IL) [2], Debbie Stabenow (MI) [3] and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) [4]—and the House of Representatives, Chris Van Hollen (MD) [5] and Peter Welch (VT). [6]

This trip is designed to seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, to develop a sense of what Cuba and the U.S. are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible, to impress upon Cuban leaders the importance of concrete results and positive momentum and to convey a sense of Americans’ expectations and congressional perceptions.

They intend to meet with Cuban government officials, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, representatives of Cuba’s civil society, personnel at the U.S. Interests Section and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.

Diplomatic Meeting

 Diplomats of the two countries will hold talks in Havana’s Convention Palace on January 21 and 22, 2015.

  1. Migration Issues

Under the countries’ Migration Accords of 1995, they have migration talks every six months, and this will be the focus of the first day’s session. They will assess progress under this Accord and other agreements and actions taken by both parties to tackle illegal migration and trafficking in migrants. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba. The Cuban delegation will be led by the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith
Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal
Roberta Jacobson
Roberta Jacobson

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Restoration of Diplomatic Relations

The January 22 session will be devoted to the process of restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including opening of embassies. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, while Josefina Vidal Ferreiro again will be in charge of the Cuban delegation.

Jacobson has said that this “process of restoring diplomatic relations is relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, but the parties have to agree on the process for such restoration. This can be done via an exchange of letters or of notes; it does not require a formal treaty or agreement. The U.S. also will need to terminate its 53-year agreement with the Swiss Government as our protecting power [in Cuba], and the same for the Cubans [in the U.S.]; that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon the U.S. would post a new sign “Embassy of the United States of America” on the building currently housing its mission.[7] A list of all of the U.S. diplomatic officers would be declared directly to the Cuban Government.

U.S. Interests Section
U.S. Interests Section

What the current U.S. Interests Section does, and what the Embassy will do, Jacobson said, “is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes providing uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals and processing requests for visas for thousands of Cubans every year (nonimmigrant visas for many thousands and immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year). U.S. diplomats also check on whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are harassed by the Cuban government.

Having led the migration talks in 2011, when Jacobson was the principal deputy assistant secretary, she said human rights are always part of the migration-talks agenda and will be again. One issue is whether Cuba is harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section. Another issue is how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave. We often will talk about freedom to leave Cuba; that is different since Cuba now permits most of its citizens to leave without exit visas.

Conclusion

I expect and pray that these meetings will advance the further reconciliation of the two countries. We await the reported results of the meetings.

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

[1] On December 17, 2014 Senator Leahy was on the U.S. plane that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. Afterwards, the Senator said, “By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, President [Obama] has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world.  Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.” On January 8, 2015, Senator Leahy and seven other senators offered a Senate resolution commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the governments of the [U.S.] and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship.

[2] On December 17, 2014, Senator Durbin also was on the U.S. plant that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. His subsequent statement expressed support for President Obama’s moves towards reconciliation with Cuba. Senator Durbin was a co-sponsor of the previously mentioned Senate resolution commending Pope Francis.

[3] On December 17th Senator Stabenow announced her support of President Obama’s changes of policies regarding Cuba.

[4] On December 17th Senator Whitehouse issued a statement applauding the changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

[5] On December 17th Congressman Van Hollen also was on the U.S. plane bringing Alan Gross home and gave thanks for his release and for the “vision of a new day in the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

[6] Representative Welch on December 17th applauded President Obama’s “bold leadership” and the “new era of openness and cooperation” with Cuba.

[7] The U.S. building, which was completed in 1953, was designed in the Modernist-Brutalist style by the architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which also designed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City. The former is a long, six-story concrete and glass building located directly on the Malecon overlooking the Bay of Havana. The building was not used by U.S. personnel between 1961 and 1977. U.S. diplomats returned to Havana in 1977, and the building was transformed into the United States Interests Section in Havana. Renovations were subsequently completed on the complex in 1997.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Easing Restrictions on Travel and Exports to Cuba

Effective January 16th the U.S. is easing restrictions on Americans’ travel and exports to Cuba.[1]

Under the new regulations, Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of the following specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the U.S. government:

  • family visits;
  • official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
  • journalistic activity;
  • professional research and professional meetings;
  • educational activities;
  • religious activities;
  • public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  • support for the Cuban people;
  • humanitarian projects;
  • activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and
  • certain authorized export transactions.

Airlines and travel agents will be allowed to provide service to Cuba without a specific license.

Travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco. In addition, Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cubans, up to $2,000 every three months instead of the $500 currently permitted.

The new regulations will also make it easier for U.S. telecommunications providers and financial institutions to do business with Cuba.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, whose department oversees sanctions policy, said in a statement, “These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens. The amended regulations also will facilitate authorized business for U.S. exporters and enhance communications and commerce between Cuba and the United States.  To the extent legally possible, the President has made clear that we want U.S. policy to ease the burdens on the Cuban citizens we seek to help.”

“Cuba has real potential for economic growth and by increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future.”

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker issued a similar statement with respect to changed regulations from her department. She said, “our regulations will change export policy and authorize the flow of certain goods and services to Cuba without a license, to spur private sector activity and encourage entrepreneurship in Cuba. These are smart changes in America’s outdated policy that will help the Cuban people realize an improved standard of living, greater economic independence, and increased prosperity.”

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

[1] This post is based on U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, FACT SHEET: Treasury and Commerce Announce Regulatory Amendments to the Cuba Sanctions (Jan. 15, 2015); U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, Statement of Secretary Lew on Amendments to the Cuban Asset Control Regulations (Jan. 15, 2015); U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker on New Commerce Department Regulations Changing U.S. Export Policy on Cuba (Jan. 15, 2015); Baker, U.S. Easing Decades-Old Restrictions on Travel to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 15, 2015).

 

Cuba Fulfills Its Commitment To Release 53 Political Dissidents from Prison or Penal Restrictions  

As mentioned in a prior post, as part of the December 17th joint announcement of the U.S. and Cuba embarking on the path of reconciliation, Cuba agreed to release 53 Cuban political dissidents from its prisons.

On January 12th, Cuba fulfilled this agreement by completing its release of the 53 individuals. This was announced by senior Obama administration officials, who said, “Our Interests Section in Havana was able to verify these releases.”[1]

The 53 Cubans were named by the U.S. in the two countries’ earlier negotiations based upon reports from independent human rights organizations as “having been jailed for promoting political reforms or trying to exercise free speech and other internationally respected rights.” (Additional details about the development and negotiation of the list are provided in a New York Times article.)

It now appears possible that not all 53 had been in prison. On December 17, Cuban President Raúl Castro said that Cuba had agreed to grant “penal benefits including release” to those on the list. That raises the possibility that some on the list were already free but under restrictions including travel bans that may have been lifted as part of the U.S. deal.

All of this was confirmed at the January 12th afternoon Daily Press Briefing. A State Department spokesperson said, “the Cuban Government has notified us that they have completed the release of the 53 political prisoners that they had committed to free. We welcome this very positive development and are pleased that the Cuban Government followed through on this commitment. These political prisoners were individuals who had been cited by various human rights organizations as being imprisoned by the Cuban Government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba.” The spokesperson added, “During our discussions with the Cubans we shared the names of individuals jailed in Cuba on charges related to their political activities. The Cuban Government made this sovereign decision to release those individuals.” In addition, the Department of State has shared the full list with Congress and “fully expect[s] it will be in the public domain.”

Before the announcement of Cuba’s completing the release of the 53, some members of Congress and U.S. journalists revealed their impatience by being quite agitated over the fact that not all 53 had been released within three weeks of the announcement of the historic agreements. [2] My response: relax for implementation of a multifaceted agreement.

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

[1] This post is based upon Reuters, Exclusive: Cuba Has Freed All 53 Prisoners as Agreed in U.S. Deal—U.S. Officials, N. Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2015); Assoc. Press, U.S.: Cuba Completes Release of 53 Political Prisoners, N. Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2015); Malkin & Burnett, Cuba Frees 53 Prisoners in Deal to Restore U.S. Relations, N. Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2014).

[2] E.g., U.S. Dep’t State, Daily Press Briefings (Jan. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cuban dissident says he believes 2 on US list are freed, Wash. Post (Jan. 7, 2015); Editorial, Three weeks after Cuba accord, why haven’t more political prisoners been freed?, Wash. Post. (Jan. 8, 2015); Archibold, Cuba Is Reported to Release 26 Dissidents (Jan. 8, 2015); House Comm. For. Affairs, Royce, Engel Call on Kerry to Publicly Name 53 Cuban Political Prisoners (Jan. 9, 20215).

U.S. Restrictions on Felon Voting Do Not Comply with International Law

Unknown

International law regarding voting is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant) that was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.[1]

The Covenant’s Terms and Parties

This Covenant establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The Covenant forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

Article 25 (b) of this treaty states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour [sic], sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status] and without unreasonable restrictions: To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” (Emphasis added.)

On June 8, 1992, the U.S. finally became a party to the treaty, nearly 26 years after the Covenant had been approved by the U.N. The U.S. accession to the treaty was subject to five reservations, five understandings, four declarations and one proviso. Potentially relevant to the issue of voting rights for felons are the U.S. understandings that (1) distinctions based on . . . other status [felon?] are permissible if rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective; . . . (3) certain practices concerning accused and convicted individuals were preserved; . . . and (5) the obligation of the U.S. federal government to enforce the Covenant in the federal system were limited.”[2]

Earlier (on March 23, 1976), the Covenant had gone into force, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Now there are 168 states parties to the Covenant.

The Covenant’s Human Rights Committee

UN Human Rts

Article 28 of this treaty establishes a Human Rights Committee that is empowered under Article 40 to receive, analyze and comment on periodic reports from parties to the treaty regarding their compliance with its provisions, and the Committee may also issue authoritative “general comments” about the treaty.

The Committee’s General Comment No. 25 Regarding Voting Rights

On August 27, 1996, the Committee issued its General Comment No. 25: “The right to participate in public affairs, voting rights and the right of equal access to public service.”

It stated, in part, “The right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law and may be subject only to reasonable restrictions, such as setting a minimum age limit for the right to vote. It is unreasonable to restrict the right to vote on the ground of physical disability or to impose literacy, educational or property requirements. Party membership should not be a condition of eligibility to vote, nor a ground of disqualification.” (Para. 10) (Emphasis added.)

The Comment added, “In their reports, States parties should indicate and explain the legislative provisions which would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The grounds for such deprivation should be objective and reasonable. If conviction for an offence [sic] is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence [sic] and the sentence. Persons who are deprived of liberty but who have not been convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.” (Para. 14)

Proceedings Regarding the Most Recent U.S. Report to the Committee [3]

  1. The U.S. Report to the Committee.

The U.S. has submitted four periodic reports to the Committee, most recently on December 30, 2011, which stated the following with respect to voting rights:

  • “Criminal conviction and mental incompetence. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly recognizes the right of states to bar an individual from voting ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ Accordingly, most states deny voting rights to persons who have been convicted of certain serious crimes. The standards and procedures for criminal disenfranchisement vary from state to state. In most states, this inability to vote is terminated by the end of a term of incarceration or by the granting of pardon or restoration of rights.” (Para. 457) (Emphasis added.)
  • Felony disenfranchisement is a matter of continuing debate in the states of the United States. It has been criticized as weakening our democracy by depriving citizens of the vote, and also for its disproportionate affects on racial minorities. As noted in the Second and Third Periodic Report, in August 2001 the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford, recommended that all states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences. At the time of the previous report, a number of states had moved to reduce the scope of felony disenfranchisement or otherwise to facilitate the recovery of voting rights for those who can regain them.” (Para. 458) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Since the submission of the Second and Third Periodic Report in 2005, modification of state laws and procedures has continued. For example, in 2005, the Governor of Iowa issued an executive order eliminating lifetime disenfranchisement for persons convicted of an “infamous crime” and making restoration of voting rights automatic for persons completing their sentences. This order, however, was revoked by a successor Governor in 2011. Also in 2005, the legislature in Nebraska repealed its lifetime ban on voting for all felons and replaced it with a 2-year post-sentence ban. In 2006, Rhode Island voters approved a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to persons currently serving a sentence of probation or parole. In 2006, the Tennessee legislature amended its complex restoration system to provide a more straightforward procedure under which all persons convicted of felonies (except electoral or serious violence offenses) are now eligible to apply for a ‘certificate of restoration’ upon completion of their sentences. In 2007, the Maryland legislature repealed all provisions of the state’s lifetime voting ban and instituted an automatic restoration policy for all persons upon completion of a sentence.” (Para. 459)
  • “In 2009, the Washington state legislature enacted the Washington Voting Rights Registration Act, which eliminates the requirement that persons who have completed their felony sentences pay all fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. Florida, however, toughened its laws in March 2011, banning automatic restoration of voting rights for all convicted felons. Currently 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felonies in some manner; further information on felony disenfranchisement can be found in the Common Core Document.” (Para. 459)
  • “In July 2009, a bill entitled the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 was introduced in both the Senate (S. 1516) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 3335). This bill would establish uniform standards restoring voting rights in elections for federal office to Americans who are no longer incarcerated but continue to be denied their ability to participate in such elections. A hearing on H.R. 3335 was held in the House of Representatives on March 16, 2010, but the bills did not proceed further. This legislation has been reintroduced in the House in the 112th Congress (H.R. 2212).” (Para. 460)[4]
  1. The Committee’s List of Issues for the U.S.

On April 29, 2013, the Committee issued its “List of issues” for response by the U.S. Its paragraph 26(a) stated, “Please provide information on: (a) The rationale for prohibiting persons with felony convictions from voting in federal elections once they have completed their sentence. Please provide information on steps taken to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole. Please also provide information on the extent that the regulations relating to deprivation of votes for felony conviction impact on the rights of minority groups.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Replies to the Committee’s List of Issues

On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its replies to the Committee’s list of issues. In paragraph 128, the U.S. stated, “The U.S. Constitution generally provides that governments of the individual states, not the U.S. Congress, determine who is eligible to vote in their state. Congress has the power to regulate elections for federal offices and has constitutional authority to eradicate discrimination in voting through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the Brennan Center of NYU Law School, 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felony offenses in some manner, although the majority of these states provide for restoration of voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and/or are no longer on parole or probation. A few states prohibit felons from voting for life. Legal challenges alleging that state felon disenfranchisement laws violate either the U.S. Constitution’s non-discrimination principle or other federal voting rights statutes have generally not succeeded absent proof of racially discriminatory purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Attorney General’s Statement About Felony Disenfranchisement
Attorney General                    Eric Holder
Attorney General       Eric Holder

Outside the context of the Committee’s review of the U.S. report, on February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive and powerful comments regarding felony disenfranchisement in his speech, “Criminal Justice Reform,” at Georgetown University Law Center. He said the following:

  • “[W]e’ve seen that maintaining family connections, developing job skills, and fostering community engagement can reduce the likelihood of re-arrest. And we know that restoring basic rights – and encouraging inclusion in all aspects of society – increases the likelihood of successful reintegration.  We’ve taken significant steps forward in improving reentry policies and addressing the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions.”
  • “Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights – including the single most basic right of American citizenship – the right to vote – are either abridged or denied.”
  • “As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in . . . [its] recent report, ‘there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.’  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As . . . [this] report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that.”
  • “Unfortunately, the [Florida] re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed.  And, in other states, officials have raised hurdles to be faced by those with past convictions seeking to regain their access to the ballot box.  And that’s why I believe that . . . [it] is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”
  • “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.  By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.  They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies. . . . At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
  • “The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures – intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime.  Over the course of many decades – court by court, state by state – Americans broadly rejected the colonial-era notion that the commission of a crime should result in lifelong exclusion from society.”
  • “After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.  The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was black.  And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.  They could not vote.”
  • “Yet – despite this remarkable, once-unimaginable [civil rights] progress – the vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books.  And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore – it is also too unjust to tolerate.”
  • “Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states.  And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
  • “Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws.  In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five. These individuals and many others – of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance.  They are prevented from exercising an essential right.  And they are locked out from achieving complete rehabilitation and reentry – even after they’ve served the time, and paid the fines, that they owe.”
  • “Fortunately . . . in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction.  Since 1997, a total of 23 states – including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State – have enacted meaningful reforms.  In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions.”
  • “These are positive developments.  But many of these changes are incremental in nature.  They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on.  And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done.  Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.”
  • “Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole – including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result.  In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system. In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights – following the completion of a criminal sentence – to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case.  It’s no surprise that, two years after this change – of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure – voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12.”
  • “That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.  And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
  • “And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the ‘most basic right’ of American citizenship.”
  • The “inconsistent patchwork of laws affecting felony disenfranchisement varies so widely between states – and, in some places, between cities and counties – that even those who administer the laws are sometimes unfamiliar with how to apply them. The New York Times noted in 2012 that this kind of confusion means that many who are legally allowed to vote erroneously believe that their rights are restricted.  And too often, those who do understand their rights are wrongfully turned away.”
  • “[P]ermanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.  It has never been shown to prevent new crimes or deter future misconduct.   And there’s no indication that those who have completed their sentences are more likely to commit electoral crimes of any type – or even to vote against pro-law enforcement candidates.
  • “What is clear – and abundantly so – is that these laws sever a formerly incarcerated person’s most direct link to civic participation.  They cause further alienation and disillusionment between these individuals and the communities . . . . And particularly at a time when our prisons are overflowing – and many who are serving sentences for nonviolent drug crimes find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration – it is counterproductive to exclude these individuals from the voting franchise once their involvement with the corrections system is at an end.  It is contrary to the goals that bring us together today.”
  • “Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system.  So it’s time to renew our commitment – here and now – to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.”
  1. Committee’s Hearings

At a Committee hearing on March 14, 2014, an U.S. representative (Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice) said, “Persons convicted of crimes were not necessarily informed before sentencing that they would lose their right to vote.“

Austin also stated later at that hearing, “There was no national guarantee ensuring that defendants and prisoners were made aware of the loss of the right to vote. However, in practice, whenever defendants took a plea or were sentenced, they were informed of the fact that they would lose certain constitutional rights. Furthermore, the American Bar Association had launched a website entitled the National Inventory on the Collateral Consequences of Conviction as part of an effort to help defence [sic] lawyers fully inform their clients of, inter alia, any rights they would lose as the result of a conviction for a crime.”

  1. Committee’s Concluding Observations

After reviewing all of the records regarding the U.S. report,[5] the Committee on March 26, 2014, adopted its Concluding Observations. Here is what it said in paragraph 24 about U.S. voting rights.

“While noting with satisfaction the statement by the Attorney General on 11 February 2014, calling for a reform of state laws on felony disenfranchisement, the Committee reiterates its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states. The Committee is further concerned that voter identification and other recently introduced eligibility requirements may impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, including members of minority groups. Finally, the Committee reiterates its concern that residents of the District of Columbia (D.C.) are denied the right to vote for and elect voting representatives to the United States Senate and House of Representatives (arts. 2, 10, 25 and 26)”

“The State party should ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences; provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options; remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures; as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. The State party should also take all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement. The State party should also provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.” (Emphasis in original.)

This very polite language is the way the Committee was saying the U.S. was not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.[6]

Conclusion

The U.S. problem of felon disenfranchisement still persists. The previously mentioned proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act has not been adopted. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) do not have any restrictions on voting by citizens convicted of a felony. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting after completion of the term of incarceration; four states, after incarceration and parole; 20 states, after incarceration and parole and probation. The other 11 states permanently ban voting by felons under certain conditions. In addition 10 states restrict some people convicted of misdemeanors from voting.

Therefore, the  U.S. is not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.

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

[1] Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 141-43 (4th ed. LEXIS-NEXIS 2009). The Covenant is baed upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states in Article 21(3), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .”

[2] The long, convoluted history of the U.S. accession to the Covenant is discussed in a prior blog post.

[3] The most recent Committee’s consideration of the U.S. human rights record has been discussed in prior posts about the Committee’s hearings, its concluding observations and felon voting. The actual U.S. report, the list of issues, the U.S. replies to that list of issues, a summary of the hearings, the submissions from Civil Society Organizations and the concluding observations are available on the Committee’s website.

[4] The Democracy Restoration Act also was introduced in the Senate (S. 2017) in the 112th Congress, but it died in committees in both chambers.

[5] The record included several hundred submissions from Civil Society Organizations. Felony disenfranchisement was addressed by at least one such submission: the one from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Sentencing Project. It argued that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws had a disproportionate impact on minorities, and it reviewed the history and rationale of such laws, the increasing international isolation of the U.S. on such laws, the terms of such laws and the legal challenges to such laws. This submission also criticized the U.S. reply to this issue on the Committee’s list of issues and suggested recommendations for the Committee to make to the U.S.

[6] Another treaty to which the U.S. is not a party–the Protocol 1 to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms–has been interpreted to ban national laws that “applied automatically to convicted prisoners in detention, irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence [sic] and their individual circumstances.” This was the decision in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which said “the severe measure of disenfranchisement was not to be resorted to lightly and the principle of proportionality required a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned. “ (Hirst v. United Kingdom, 2005-IX Reports of Judgments & Decisions 195 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. 2005),}