On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic, or ongoing, or egregious.”
According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:
“The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
“Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
“The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
“While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
“The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
“Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
“In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”
Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government
The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:
“Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
“Press the Cuban government to:
“Stop harassment of religious leaders;
End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
“Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
“Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
“Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
“Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”
On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world. Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.
 U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).
On April 20 the U.S. State Department released its 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan wrote the Preface to the Reports and made remarks upon their release while a Special Briefing on the Reports was conducted by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, the head of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
These three introductions to the Reports will be discussed below, and a future post will review the report on Cuba.
“We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country.”
“The 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices . . . document the status of human rights and worker rights in nearly 200 countries and territories. These reports are required by U.S. law and are used by a variety of actors, including the U.S. Congress, the Executive branch, and the Judicial branch as a factual resource for decision-making in matters ranging from assistance to asylum.”
“The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that corrupt and weak governance threatens global stability and U.S. interests. Some governments are unable to maintain security and meet the basic needs of their people, while others are simply unwilling. States that restrict freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; that allow and commit violence against members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups; or that undermine the fundamental dignity of persons are morally reprehensible and undermine our interests. The Governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”
“Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”
The Acting Secretary noted that this was the 42nd year of such reports, which “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad.”
“Promoting human rights and the idea that every person has inherent dignity is a core element of this administration’s foreign policy. It also strengthens U.S. national security by fostering greater peace, stability, and prosperity around the world. The Human Rights Reports are the most comprehensive and factual accounting of the global state of human rights. They help our government and others formulate policies and encourage both friends and foes to respect the dignity of all individuals without discrimination.”
“This year, we have sharpened the focus of the report to be more responsive to statutory reporting requirements and more focused on government action or inaction with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, each executive summary includes a paragraph to note the most egregious abuses that occurred in a particular country, including those against women, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and members of religious minorities.”
Sullivan then had comments about some countries “with the most egregious human rights records:” Syria, Burma, North Korea (DPRK), China, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. He concluded by noted three countries with improvements: Uzbekistan, Liberia and Mexico.
Responding to a journalist’s question whether the U.S. issuance of this report could be regarded as hypocrisy because of U.S. human rights problems, the Ambassador said that this would be an unfounded charge. The report criticizes some country’s revoking licenses of media that criticize the government and even killing journalists; the U.S. does not do that. He also said the U.S. has laws to protect foreigners from being returned to countries where they are likely to face illegal persecution.
Nozak rejected the notion that the report was weakened by President Trump’s calling the U.S. press an enemy of the people and suggesting changing U.S. libel laws to protect politicians like him from unfounded reporting. In contrast he said independent journalists in Cuba “are routinely slapped around, they also get called names, “
This year’s report omitted a special section on women’s reproductive rights because it is not a term derived from an international treaty or from the U.S. statute requiring these annual reports; the latter refers to coerced family planning, coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. In addition, the new U.S. report has a hyperlink to a WHO report on the subject.
Kozak rejected the notion that this report was undercut by President Trump’s meetings with leaders of countries with poor human rights records.
The U.S. as a matter of policy supports NGOs around the world that are working to improve human rights.
For North Korea, the U.S. is concerned about the nuclear issue and about human rights. The report “pretty starkly [discusses] the kinds of abuses, and over the last year or two, we’ve supported . . . a commission of inquiry on North Korea, we support NGOs that are working on North Korea and exposing the human rights abuses that occur in the camps there and so on. But some of the stories that are contained in the report are just overwhelming. There’s one about 11 people who were arrested for supposedly making a pornographic film and they were executed by shooting anti-artillery weapons at them, and then they brought out tanks and ran over the bodies, and this is supposed to be a civilized country.”
The Preface to the report calls China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as “forces of instability.” This is not a defined term, but refers to situations where internal actions generate international problems like refugee flows and humanitarian crises.
This September the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland has encountered two items relating to Cuba: (a) a Council reprimand of Cuba for its alleged punishing some of its citizens for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights and (b) Cuba’s human rights record.
The Council’s Reprimand
On September 20 the U.N. Human Rights Council reprimanded Cuba by putting it on a list of 29 states that have “punished people, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the UN on human rights.” Such reprisals and intimidation include travel bans, asset-freezing, detention and torture.
The 29 states on the list are Algeria, Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. (The nine in bold along with 38 other U.N. members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve on the Council.)
The report said the following about Cuba:
“On 18 October 2016, some mandate holders raised with the [Cuban] Government allegations of harassment and reprisals against human rights defenders and members of the Cubalex Legal Information Center for their cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights (see A/HRC/34/75, CUB 3/2016). The allegations were mainly in relation to advocates’ cooperation with the Human Rights Council, its special procedures and the universal periodic review mechanism, and took the form of stop and questioning at the airport and harassment by immigration agents. Additionally, on 23 September 2016, the offices of Cubalex Legal Information Center were raided (CUB 3/2016).” (Report, Section V.B.5.)
The Council’s Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour, said, “There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, and particularly this Council, that people get punished, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights,”
Complaint about Cuba’s Human Rights
On September 19, under the Council’s Agenda Item 4: “Human Rights Situations Requiring Council Attention,” a U.S. diplomat expressed U.S.’ deep concern about the human rights situation in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Russia, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, (North Korea), China, DPRK (North Korea), Hong Kong, Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela and Cuba. (Emphasis added.)
The diplomat’s statement about Cuba was very short: “We urge Cuba to release political prisoners and cease the harassment of civil society groups.” (Emphasis in original.)
The U.S. statement about Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, was longer. It said, “We condemn the Maduro regime’s repressive actions to violate human rights including by suppressing dissent and peaceful protests in Venezuela. We call on it to dissolve the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and restore Venezuela’s democratic institutions; hold free, fair, and credible elections as soon as possible; and provide humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis in original.)
The same day (September 19), Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the Council, Ambassador Pedro L. Pedroso Cuesta, made the following longer response:
“Is it politicization, double standards and selectivity, [all] bad practices, that will end up prevailing in the work of the Human Rights Council? Many of us hope not.”
“However, what we have heard in the debate of this theme, as well as in others last week, suggests that some promote that this is the way to go by this body.”
“Several countries continue to seek to stand as paradigms for the promotion and protection of human rights and use this and other agenda items to criticize other countries, while xenophobia, racism and intolerance increase in their own territories to a highly worrying level.”
“How can one think they are seriously concerned about human rights situations in countries of the South, when they promote wars and interventions against them, and then ignore or keep their hands off the suffering they caused with these actions to citizens whose rights are supposedly sought to improve?”
“Why do they oppose implementing the right to development and thereby improve the situation of millions of people living in poverty?”
“Cuba rejects manipulation for political ends and double standards in the treatment of human rights. The accusations against my country made by the [U.S.] representative, as well as unfounded, are inconsistent with the need to promote an objective, non-politicized and non-discriminatory debate on human rights issues.”
“I must also draw attention to the fact that such statement, centered on the alleged violations of others, aims at ignoring all human rights violations occurring in its territory, and the deep international concern caused by the language of exclusion that appears in that country.”
“We demand the cessation of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than 55 years. The measures of June 16 to reinvigorate this blockade are doomed to failure, and will not achieve their purpose of weakening the Revolution or bending the Cuban people.”
“We reiterate our solidarity with the Venezuelan Government and people and call for an end to all interference in the internal affairs of that country. We demand respect for the legitimate right of the Venezuelan people to continue building the social model that drives the Bolivarian Revolution.”
“Let us not let the failure of the defunct Commission on Human Rights repeat itself in the Council. It is our duty to work for cooperation and respectful dialogue to prevail, and politicization, selectivity and double standards disappear once and for all.”
As mentioned in a previous post, U.S. Vice President MIke Pence at the U.N. Security Council Meeting on September 20 complained about Cuba and certain other countries being members of the U.N. Human Rights Council in light of what he said was its oppression and repression, a charge rejected by Cuba at that same meeting and by Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the General Assembly on September 22. https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/09/24/u-s-cuba-relations-discussed-in-u-n-proceedings/
These developments at the Council do not involve the potential imposition of sanctions of any kind on Cuba. Instead they are, I believe, verbal sparring on an international stage. (If I am missing some potential sanctions, please advise in a comment to this post.)
I have not seen any Cuban response to the Council’s reprimand. In any event, Cuba as soon as possible should end any harassment of Cubalex Legal Information Center and any of its officers and employees.
Any reforms of the Human Rights Council would seem to lie with the General Assembly, which I assume would only do so after significant study, analysis and voting, and I am unaware of any such study being proposed or conducted.
On July 12, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing about the recently released State Department’s 2016 Human Trafficking Report. After opening statements by the Committee’s Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), and its Ranking Member, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the only witness was Ambassador Susan Coppedge.
“The integrity of last year’s report was called into question because of controversy over how the Tier Rankings were made regarding certain countries.”
“This report and Tier Rankings are an improvement, and we thank you for your leadership in that regard and the way inter-departmentally people worked with each other. The decisions behind certain upgrades, such as Cyprus and the Philippines, and downgrades, such as Uzbekistan, Burma, and Luxembourg, are more balanced and strategic.”
“In the past, back and forth deliberations between the TIP office and the regional bureaus have been the rule. While less pronounced this year, that pattern still shows in how certain countries, such as India, Mexico and Malaysia, are ranked.”
“Each year, the TIP report makes recommendations for progress and turns these into tailored actions for our embassies. Rigorously applied TIP action plans should inform the tough calls on the Tier Rankings.”
“We encourage you to give a fair assessment of countries efforts to address trafficking this year, and we also hope you are candid with us in describing the challenges that still exist in certain countries.”
“This year’s report focuses especially on preventing modern slavery. This is important and needs to be part of substantially increasing international efforts to end modern slavery, which this committee unanimously supports and hopefully will come to fruition very quickly.”
“Trafficking in persons is one of the great moral challenges of our time. It destroys people and corrodes communities. It distorts labor markets and undermines stability and the rule of law. Trafficking is fueled by greed, violence, and corruption. According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least 21 million victims of modern slavery in the world. Forced labor alone generates more than $150 billion in profits annually, making it one of the largest income sources for international criminals, second only to drug trafficking.”
Last year, we expressed significant concerns about the neutrality of the 2015 TIP report – primary among them, the decision to upgrade Cuba and Malaysia, from the Tier 3 designation to Tier 2 Watch List.” (Emphasis added.)
“After reviewing the 2016 TIP report, I believe it is a mixed bag. We saw some aggressive evaluations in the 2016 report; yet, we still see remnants of the exact problems we had last year — pending bilateral concerns impacting the quality of the report. Again despite little progress from Malaysia and Cuba, the State Department decided to keep both on Tier 2 Watch List this year after they were upgraded from Tier 3 in 2015. This was unnecessary and unwarranted. By contrast, for example, Uzbekistan was upgraded last year to the Tier 2 Watch List. But, as a result of continued government compelled forced labor by adults in the cotton harvest and aggressive harassment and detention of independent monitors, Uzbekistan was appropriately downgraded this year to Tier 3.”(Emphasis added.)
During the hearing Cardin later said that last year Cuba and Malaysia should not have been upgraded from Tier III to Tier II Watch List and should not have remained on that Watch List this year.
In her prepared testimony, Ambassador Coppedge stated, “Of the countries analyzed in the 2016 Report, 36 were placed on Tier 1, 78 on Tier 2, 44 on Tier 2 Watch List, and 27 on Tier 3. In all, there were 27 downgrades and 20 upgrades. No matter which tier a country is placed on, every nation can and should do more to combat human trafficking, which is why the Report offers recommendations for improvements for every country, even Tier 1 countries like the United States.”
In response to questions, the Ambassador described the process of ranking the countries, which involved collaboration among the people in U.S. embassies around the world and the TIP office at the State Department and arriving at consensus for such rankings for almost all countries. For the few instances of no consensus, the Secretary of State is presented optional rankings, and he or she chooses one of those options. She also testified that for the 2016 report there were no instances in which the Secretary rejected the consensus opinion and that there was only “a handful” of instances without a consensus view.
When Senator Menendez suggested possibly amending the governing statute to make the minimum standards stricter, the Ambassador disagreed. She said that the current statutory flexibility was desirable because of the number of issues and countries that were involved.
Most of the senatorial comments and questions focused on India and Malaysia with brief mention of Mauritania. In addition, the Ambassador summarized the reasons for this year’s downgrades of Burma, Haiti and Luxembourg.
Cuba was touched on by Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL). The Ambassador said she went to Cuba this past January and pressed officials about whether medical personnel on foreign missions were permitted to hold their own passports. She also noted, as stated in the report, that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a problem, has no laws against that activity and no prosecutions or convictions in that area. Thus, on that issue it does not meet the U.S. statute’s “minimum standards.” Cuba, however, is making progress regarding sex trafficking, including law enforcement training, prosecutions and protection.
There also were cryptic comments about the Committee’s hearing regarding the prior year’s report and to a vigorous, closed hearing with last year’s witness, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Senator Corker said in his opinion certain aspects of the 2015 report were driven by political considerations, rather than the TIP statute.
Immediately after the hearing Chairman Corker issued a press release. It said that he had “noted improvements over last year’s report but argued for continued progress to strengthen the integrity of the Tier Rankings that will help support global efforts to fight human trafficking and end modern slavery.“ Corker “noted that more should be done to ensure recommendations from the TIP office about a country’s progress in combating trafficking are not overruled by political appointees within the State Department based upon other diplomatic considerations.”
Prior posts have reviewed the TIP’s reports assessments of Cuba’s record regarding human trafficking in 2015 and 2016 and mounted a vigorous and, in this blogger’s opinion, effective rebuttals of the contentions that Cuba was engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to its medical personnel on foreign missions.
As those prior posts indicate, these foreign medical missions spring from a Cuban objective of being in solidarity with people in need around the world while also building a community of international allies for the island and in more recent years being a major source of revenue for the Cuban government’s exports of services.
According to Granma, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, the country’s foreign medical missions started in 1960 when a Cuban medical brigade treated the victims of an earthquake in Chile, followed by the sending of another group in 1963, to provide health care in Algeria, then recently liberated from French colonial rule.
Through May 31, 2016, a total of 325,000 Cuban health personnel have provided medical services in 158 countries. There are currently 55,000 Cubans working in 67 countries, including more than 25,000 doctors. The Granma article provides a list of all the 158 countries with the number of Cuban medical personnel who have worked there.
This year’s hearing did not examine those criticisms of the reports’ contention that Cuba was engaged in illegal forced labor on its foreign medical missions. Instead, the apparent assumption of all the senators at the hearings seemed to be that Cuba was so engaged. Nothing, however, was said at this hearing to criticize or invalidate this blogger’s contention that there is no such illegal forced labor by Cuba.
 Senator Rubio’s subsequent press release contained a transcript of his interchange with Ambassador Coppedge. (Rubio, Press Release: Rubio Presses State Department On 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 12, 2016).) Senator Menendez in his press release “criticized the apparent politicization of the U.S. Department of State’s annual [TIP] Report, noting that Cuba, Malaysia and other nations continue to enjoy favorable status despite failures to meet minimum legal standards prescribed by Congress.” Menendez also announced his intent to introduce a bill to change the process for preparing the TIP report. (Menendez: TIP Report Can’t Be a ‘Shell Game’ (July 12, 2016).)
 The Senate Committee’s closed hearing in 2015 with Deputy Secretary Blinken was touched on in a prior post.
On July 27 the U.S. Department of State released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which upgraded Cuba from Tier 3 (a country that did “not fully comply with the [Trafficking in Persons Protection Act] minimum standards and [was] not making significant efforts to do so”) to Tier 2.Watch List (a country that did not fully comply with [that statute’s] minimum standards, but [was] making significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance with those standards). A prior post reviewed that report’s discussion of Cuba and expressed disagreement with its assertion that Cuban medical personnel’s participation in foreign medical missions was illegal forced labor.
Since then there has been congressional criticism and concern about that report’s upgrading of several countries, including Cuba, as seen in recent congressional hearings.
The most recent hearing was on November 4, before a House of Representatives subcommittee. Most of the hearing was devoted to the report’s upgrading of Malaysia, Uzbekistan and China.
Cuba’s upgrade was the focus of the testimony at this hearing by Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He testified that the shift in U.S.-Cuban relations did not influence the decision on Cuba. “It was completely separate,” he told the subcommittee.
This assessment of Cuba was challenged by the testimony at this hearing of Mark Lagon, the President of Freedom House. He stated that “Freedom House ranks Cuba as ‘Not Free’” and that the Department’s “grounds for an upgrade are deeply questionable.” Indeed, Lagon said, the Department’s report itself undercuts any rationale for an upgrade when it states: (a) “The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking on paper, not to speak of enforcement.” (b) “The Cuba regime did not even dissemble and claim any ‘efforts to prevent forced labor’ nor ‘any trafficking-specific shelters.” Moreover, according to Lagon, “It is far-fetched to suppose that there is no forced labor in state enterprises or for political prisoners in one of the world’s few remaining Marxist-Leninist states. Also, a burgeoning sex industry – welcoming sex tourism – fuels exploitation, despite steps the Report notes taken by Cuba to address sex trafficking.”
The attitude towards Cuba of this subcommittee’s chair, Christopher Smith (Rep., NJ), was revealed in his press release on July 27 (the date of the release of the 2015 TIP report), when he said, “For political reasons alone, President Obama has done a grave disservice to victims of human trafficking in Cuba . . . by upgrading the human trafficking tier rankings in those countries in the annual Trafficking in Persons report.” He added, “It seems quite clear that . . . Cuba’s unchecked march to normalized relations have captured the Obama Administration’s ability to properly access the worst of the worst when it comes to fighting to protect trafficking victims and punish the thugs who mastermind this modern day slavery. It is no coincidence that earlier this year the Obama Administration also removed Cuba from the national list of state sponsors of terrorism. One-by-one this Administration is overriding human rights and national security policies for another agenda.”
The same issue of the objectivity of the TIP Report was considered on September 17 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at a closed briefing by Anthony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, entitled “State Department Processes in Establishing Tier Rankings for the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.” As the briefing was closed, we do not know what happened although at another hearing on September 22 Chairman Bob Corker (Rep., TN) mentioned that after this briefing he had made a request to the State Department for three unspecified items of information about the 2015 report.
Related to the issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report was the September 22 hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the nomination of Susan Coppedge to be the Ambassador-at-Large and Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Although her written and oral testimony did not touch on Cuba, she made certain commitments if she were confirmed by the Senate, that bear on the overall issue of the objectivity of such future reports. Those commitments included the following: (a) “to use this position passionately to advocate for the rights of individuals to be free from forced labor or sex trafficking, for victims of human trafficking to have access to comprehensive services, for survivors to be empowered to have a voice in policy, and for an end to the trafficking of human beings;” (b) “to uphold the integrity of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and its tier rankings, including by ensuring the facts from the field are accurately presented in the report;” and (c) “to maintain a close working relationship with Congress and with those federal agencies engaged in the fight against human trafficking.”
At the hearing all the members in attendance expressed support for the nomination, and afterwards Chairman Corker released a statement reiterating his strong support.
The issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report regarding Cuba and certain other countries still has not been resolved, and I am confident that we will hear more about this issue from Congress.
 The Tier 2 Watch List also requires that “a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”
On July 27 the U.S. Department of State released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which is “the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking” and “ the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.”
In this Report, the Department placed 187 countries into one of the following four tiers based on the extent of their governments’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” found in Section 108 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act:
“TIER 1 [Thirty-one] countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.
TIER 2 [Eighty-nine] countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
TIER 2 WATCH LIST [Forty-four] countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND: a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.
TIER 3 [Twenty-three] countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
At the Department’s release of this Report, Secretary of State John Kerry made comments. In part, he said, “the purpose of this document is not to scold and it’s not to name and shame. It is to enlighten and to energize, and most importantly, to empower people. . . . [We] want to bring to the public’s attention the full nature and scope of a $150 billion illicit trafficking industry. . . . We want to provide evidence and facts that will help people who are already striving to achieve reforms to alleviate suffering and to hold people accountable. We want to provide a strong incentive for governments at every level to do all that they can to prosecute trafficking and to shield at-risk populations.”
Additional comments and responses to journalists’ questions were provided at the launch of this Report by Sarah Sewell, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. She pointed out that “in this year’s report, some 18 countries moved up in the tier rankings, some 18 countries moved down in the tier rankings” and quoted the above statutory definitions of the different rankings.
The Report’s Assessment of Cuba’s Record on Human Trafficking
In the 2015 Report Cuba was placed in the Tier 2 Watch List, which was an upgrade from the prior year’s report that had Cuba in Tier 3. The new Report states that although “information on the scope of sex trafficking and forced labor in Cuba is limited, [c]hild sex trafficking and child sex tourism occur within Cuba. Cuban authorities report people from ages 13 to 20 are most vulnerable to human trafficking in Cuba. Traffickers also subject Cuban citizens to forced prostitution in South America and the Caribbean. . . . “
As a result, the Report concludes, “The Government of Cuba does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. For the second consecutive year, the government reported efforts to address sex trafficking, including the prosecution and conviction of 13 sex traffickers in 2013 and the provision of services to victims in those cases. The Cuban government reported at the beginning of 2015 that the Ministry of Labor and Social Security assumed the lead role in a committee responsible for combating gender and sexual violence, including sex trafficking. The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking, though the government reported continuing efforts to amend its criminal code, including bringing it into conformity with the requirements of the 2000 UN TIP Protocol, to which it acceded in July 2013. . . .”
In addition, the Report states the Cuban “government did not report any trafficking-specific shelters, but offered services to trafficking victims through centers for women and families harmed by violence. The Federation of Cuban Women, a government affiliated non-governmental organization, provided some outreach and education about human trafficking within the context of violence against women, but did not specifically address it as a crime involving sex trafficking and forced labor or affecting men and boys.”
The Report’s forced labor allegation is focused on Cuba’s “foreign medical missions, which employ more than 51,000 workers in over 67 countries and constitute a significant source of Cuban government income. Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other sources allege that Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; [but] the Cuban government denies these allegations. Some Cubans participating in these work missions have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba. There have also been claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program. There are also claims about substandard working and living conditions and the existence of ‘minders’ to monitor victims outside of work. Some medical professionals participating in the missions are in possession of their passports when they apply for and obtain special United States visa and immigration benefits, indicating passport retention is not a consistent practice across all work missions.”
Consistent with its denial that its foreign medical missions involve forced labor, the Cuban government “did not recognize forced labor as a problem within Cuba and did not report efforts to prevent forced labor.”
The Report goes on to make the following recommendations for Cuba: (1) “draft and pass a comprehensive anti-trafficking law that prohibits all forms of human trafficking, including an offense of forced labor;” (2) “vigorously investigate and prosecute sex trafficking and forced labor offenses;” (3) “schedule a visit and engage in robust discussions with the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons on all forms of human trafficking;” (4) “provide specialized training for managers in state owned or controlled enterprises in identifying and protecting victims of forced labor and implement policies to verify the absence of coercion in such enterprises;” (5) “train those responsible for enforcing the labor code to screen for trafficking indicators and educate workers about trafficking indicators and where to report trafficking-related violations;” (6) “strengthen efforts, in partnership with international organizations, to provide specialized victim identification and referral training for first responders; (7) establish formal policies and procedures to guide officials in the identification of all trafficking victims and their referral to appropriate services;” (8) “expand upon the Ministry of Labor and Social Security’s anti-trafficking responsibilities to include all forms of trafficking and male as well as female victims, and develop an action plan to address sex trafficking and forced labor for males and females;” and (9) “adopt policies that provide trafficking-specific, specialized assistance for male and female trafficking victims, including measures to ensure identified sex and labor trafficking victims are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to sex trafficking or forced labor.”
Under Secretary Sewell, elaborating on this assessment of Cuba in response to a journalist’s question, said, “Cuba was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List because of the progress that the government’s made in addressing and prosecuting sex trafficking, as well as the commitments that the Cuban Government has made to become compliant with the minimum standards. As noted in other cases, a Tier 2 Watch List ranking does not mean that a country is free from problems or free from human trafficking.”
According to Sewell, the Cuban “government reported significant efforts to address sex trafficking, including the conviction of sex traffickers, the provision of services to sex trafficking victims, and continued efforts of the ministry of tourism to address sex tourism and the demand for commercial sex. We also recognize the commitments the government has made to reform its laws to become compliant with the UN Palermo Protocol, which is a significant step, as well as the Cuban Government’s willingness to welcome the UN special rapporteur to the island.”
Nevertheless, Sewell continued, the U.S. has “a number of concerns such as the failure to recognize forced labor as a problem or to act to combat it. And so this will be very much a topic in our dialogue with Cuban officials as we work over the next year to try to help Cuba make more concrete progress in the realm of human trafficking.”
Reactions to the Report’s Assessment of Cuba
News media immediately highlighted the Report’s upgrades of Malaysia and Cuba, and a New York Times editorial was most critical of the assessment of Malaysia. Some U.S. Senators and Representatives launched criticism of those assessments in particular. Prominent with respect to Cuba, as expected, was Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), who said that by upgrading Malaysia and Cuba the administration had “elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights” and vowed to do all he could “from hearings to legislation to investigations” to challenge the moves.” Representative Chris Smith (Rep., NJ) was upset by the same upgrades as well as relatively lenient ratings for Vietnam and China and stated the report had “careened off into a new direction where the facts regarding each government’s actions in the fight against human trafficking are given almost no weight when put up against the president’s political agenda.” Similar criticism came from Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL). 
A Reuters investigation concluded that the State Department’s office responsible for the TIP reports was overruled by senior Department officials on 14 of the 18 upgrades, including Malaysia, Cuba, China, India, Uzbekistan and Mexico. The final decision on disputed rankings this year, said Reuters, was made in meetings attended by some of the State Department’s most senior diplomats, including Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Kerry’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Finer.
On July 29 the Chairman (Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and the Ranking Member (Ben Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a joint letter asked Secretary of State John Kerry for a briefing on the Report in order “to better understand” the basis for its upgrade of several countries, including Malaysia and Cuba. They added, “We recognize that U.S. policy and engagement on trafficking does not exist in a vacuum, and we appreciate the many varied and nuanced trade-offs that are necessary between competing policy issues. We also believe that it is critical that the impartial reliability of the TIP Report be safeguarded and maintained if it is to have utility on this critical issue in the future.” 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing
On August 6 that Committee held a hearing on this subject with Under Secretary Sewell as its sole witness.
She testified that in “most cases, this assessment process [of different countries’ record on human trafficking] clearly places governments into one of the tiers; in other cases, further discussion among senior Department officials is required to clarify information and assess the totality of government efforts. This ultimately leads to the Secretary of State’s designation of Tier rankings for each country and approval of the TIP Report. Tier rankings do not assess the severity of human trafficking in a given country, but rather that government’s efforts in addressing human trafficking problems over the current reporting period compared to its own efforts in the prior year. Determinations about the direction and quality of that progress in a given country are guided by complex criteria outlined in the TVPA and described on pages 45 through 50 of the TIP Report.”
More specifically for the six countries, including Cuba, that moved up to Tier 2 Watch List this year, Sewell testified, “the Department closely evaluated the efforts those governments had made during the reporting period as well as the commitments they made for next year. Our posts are working with host governments to encourage them to implement the recommendations outlined in this year’s Report, and the TIP Office is finalizing assistance programming strategy to help make those recommendations a reality. I am receiving reports from the field on the frank and focused dialogues Embassy personnel are having with host government officials on how to overcome the challenges they face to better combat this crime and protect their citizens.”
With only Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Cardin and Senator Menendez in attendance, most of the questions focused on the upgrade of Malaysia. Corker, for example, said, “The administration’s policies toward those countries trumped any real regard for humans being trafficked.” The Department, he continued, “threw the trafficking phase under the bus to ensure that . . . [the Administration was] successful with [the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that included Malaysia].”  Menendez added a few comments and questions about the Cuba upgrade.
Sewell declined to answer questions about internal Department discussions about these upgrades and instead repeatedly emphasized that the statutory framework for tier rankings created a complex set of factors to be analyzed and that a Tier 2 Watch List ranking did not indicate a country had a great record on trafficking.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Chair Corker said it had been the “most heartless, lacking of substance” presentation and that he and the two other Senators in attendance had the strong impression that inappropriate political considerations had influenced some or all of the tier upgrades. As a result, the Committee would be asking for the Department to produce records about its internal consideration of the tier rankings. Senator Cardin also said he was interested in exploring whether Congress should amend the relevant statutes in light of what a further hearing might disclose.
After the hearing, a State Department spokesman said that the Department was waiting for the committee to submit a formal request, “but speaking generally, of course we try to be responsive to Congress.”
I agree that the annual T.I.P. reports are important tools in combatting trafficking in persons and that these reports should be free of political influence. On the other hand, I believe that the relevant statutes appropriately create a complex set of factors that require analysis in reaching conclusions about placing countries in the different tiers and that it is appropriate for senior Department officials to be involved in that process.
With respect to Cuba, for at least the following reasons I disagree with the Report’s assertion that Cuban medical personnel’s participation in foreign medical missions is illegal forced labor:
First, the Report admits that “information on the scope of . . . forced labor in Cuba is limited.”
Second, the Report admits that there is conflicting information and allegations on the foreign medical mission work. Coercion is alleged by “some participants” and “other sources.” On the other hand, the Cuban government denies these allegations, and other participants “have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” The Report also concedes there is conflicting information on whether other means, including withholding Cuban passports, are used to coerce or force participants to remain in the program.
Third, there apparently has not been any fair adjudicative process to determine which of these conflicting sets of information is valid.
Fourth, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman. He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.
Fifth, the Report does not cite to the relevant legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim. Most pertinent is Article 2(2) of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which states, in part, ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall notinclude . . . any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphasis added.)  Cuba is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as Professor Erisman states, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications.
Sixth, relevant to this issue, but not mentioned in the Report, is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. Indeed, as Professor Erisman reports, Cuban medical professionals, especially doctors, may apply to leave Cuba after they have obtained their free medical education and thereafter provided three to five years of service in the country.
We now await the Committee’s formal request for Department documents, the production of such documents and additional hearings on the subject. In the meantime, as always, I welcome comments of correction or amplification.
 Secretary of State Kerry, who was in Malaysia on the day of the hearing, categorically denied that politics had played any role in the ranking of Malaysia. “I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision — zero. The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.” (Assoc. Press, Kerry: Malaysia Trafficking Upgrade Not Due to Trade Talks, N.Y. Times (Aug. 6, 2015); Reuters, Kerry Says ‘Zero Communication’ on Trade Pact and Malaysian Trafficking Record, N.Y. Times (Aug. 6, 2015).
 The text of the U.S. statutes regarding trafficking in persons is set forth on a State Department web page and the Report contains a summary of “forced labor” without any mention of the exceptions to the definition discussed below.
On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.
Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments
Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”
Executive Summary of the Report
The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.
All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.
Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.
Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.
Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.
“Countries of Particular Concern”
Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”
Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom
Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.