Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

A prior post reviewed the limited public record (to date) of the first meeting on October 23 of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

To gain a better understanding of what to expect from the Commission, this blog will examine two recent commentaries on human rights by, and an interview of, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, the author of a major book about the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [1] and a prominent Roman Catholic who was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the George W. Bush Administration. The Conclusion will evaluate her comments and those made by others at the first meeting.

Reclaim Human Rights (August 2016) [2]

Glendon began this article by acknowledging that she had been a participant in the Ramsey Colloquium’s 1998 affirmation of the UDHR as “the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person” and as making “possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future.” [3] She also affirmed she was “a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses.”

Nevertheless, Glendon said that a 2016 criticism of human rights by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, [4] caused her to “ponder whether the noble post-World War II universal human rights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.”

According to Glendon, by “1998, governments and human-rights organizations alike were ignoring the fact that the UDHR was constructed as an integrated document whose core fundamental rights were meant to be ‘interdependent and indivisible.’ [However, by 1998, the] sense of the interdependence among rights and the connections between rights and responsibilities was fading.” Moreover, “a host of special-interest groups [were inspired] to capture the moral force and prestige of the human-rights project for their own purposes. . . .[The] core of basic human rights that might be said to be universal was being undermined by ‘multiplying the number of interests, goods, and desires that are elevated to the status of rights.”

As a result, by 2016, she argues, “the post-World War II dream of universal human rights risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy.”

Reno’s criticism of human rights, Glendon continues, emphasizes “the way that human rights as an ideology detracts from the difficult and demanding work of politics.” This is especially true in the U.S., she says, as “judicially-created rights have displaced political judgements that could and should have been left to the ordinary processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, and voting.” This has damaged “the American democratic experiment” by making it more difficult to correct an unwise judicial decision, intensifying “the politicization of the judicial selection process,” depriving “the country of the benefits of experimentation with different solutions to difficult problems” and accelerating “the flight from politics.”

Glendon concludes by urging “church leaders and people of good will to make every effort to connect the human-rights project to an affirmation of the essential interplay between individual rights and democratic values. We should insist on the connection between rights and responsibilities. And we should foster an appreciation of the ultimate dependence of rights upon the creation of rights-respecting cultures.”

 “Renewing Human Rights” (February 2019) [5]

“When Eleanor Roosevelt and a small group of people gathered at the behest of the U.N. in early 1947 to draft the world’s first ‘international bill of rights’” (the subsequent UDHR), the “idea that some rights could be universal—applicable across all the world’s different societies—was controversial.”

“Yet in the decades that followed, the UDHR . . . successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny.”

“But now . . . the international human rights idea is in crisis, losing support both at home and abroad. Good intentions, honest mistakes, power politics, and plain old opportunism have all played a role in a growing skepticism, and even a backlash.”

As Glendon sees it, “there were three stages” to this change: [1] a pick-and-choose attitude toward rights initiated by the two superpowers in the Cold War era [U.S. and U.S.S.R.]; [2] an over-extension of the concept once the human rights idea showed its moral force; and [3] a forgetfulness of the hard-won wisdom of the men and women who had lived through two world wars.”

“The end of the Cold War increased the influence of human rights. American predominance, Western ideological ascendancy, a series of atrocities and conflicts, and a growing role for the United Nations and other international actors spurred the rapid growth of human rights activism in the 1990s. By the 2000s, there were many human rights organizations, including specialists, activists, agencies for monitoring and enforcement, and academic journals.”

These changes brought about “an interventionist approach, backed by Western—especially American—power. . . .  The establishment of state-like institutions such as the International Criminal Court (which the United States ultimately did not endorse), and doctrines such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ reflected this shift. They increased the human rights field’s ability to frame the international agenda and set global standards. . . .  This encouraged an expansion in the number of basic rights.”

“Given that individual rights were gaining ascendancy, the role of social institutions and non-­individualistic values were deemphasized. A one-size-fits-all approach triumphed over the idea of a common standard that could be brought to life in a variety of legitimate ways. The indivisibility and inter­dependence of fundamental rights were ­forgotten.”

Some states now object to “uniform methods of interpreting and implementing” human rights treaties and to “supra­national institutions. They are remote from the people whose lives they affect. They lack public scrutiny and accountability, are susceptible to lobbying and political influence, and have no internal checks and balances.”

According to Glendon, the following “four major principles that the UDHR’s framers followed [in 1947-48] can reinvigorate the human rights idea in our own time:”

  • Modesty concerning universality. “The framers wisely confined themselves to a small set of principles so basic that no country or group would openly reject them. This was essential not only in order to gain broad political support within the U.N., but also to ensure that the Declaration would have deep and long-lasting support across vastly different cultures, belief systems, and political ideologies.”
  • Flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected.
  • Interdependence of basic rights.” The UDHR makes it clear “that everyone’s rights depend on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society. . . . The framers of the [UDHR] did not expect uniform management of tensions or conflicts between rights. . . . [and instead] assumed that communities must balance the weight of claims of one right versus another before determining the best course of action.” Only a few rights do not allow such variation: “protections for freedom of religion and conscience” as well as “prohibitions of torture, enslavement, degrading punishment, . . .retroactive penal measures, and other grave violations of human dignity.”
  • “Subsidiarity.” Emphasis on “the primacy of the lowest level of implementation that can do the job, reserving national or international actors for situations where smaller entitles are incapable.” This principle, as stated in the UDHR’s Proclamation, also calls on “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Glendon concludes by arguing for a new human rights goal: “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils for which a broad consensus exists across all societies. This would at least include “protections against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin; and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.”

Glendon Interview [6]

On August 3, 2019, Glendon was interviewed by Jack Goldsmith, another Harvard Law School professor of international law. Here are her comments that were not already expressed in the above articles.

She said there was confusion and crisis in human rights with roughly half of the world’s population without any rights and exasperated by disappointing performance of international human rights institutions.

Socrates said that definition of terms was the beginning of wisdom, and this is especially important since human rights are now important parts of U.S. foreign policy.

The concept of “unalienable rights,” which the printer of the original Declaration of Independence substituted for Thomas Jefferson’s draft’s use of “inalienable,” has evolved with the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the U.S. Declaration of Independence talked about “laws of nature” or pre-political rights, the UDHR is grounded in the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.

Glendon emphasized the civil and political rights in the UDHR were interdependent with economic and social rights and pointed to the New Deal and the preambles of many U.S. statutes on economic and social issues as expressing this interdependence. This also is stated in Article 22 of the UDHR: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’” (Emphasis added.) This provision rejected the Soviet Union’s position that the state was solely responsible for such rights with Eleanor Roosevelt saying during the deliberations over the UDHR that no one had figured out how to do that without loss of freedom.

Another emphasis of Glendon was on the UDHR Proclamation’s words: ‘every individual and every organ of society, Keeping the [UDHR] constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of [U.N.] Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” Or as Judge Learned Hand said, ‘The spirit of liberty will die if not in the hearts of the people.’

Reactions

 Glendon’s primary focus in these two articles and interview is the UDHR, which is mentioned as one of two  guiding authorities for the Commission on Unalienable Rights, but Glendon has less to say about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which is the other guiding authority for this Commission.

We all should seek to follow her emphasizing the UDHR’s interdependency of civil and political rights with economic and social rights and the importance of every individual and every organ of society striving by teaching and education to promote respect for human rights and freedoms.

The UDHR indeed is an important international human rights instrument. But it is a declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It does not by itself establish legal obligations on any nation state or other person.

In any event, Glendon says nothing about another provision of the UDHR’s Proclamation: “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR and, by implication, that these other measures will include “rights” language. Moreover, under the principle of “flexible universalism,” a developed and wealthy country like the U.S. could well find ways to secure the rights mentioned in the UDHR that are more complex than those in other countries.

A similar principle for the Commission exists in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  It says, as the Commission emphasizes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration says, but the Glendon and the Commission ignore, “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration.[7] These are not “ad hoc” rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say.

As a result, after the 1948 adoption of the UDHR, various U.N. organizations have drafted and adopted many international human rights treaties,[8] and the U.S. federal and state governments have adopted many human rights statutes and regulations.

This obvious point is surprisingly overlooked by Glendon when she lauds UDHR’s Article 14 on the right to asylum as an example of flexible universalism because it does not say how that right should be protected. But the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that entered into force on April 22, 1954, defines”refugee” and specifies many conditions for that protection while limiting reservations under Article 42. Presumably she is not arguing that this treaty was a mistake.

Indeed, we should all celebrate, not complain as Secretary Pompeo likes to do, that there has been such proliferation or in Glendon’s words, “too much contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’ language. These arguments by Pompeo and Glendon can be seen as underhanded ways to cut back or eliminate rights that they do not like, which I assume would include abortion and LGBQ rights. Such rights constantly are criticized by her church (Roman Catholic) and by the Commission’s creator, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and others in the State Department.[9]

Criticism of Glendon’s apparent adherence to traditional Roman Catholic teachings on some of these issues comes from her successor as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the Obama Administration, Miguel Diaz, along with 128 Catholic activists and leaders, in a letter opposing the Commission. [10] They said, “Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world. Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world,” they write. “Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Of most urgent concern is that the composition of the Commission indicates that it will lead our State Department to adopt policies that will harm people who are already vulnerable, especially poor women, children, LGBTI people, immigrants, refugees, and those in need of reproductive health services. This is being done “in the name of a very partial version of Christianity that is being promoted by the current Administration.” “All human beings,” however, “have been created in God’s image and all have been endowed by their Creator with the fundamental right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. No person speaking in the name of government or in the name of God can do so to undermine or to deny this right.”

Nor does Glendon discuss how to resolve conflicts among rights. For example, the U.S. Declaration’s mention of “life” as one of the “unalienable rights” is taken by some, and probably Glendon, as a basis for arguing there should be no right to an abortion. But an abortion may be necessary to protect an expectant woman’s right to “life” or her “pursuit of happiness.”  How are those conflicts resolved? That is why we have federal and state and international courts and agencies to resolve these conflicts or disputes.

The previously cited “four major principles” of the UDHR are worthy of remembering and guiding future human rights, internationally and domestically.

Glendon, however, fails to acknowledge the continued use of the “flexible universalism” principle in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. [11] Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. The same was done by the Council’s predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Committee.[12]

The words of Professor Michael McConnell from the Commission’s first meeting should also be remembered in this evaluation of its ongoing work. He warned that the term “‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

Andrea Schmitt of the Center for American Progress who attended  the Commission’s first meeting also had words of wisdom for the Commission. She said, “It is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world.”

We all should thank Professor Glendon for her expertise and willingness to serve as Chair of the Commission. Those of us interested in international human rights need to carefully follow the Commission’s deliberations and eventual reports and express our agreements and disagreements with respect and reasoned arguments.

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[1] Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[2] Glendon, Reclaim Human Rights, First Things (Aug. 2016).

[3] The Ramsey Colloquium apparently published reflections about early Christianity’s treatment of homosexuality. (Graeser, The Ramsey Colloquium and Other First Things Resources, Mars Hill Audio (June 29, 2001).

[4] Reno, Against Human Rights, First Things (May 2016). Reno is a former professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution until 2010 when he became the editor of First Things. In 2004 at age 45 he left the Episcopal Church to join the Roman Catholic Church and  describes himself as a theological and political conservative. First Things, which describes itself as“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be ‘naked,’ and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.” The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports: a religiously pluralistic society that defends human dignity from conception to natural death; a democratic, constitutionally ordered form of government supported by a religiously and morally serious culture; a vision of freedom that encourages a culture of personal and communal responsibility; and loyalty to the Western tradition that provides a basis for responsible global citizenship.”

[5]  Glendon & Kaplan, Renewing Human Rights, First Things (Feb. 2019) The co-author, Seth D. Kaplan, is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. He is a consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, United Nations and African Development Bank.

[6] Howell, The Lawfare Podcast: Mary Ann Glendon on Unalienable Rights, Lawfare (Aug. 3, 2019).

[7] See The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes, dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2019).

[8] As of 2009, there were at least the following significant multilateral human rights treaties: (1) U.N. Charter; (2) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (3) First Optional Covenant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (4) Covenant on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; (5) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; (6) Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; (7) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; (8) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; (9) Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; (10) Convention on the Rights of the Child; (11) Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the elimination of the death penalty; (12) International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; (13) Statute of the International Court; and (14) International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. (Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 33-35 (Lexis/Nexis 4th edition 2009).)

[9] See, e.g.,  U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[10] White, Former U.S. envoy to Vatican opposes new commission headed by predecessor, Crux (Jul. 23, 2019).

[11] Under international law, “A State may, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving, or acceding to a treaty, formulate a reservation unless (a) the reservation is prohibited by a treaty; (b) the treaty provides that only specified reservations, which do not include the reservation  in question, may be made; or (c) in cases not falling under sub-paragraphs (a) or (b), the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.” (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, arts. 19 (1980); id. Arts. 2(1) (d),20, 21, 22 )  See also,e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human Rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2013).

[12] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.H. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights (April 19, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings About U.S. Human Rights (April 21, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee‘s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights (April 24, 2014); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The Pre-Hearing Papers (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The UPR Hearing (June 16, 2018); U.N. Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review (Sept. 20, 2018).

 

 

 

Resolution of Issues Regarding Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay

Since the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement, Cuba has voiced at least three demands or issues regarding its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. The most serious one is ending the lease and returning this territory to complete Cuban control. The second is the U.S.’ paying for use of the territory since the Cuban Revolution’s takeover of the island in 1959. The third is Cuba’s objection to the U.S.’ establishing and maintaining a prison for detainees after 9/11 and to the U.S.’ alleged mistreatment and torture of those detainees.

Understanding these issues requires an examination of (a) the Cuban war for independence, 1895-1898, and the Spanish-American War of 1898; (b) the terms of seven documents relating to the lease, all of which predate the Cuban Revolution; and (c) the position of the Revolutionary government toward these documents and the lease. [1] In conclusion, this post will discuss methods for resolving these issues.

Before all of that, here are maps and photographs of Guantanamo Bay.

Guant map1

guantanamo.bay

 

 

 

 

Gitmo look west

_245513_us_base_guantanamo300

 

 

 

The Cuban War for Independence and the Spanish-American War [2]

In 1895 Cubans started a revolt or war of independence from Spain, which responded with ferocity, launching its “reconcentrado” campaign that herded 300,000 Cubans into re-concentration camps. Spain’s tactics infuriated many Americans, who began to raise money and even fight on the side of the Cuban nationalists while American businesses with economic interests on the island were worried about the safety of their investments. U.S. President William McKinley wanted an end to the Cuban-Spanish conflict, but demanded that Spain act responsibly and humanely and that any settlement be acceptable to Cuban nationals.

In November 1897, an amicable resolution appeared possible when the Spanish granted the Cubans limited autonomy and closed the re-concentration camps. But after pro-Spanish demonstrators rioted in Havana in January 1898 to protest Spain’s more conciliatory policies, McKinley ordered the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana to protect American citizens and property and to demonstrate that the U.S. still valued Spain’s friendship.

With the Maine safely moored in Spanish waters, the Spanish-American relationship was jolted by the publication in a New York newspaper of a letter by the Spanish minister to the U.S. describing McKinley as “weak and a bidder for the admirations of the crowd” and revealing that the Spanish were not negotiating in good faith with the U.S. Americans saw the letter as an attack on both McKinley’s and the nation’s honor. The American public’s anger only intensified following an explosion on the Maine and its sinking on February 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor, killing 266 crew members. The Navy, on March 21, reported that an external explosion, presumably from a Spanish mine, had destroyed the ship.

With diplomatic initiatives exhausted and the American public wanting an end to the Cuban crisis, McKinley, in mid-April 1898, asked Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba, which it granted. Spain soon broke relations with the U.S., and the U.S. blockaded Cuba’s ports. On April 23, Spain declared war on the U.S. Two days later the U.S. did likewise with the Teller amendment committing the U.S. to the independence of Cuba once the war had ended, disclaiming “any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof.”

What became known as the Spanish-American War lasted only a little over three months with U.S. victories in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines ending in a cease fire on August 12, 1898. Under the Paris Peace Treaty of December 10, 1898, the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands while Spain renounced its claim to Cuba, which remained under U.S. military occupation until 1902.

Thereafter, Cuba would be a de facto U.S. protectorate until 1934.

The Lease of Guantanamo Bay

The first five of the seven documents relating to the Guantanamo lease were created during the period that Cuba was a de facto protectorate of the U.S.

  1. Act of Congress (March 2, 1901). On this date, President McKinley signed an Act of Congress that included what was called “the Platt Amendment,” which authorized the U.S. President “to leave the government and control of the island of Cuba to its people so soon as a government shall have been established in said island under a constitution which, either as a part thereof or in an ordinance appended thereto, shall define the future relations of the United States with Cuba, [and shall include the following: provisions]:
  • “I. That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion of said island.”
  • “III. That the government of Cuba consents that the [U.S.] may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the [U.S.], now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.”
  • “”VII. That to enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the [U.S.] lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. Constitution of Cuba (May 20, 1902). On this date, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was promulgated, and Article VII of its Appendix provided: “To enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the [U.S.] the lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. U.S.-Cuba Agreement (February 23, 1903). Pursuant to the just mentioned Cuban constitutional provision, on February 23, 1903, the U.S. and Cuba entered into the “Agreement . . . for the Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval stations.” Its Article I stated that Cuba “hereby leases to the United States, for the time required for the purposes of coaling and naval stations, the following described areas of land and water [Guantanamo Bay and Bahia Honda] [3] situated in the Island of Cuba”

This Agreement’s Article II stated, “The grant of the foregoing Article shall include the right to use and occupy the waters adjacent to said areas of land and water, and to improve and deepen the entrances thereto and the anchorages therein, and generally to do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

This Agreement concluded in Article III, whereby the U.S. “recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba over the above described areas of land and water, on the other hand the Republic of Cuba consents that during the period of the occupation by the [U.S.] of said areas under the terms of this agreement the [U.S.] shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas.”

Unlike most leases, this agreement did not set forth a set period of time for the lease or the compensation or rent to be paid.

  1. Treaty between the United States of America and Cuba (May 22, 1903). This treaty in Article I states, “The Government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island.”

Article III provides, “The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.”

Article VII adds, “To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”

  1. Lease of Certain Areas of Land and Water for Naval or Coaling Stations in Guantanamo and Bahia Honda (July 2, 1903). This instrument details additional terms of the lease in seven articles. Its Article I specified the compensation that the U.S. would pay to Cuba for the leased territories: “the annual sum of two thousand dollars, in gold coin of the United States, as long as the former shall occupy and use said areas of land by virtue of said agreement.” Under Article II, the U.S. agreed “that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas.”

There still was no set period of time for the lease of the territory.

On November 12, 1903, Guantánamo Bay Outer Harbor passed into U.S. hands “without any formality” and was “effected in a quiet manner.”

  1. Treaty between United States of America and Cuba (May 29, 1934)By 1934 there had been changes in the overall relationship between the two countries. The U.S., pursuing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy, proposed to nullify the previously mentioned May 22, 1903, U.S.-Cuba Treaty. Cuba had become increasingly upset with the earlier treaty’s Platt Amendment granting the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba, and Cuba welcomed the idea of nullifying the 1903 treaty. Negotiations to that end proceeded quickly; and a new Cuban-American Treaty of Relations was signed on May 29, 1934, and after rapid ratifications by both states it entered into force on June 9, 1934. This effectively ended the U.S. de facto protectorate of Cuba.

The 1934 treaty in Article II also stated: “All the acts effected in Cuba by the [U.S.] during its military occupation of the island, up to May 20,1902, the date on which the Republic of Cuba was established, have been ratified and held as valid; and all the rights legally acquired by virtue of those acts shall be maintained and protected.”

Article III added the following language with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo Bay: “The supplementary agreement in regard to naval or coaling station signed between the two Governments on July 2, 1903, also shall continue in effect in the same form and on the same conditions with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo. So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantánamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territory it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty.”

The implication of Article III is that the U.S. at any time can walk away from the lease at Guantánamo (abandon the base), but the Cubans can never revoke the lease.

  1. Change in Amount of Rent (1938). Although the source document has not been located, secondary sources say the annual rent for Guantanamo was changed in 1938 to $4,085 (U.S. Dollars), which was the 1938 equivalent of $2,000 in U.S. gold coins. That term has never been changed. Indeed, the U.S. documents transmitting the annual rent checks in that amount for 2011, 2012 and 2013 merely refer to the July 2, 1903, Lease while stating the amount of $4,085 was “computed in the manner of which the government of Cuba has been advised in connection with previous rental payments.” [4]

Cuba’s Revolutionary Government’s Positions Regarding the Lease

Soon after the Cuban Revolution took over the government in January 1959, it started calling for the U.S. to get out of Guantanamo. Over time Cuba set out four different, and sometimes contradictory, legal arguments for invalidating the lease. Even though some international law experts thought Cuba had a good argument for such invalidation: rebus sic stantibus (fundamental change of circumstances), [5] Cuba never instituted legal proceedings to that end. In addition, while the U.S.S.R. still existed and was a major Cuban ally, the Soviets argued that the lease was an “unequal treaty,” but that legal theory was not embraced by the U.S. and most Western nations.

In addition, Cuba has refused to cash the annual U.S. checks for $4,085 made out to the “Treasurer General of the Republic” (a position that ceased to exist after the Revolution). One such check, however, was cashed in the early days of the Revolution, Cuba says, due to confusion. (Many years ago during a televised interview, Fidel Castro opened a desk drawer in his office to show the collection of uncashed checks.)

At least by 2004, Cuba accepted the lease as valid while asserting that control over Guantanamo “will eventually revert to Cuba because of the nature of the arrangement, ad defined by its domestic law, which prohibits perpetual leases. For example, in 2004, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated the arrangement “does not grant a perpetual right but a temporary one over that part of our territory, by which, in due course, as a just right of our people, the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo should be returned by peaceful means to Cuba.” In short, said Cuba, the lease is valid, but U.S. occupation of the territory is illegal. This argument is ridiculous, in the opinion of this blogger, a retired U.S. lawyer.

There have been at least two U.S. responses to these Cuban arguments of invalidity of the lease. First, under the international legal principle of pacta sunt servanda (the contract is the law between the parties), the lease remained a valid agreement between the two states and Cuba has a legal obligation to adhere to agreements previously entered into despite a change in governments. [6] Second, the revolutionary government’s acceptance of at least one of the annual rent checks was an admission of the lease’s validity or a waiver of Cuba’s objections thereto.

Conclusion

As a retired U.S. lawyer, without doing any legal research, I see potential issues of lease invalidity due to (a) possible undue influence or coercion by the U.S. in establishing the terms of the original lease in 1903 and the modifications in 1934 and 1938; [7] and (b) the U.S. use of Guantanamo possibly exceeding the uses permitted by the lease. Any such claim, however, would be potentially subject, at least in a domestic legal dispute, to the affirmative defenses of waiver, estoppel, ratification, laches and statute of limitations. [8]

The argument for invalidity based on the U.S. use of Guantanamo has been rejected by Professor Strauss. He notes that the lease permits the use of Guantanamo as a “naval station,” which is a term created by the U.S. to allow its Navy to determine the range of activities that could occur at such a “station” and which has been used for fewer functions than a full naval base and more recently as a full naval base. As a result, says Strauss, the limitation on use is “largely meaningless in a practical sense.”

In any event, if Cuba now were to assert a right to terminate the lease, over U.S. objection, then I suggest that such a claim should be submitted to a panel of three arbitrators at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague under its existing Arbitration Rules. Presumably the U.S. in addition to resisting the claim would have a contingent counterclaim (in the event of an arbitration award of termination) for reimbursement for the value of U.S. improvements to the territory.

Such an arbitration proceeding should also include any Cuban claim for compensation for the U.S. use of Guantanamo for 66 years (1960-2015). If, however, such a claims is only for the $4,085 annual rent established in 1938 for a total of $269,610 (without interest), then the claim should be resolved quickly by the U.S. paying the amount of the claim. If, however, the claim is for a higher amount based upon some theory to void the $4,085 figure and instead use a larger amount of alleged fair market value, then presumably such a claim would be contested by the U.S. and a proper claim for arbitration.

Of course, at any time the two parties could negotiate a new lease of Guantanamo, presumably for a specific term of years, with a right of renewal, at a higher and annually adjustable rent. Such a new lease could also impose limits on U.S. use of the territory such as prohibition of the operation of a prison or detention facility.

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[1] An excellent overall discussion of the U.S. lease of Guantanamo is contained in Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013).  See also Notes on Guantanamo Bay; Wikipedia, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.

[2] This brief summary of the two wars is based on American President: William McKinley: Foreign Affairs, Miller Center, Univ. Virginia.

[3] Bahia Honda was never used by the U.S. and reverted to Cuban control.

[4] Boadle, Castro: Cuba not cashing US Guantanamo rent checks, Reuters (Aug. 17, 2007); Shiffer, Annual rent for Girmo Naval Base: $4,085, payable to Cuba, StarTribune (Oct. 10, 2014) (contains U.S. transmittal advices for rental checks for 2011, 2012 and 2013).

[5] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that entered into force on January 20, 1980, sets forth “the codification and progressive development of the law of treaties,” which are “international agreement[s] concluded between States in written form and governed by international law.” (Preamble & Art. 2(1)(a).) Its Article 62 recognizes a “fundamental change of circumstances” as a ground for “terminating or withdrawing from” a treaty and defines the conditions for such a ground. Cuba is a party to the treaty, and although the U.S. is not, the State Department has said that this Convention “is already generally recognized as the authoritative guide to current treaty law and practice.” (David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Joan Fitzpatrick, Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 127-28 (4th ed. LexisNexis 2009).)

[6] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties notes that “the principles of free consent and of good faith and pacta sunt servanda are universally recognized” and its Article 26 under the heading “Pacta sunt servanda” states, “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”

[7] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in Article 52 provides, “A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.”

[8] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides in Article 45 that a “State may no longer invoke [breach by the other party or fundamental change of circumstances] if, after becoming aware of the facts: (a) it shall have expressly agreed that the treaty is valid or remains in force or continues in operation . . .; or (b) it must by reason of its conduct be considered as having acquiesced in the validity of the treaty or its maintenance in force or in operation . . . .”