Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

Whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. is an important issue that has been addressed by Michael J. Strauss, an expert in international relations with a specialty in territorial leases by states. [1] A prior post referred to his 2013 article that touched on this topic, and this post is based upon his more extensive discussion of the issue in his 2009 book and a 2014 article. His book also helps clarify the history regarding the amount of the rent charged to the U.S. under the lease. [2]

Does Cuba have a legal right to terminate the lease?

As the lease does not grant Cuba an express right of termination and as there has been no decision by a court or arbitrator on the validity of any other purported termination right, no definitive answer can be given as to whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease. At least the following four theories have been suggested for such a result.

First, after the Revolution, Cuba asserted that the lease was perpetual and, therefore, invalid. For example, a 1970 book by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “The contract for the lease in perpetuity . . . lacks existence and juridical validity because it is faulty in its essential elements: a) radical incapacity of the government of Cuba to cede a piece of national territory in perpetuity; b) for the same reason, the object and the reason are illegal; c) consent was wrested through irresistible and unjust moral violence.” (Book at 104, 171.)

Strauss, however, rejects the notion that the lease is perpetual. As noted in the prior post, the lease does not have a set termination date, unlike most U.S. leases (commercial and residential) and most leases “at the state level” (or “are otherwise open to termination by various means”). (Book at 106.) The absence of a termination date, however, does not mean that the lease is perpetual as most perpetual “leases [at the state level] . . . tend to explicitly [so] specify.” (Book at 107.)

Moreover, “the lease has had clearly stated conditions by which it can be ended.” The original 1903 lease was for “the time required for the purposes of [U.S.] coaling and naval stations.” And the 1934 treaty, reconfirming the lease, provided that it could be terminated by U.S. abandonment of Guantanamo Bay or by mutual agreement. (Book at 108, 215, 233.)

In addition, on two occasions after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. has considered terminating the lease. One was in U.S. internal discussions about ways to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but that idea was rejected internally and not publicly disclosed. (Book at 109-12.) The second was the idea’s incorporation in section 201 of the Helms-Burton (Libertad) Act of 1996 requiring the U.S. in order to provide assistance to a hoped-for free and independent Cuba to “be prepared to enter into negotiations . . . to return the [U.S.] Naval Base at Guantanamo to Cuba or to renegotiate the present agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” (Book at 112-14, 249-50.)

A second legal theory for Cuba’s termination of the lease is a fundamental change in circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) from the lease’s negotiation and signing in 1903 to today. This theory is covered by Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and was discussed in the prior post. Strauss discusses the views on this issue by international legal scholars and notes the reluctance of international tribunals to invoke this ground. Another difficulty with this theory is the passage of time (over 112 years). As a result, Strauss does not see it as a winning approach for Cuba. (Book at 114-19.) Related to this theory is the 1970 argument by Cuba that the purpose of the lease had ceased to exist: the purpose of the 1903 lease (enable the U.S. to maintain Cuba’s independence and protect its people) was negated by the 1934 treaty’s emphasis on friendly relations between the two countries and that treaty’s purpose was negated by the hostile relations after the Cuban Revolution. (Book at 171.)

A third legal theory, also discussed in the prior post, would be the argument that the lease was procured by “the threat of force or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the [U.N.] Charter” under Article 52 of said Vienna Convention. That Convention, however, provides in Article 4 that it can be used only by states that are parties to the Convention and only after they became parties, and Cuba became such a party on September 9, 1998. Moreover, the U.N. was not in existence when the lease was signed in 1903. Nor, says Strauss, has “a new peremptory norm of general international law emerged” on this issue that could be a basis for a Cuban claim of a right to terminate the lease. (Book at 119-21.) This theory was put forward in 1970 as part of an argument advanced in a book by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. (Book at 171.)

The fourth legal theory for a Cuban claim to a right to terminate would be based on alleged U.S. breach of the lease. This is covered by Article 60 of said Vienna Convention and is limited to a “material breach,” which for present purposes is “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Strauss discussed two possible grounds for this theory:

  • The lease restricts U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay to a “coaling station” or a “naval station,” and Cuba would have to argue and prove that the U.S. has exceeded those uses. Strauss is skeptical of such a general argument because the U.S. consistently has opted for a broad interpretation of these limitations with Cuba’s tacit agreement and because it should be difficult to satisfy the definition of “material” breach. However, the U.S. use of Guantanamo as a facility for detention of alleged terrorists after 9/11 and the U.S.’ alleged violations of the human rights of such detainees would be a stronger claim reinforced by consistent Cuban objections to such uses and by the remote possibility that Cuba could be subject to liability for any human rights violations at the Base. (Book at 121-23, 144-55, 174; Cuba Responsibility.)
  • In Article III of the second part of the 1903 lease the U.S. “agrees that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within [Guantanamo].” The U.S. has clearly breached this provision by having a McDonald’s Restaurant and a bowling alley on the site, but it is difficult to see such ventures as a “material breach” of the lease. A stronger argument for such a claim could be built on the U.S.’ more recently having private-contractor employees participate in the interrogation and alleged abuse of detainees. Such an argument also ties in with the assertion that the U.S.’ use of Guantanamo as a detention facility and its alleged abuse of detainees constitutes a material breach of the lease. But do such breaches affect the object and purpose of the lease and thus constitute a material breech? (Book at 123; Private Sector; Cuba Responsibility.)

The Amount of the Rent

The original 1903 lease called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin for Guantanamo Bay and Bahía Honda without a breakdown for the two territories. Because the Guantanamo Bay territory constituted 94.5% of the total territory, the rent hypothetically could be divided on that basis, resulting in annual rent for Guantanamo of $1,890. This amount, argues Strauss, was “considerably higher than what any other party would have paid in 1903 for renting the same territory.” In other words, the rent was a material element, not a token or trivial amount. (Book at 126.)

In 1916, however, the U.S. presumably abandoned Bahía Honda, and the rent remained at $2,000 in gold coin, which in Strauss’ judgment was still in excess of the fair market value of the Guantanamo territory. (Book at 127.)

In 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, the U.S. left the gold standard, and the next year (1934), the U.S. Dollar was devalued with “the value of old U.S. gold dollars being fixed at $1.693125 in legal U.S. currency. The annual rent of $2,000 in gold for Guantanamo Bay, when converted at this rate, became $3,386.25. This was the amount the [U.S.] began paying annually to Cuba, by U.S. government check, starting in 1934.” This change was made unilaterally by the U.S. without a signed agreement with Cuba, which acquiesced in the change. (Book at 127-30.)

Similar changes were made unilaterally by the U.S. in 1973 with an increase of the annual rental check to $3,676.50 (based upon a 1972 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar) and in 1974 to $4,085 (based upon a 1973 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar). (Book at 130-31.) [3]

As mentioned in a prior post, since 1974 the $4,085 figure has continued to be used by the U.S. for the annual rental checks that have not been cashed by Cuba since the Cuban Revolution take-over of the government in 1959 (except for the first one in 1959). (Book at 136-37).

As Strauss recognizes, the rental amount has never been adjusted to reflect ever changing fair market values of the territory. As a result, the annual rental for at least the half-century after the Cuban Revolution has become a token payment. (Book at 131-32.)

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[1] Strauss is Lecturer in International Relations at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, Paris, specializing in territorial leases as phenomena of international relations and international law for resolving sovereignty disputes. Prior to entering academia, he was an international journalist and served as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse’s AFX News in Paris, Knight-Ridder Financial News in Madrid, and Dow Jones News Service in Geneva. He took his Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the above Centre and his M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow in the School of International Affairs. He is the author of The Viability of International Leases in Resolving International Sovereignty Disputes: A Comparative Study.

[2] The Strauss article that was cited in the prior post is Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013) [hereafter “Cuba Responsibility”].  This post is based upon Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay (Praeger International 2009) [hereafter “the Book”] and U.S. Socialism in Cuba: Implications of Prohibiting the Private Sector at Guantanamo Bay, 24 Am. Soc’y for Study of Cuban Economy 129 (2014) [hereafter “Private Sector”]

[3] The earlier post erroneously asserted the $4,085 rental fee started in the mid-1930’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings about U.S. Human Rights

As discussed in a prior post, in March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) issued a negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights. That prior post reviewed the background of the ICCPR and certain events preceding the Committee’s evaluation.

U.N. Human Rights Committee
           U.N. Human                Rights Committee

Now we look at the hearings that lead up to that negative evaluation. The evaluation itself will be the subject of another post.

The Committee’s Hearings[1]

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Committee held sessions or hearings in Geneva, Switzerland regarding the U.S. report and other information.

The Committee’s questions focused on racial disparities in the criminal justice system; racial discrimination and profiling; police brutality; treatment of the homeless population; the death penalty; gun violence (including stand-your-ground laws); detention of immigrants; drone attacks; “enhanced interrogation techniques” including water boarding; National Security Agency surveillance; treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo; and transfers or renditions of detainees to third countries that practiced torture. Other covered issues were restrictions on voter registration and alleged mistreatment of mentally-ill and juvenile prisoners.

The Committee encouraged the U.S. to disclose a Senate investigative report on a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation program that reportedly involved torture. The U.S. delegation’s insistence that the NSA’s mass collection of data was lawful and subject to substantial oversight was disputed by non-governmental groups that attended the sessions.

One Committee member, Walter Kälin,[2] was especially critical in his comments and questions. Here a few of those comments:

  • He attacked the US government’s refusal to recognize the ICCPR’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders. He said if the U.S. position were adopted universally, it would foster “impunity and lack of accountability” for human rights violations.
  • Kälin said, “One hundred and forty-four cases of people wrongfully convicted to death [in the U.S.] is a staggering number.” He pointed out the “disproportional representation of African Americans on death rows . . . ‘Discrimination is bad, but it is absolutely unacceptable when it leads to death.’”
  • Kälin pointed to another “‘staggering figure’ – that there are 470,000 crimes committed with firearms each year, including about 11,000 homicides. . . . [M]uch more needs to be done to curb gun violence.”

The Committee’s Chairperson, Sir Nigel Rodley of the United Kingdom,[3] addressed the issue of legal opinions in the George W. Bush Administration that provided a purported legal justification for the “enhanced interrogation” methods. Sir Nigel said, “When evidently seriously flawed legal opinions are issued which then are used as a cover for the committing of serious crimes, one wonders at what point the authors of such opinions may themselves have to be considered part of the criminal plan in the first place?” He added, “Of course we know that so far there has been impunity.”

Chairperson Rodley also zeroed in on the issue of extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. He said at the conclusion of the hearings, it “was difficult . . . to understand what principles underlay the [U.S.] non-acceptance of the extraterritorial application of the Covenant.” Indeed, he immediately followed this statement with his exposition of the Committee’s contrary view. In diplomatic language, Rodley was saying the U.S. position was absurd. Here is Sir Nigel’s exposition:

  • “The relevant applicable principles were the canons of interpretation contained in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, . . . [which] stated that a treaty should be interpreted in the light of its text, its context, and its object and purpose.”
  • “Consequently, it was difficult to see how the words of article 2 of the Covenant regarding a State party’s undertaking to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized therein [[4]] were only capable of interpretation as meaning that they applied solely to people who were both within the territory and subject to its jurisdiction. An ordinary, grammatical reading of the article in question supported the interpretation that it applied to everybody in either of the circumstances provided for.”
  • “Furthermore, the idea that the object and purpose of the treaty was met by saying that its application stopped at the frontier, whatever effective control any State might have over certain individuals, was one that was hardly consistent with the treaty’s object and purpose. That was the position not only of the Committee [5] but also of the International Court of Justice and very many States.”

Conclusion

The Committee’s negative comments at the hearings were a preview of its very critical comments about U.S. human rights in the Committee’s concluding report or “observations.” Another post will discuss that report.

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[1] This account of the hearings is based upon articles in the Guardian (March 13 and 14), the New York Times (March 13), Reuters (March 13), Al-Jazeera (March 14), the International Justice Resource Center and the Committee’s Summary Record (March 14). The archived webcasts of these sessions are available on the web.

[2] Walter Kälin is a preeminent Swiss humanitarian, constitutional lawyer, international human rights lawyer, activist, advocate, legal scholar and law professor. He has been published extensively on issues of human rights law, the law of internally displaced persons, refugee law and Swiss constitutional law. Since Since 2004, Kälin has served as the Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary-General on the Human Rights of InternallyDisplaced Persons, and In 1991-1992, he served as the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Kuwait under Iraqi occupation. He holds degrees from the University of Bern (Dr. Jur.) and the Harvard Law School (LL.M.)

[3] Sir Nigel Rodley since 2001 has been a Committee member and since 2003 has served as its Vice Chair and now its Chair. He also is a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists and a trustee of the NGO Freedom from Torture. Since 1990 he has taught law and human rights at the University of Essex and since 1994 has been its Professor of Law and Chair of the Human Rights Centre. Formerly he was Amnesty International’s Legal Advisor and Head of the Legal and Intergovernmental Organisations [sic] Office (1973–1990) and U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture (1993-2001). He is a founding member and former Executive Committee Vice Chairman of INTERRIGHTS (the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights). He is the author of books and articles about international human rights and holds degrees from the University of Leeds (LLB), New York University (LLM), Columbia University (LLM) and the University of Essex (PhD). In 1998 Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Knight of the British Empire (KBE) for his “services to human rights and international law.”

[4] The complete text of Article 2(1) of the ICCPR states: “Each State Party to the . . . [ICCPR] undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,property, birth or other status.”

[5] The Committee publishes “general comments” setting forth its interpretation of various provisions of the treaty, and its interpretation of Article 2(1) is set forth in General Comment No. 31 (The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant), which was issued on March 29, 2004.

 

 

 

United States Ratification of the Genocide Convention

On December 11, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly in its first session unanimously adopted a resolution affirming that “genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns” and requesting the U.N. Economic and Social Council “to undertake the necessary studies, with a view to drawing up a draft convention [treaty] on the crime of genocide.”

John Maktos
John Maktos

Thereafter that Council established a U.N. Committee on Genocide to prepare a draft of such a treaty. The draft that subsequently was approved by that Committee and other U.N. agencies had been prepared at the U.S. Department of State by a U.S. diplomat, John Maktos, who also served as the Chair of the U.N. Committee.

On December 9, 1948, by unanimous action of the U.N. General Assembly that draft was adopted as the Genocide Convention. Two days later (December 11th) President Harry Truman signed the treaty on behalf of the United States.

President Harry Truman
President Harry Truman

Six months later (June 16, 1949) President Truman transmitted the treaty to the U.S. Senate and requested its advice and consent to ratification. In his transmittal message, President Truman said the General Assembly’s approval of the treaty was “one of the important achievements” of its first session and that the U.S. had played “a leading part” in that accomplishment. The Senate’s approval would demonstrate that the U.S. was “prepared to take effective action on its part to contribute to the establishment of principles of law and justice.”

Such Senate action, however, did not happen until early 1986, and it was not ratified by the U.S. until late 1988 or nearly 40 years after its adoption by the U.N. General Assembly and its signature by the U.S.[1]

Here are some of the highlights or lowlights of the Genocide Convention’s journey to U.S. ratification.

In January and February of 1950 a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the treaty and favorably reported it to the full Committee in May 1950. The full Committee, however, took no action on the treaty, and it did not reach the Senate floor. For the next 20 years the treaty apparently gathered dust in the files of the Foreign Relations Committee.

President Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon

That changed on February 19, 1970, when President Richard Nixon reiterated a presidential request for Senate advice and consent to ratification. His message to the Senate stated that the U.S. had “played a leading role in the negotiation” of the treaty and that “ratification at this time . . . would be in the national interest” of the U.S. and would demonstrate “our country’s desire to participate in the building of international order based on law and justice.”

In response to President Nixon’s request, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970 held hearings on the treaty and favorably reported the treaty to the entire Senate. The latter, however, took no action.

The Foreign Relations Committee did the same in 1971, 1973, 1976 and 1978, but it was not until February 19, 1986, that the Senate voted, 83 to 11, to give its advice and consent to such ratification.[2]   It did so with two reservations that required specific U.S. consent for the submission of any dispute involving the treaty to the International Court of Justice and that stated the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution over any of the treaty’s provisions. The Senate also imposed five understandings limiting the meaning of certain parts of the treaty. Finally the Senate declared that the instrument of U.S. ratification could not be deposited until after the U.S. adopted implementing legislation required by Article V of the treaty.[3]

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan

That implementing legislation was adopted on November 4, 1988, with President Ronald Reagan’s signature of the Genocide Implementation Act of 1987, 18 U.S.C. § 1091. That statue makes genocide a crime for offenses committed within the U.S. or by U.S. nationals. The statute imposes punishment of life imprisonment and a fine of not more than $1 million or both for genocide by killing; imprisonment up to 20 years or a fine of not more than $1 million or both for other acts of genocide; and imprisonment up to five years or a fine up to $500,000 or both for incitement of genocide. There is no statute of limitations for these crimes.

When President Reagan signed the statute, he made a public statement that by this signing the U.S. would “bear witness to the past and learn from its awful example, and to make sure that we’re not condemned to relive its crimes. . . . During the Second World War, mankind witnessed the most heinous of crimes: the Holocaust.” Reagan added that he was “delighted to fulfill the promise made by Harry Truman to all the peoples of the world, and especially the Jewish people. I remember what the Holocaust meant to me as I watched the films of the death camps after the Nazi defeat in World War II. Slavs, Gypsies, and others died in the fires, as well. And we’ve seen other horrors this century — in the Ukraine, in Cambodia, in Ethiopia. They only renew our rage and righteous fury, and make this moment all the more significant for me and all Americans.”

Reagan concluded by saying that the “timing of the enactment is particularly fitting, for we’re commemorating a week of remembrance of the Kristallnacht, the infamous ‘night of broken glass,’ which occurred 50 years ago on November 9, 1938. That night, Nazis in Germany and Austria conducted a pogrom against the Jewish people. By the morning of November 10th, scores of Jews were dead, hundreds bleeding, shops and homes in ruins, and synagogues defiled and debased. And that was the night that began the Holocaust, the night that should have alerted the world of the gruesome design of the Final Solution.”

On November 25, 1988 (three weeks after the adoption of that federal statute), President Ronald Reagan deposited notice of U.S. ratification with the U.N. Secretary-General. This constitutes the actual act of ratification.[4]

The 40 year delay between U.S. signing and ratification apparently was the result of many factors. Many Senators were hostile to approving any treaty that might be deemed to infringe on U.S. sovereignty. Some were concerned, especially during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, that U.S. officials might come under frivolous accusations of genocide. Others worried that if the U.S. ratified, it would be obligated to send military forces to distant countries to enforce it. Others felt the Convention’s definition of genocide was unclear. The American Bar Association opposed it through 1977. Some Southern Senators were concerned that genocide charges might result from the region’s history of segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan activities. In addition, although the treaty was not retroactive, some feared it would be used to define the nineteenth century U.S. treatment of Native Americans as genocide.[5]

The Genocide Convention went into force on January 12, 1951, after 20 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Today 142 states are parties thereto.

This tale of the belated U.S. ratification of an important multilateral human rights treaty shows the complexity of the negotiation and adoption of such treaties and of their ratification by the U.S.  There is a similar history of the U.S. ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


[1] See David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Joan Fitzpatrick, Fran Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 139-40 (4th ed. LexisNexis 2009).

[2] In January and February 1974 the Senate debated the treaty, but there were insufficient votes to stop debate and proceed to vote on the treaty itself.

[3] I have not had the opportunity to research the original historical record regarding the U.S. and this treaty during these years. I ask anyone who has knowledge of the details of this record, to share that knowledge with a comment to this post.

[4] In accordance with Article 20 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 12 states thereafter objected to or commented unfavorably on the U.S. reservation regarding the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution while three states objected to the U.S. reservation regarding submission of disputes to the International Court of Justice.

[5] Perhaps a more complete analysis of the historical record on the ratification of this treaty can be found in Lawrence LeBlanc, The United States and the Genocide Convention (Durham, NC; Duke Univ. Press 1991). Again I ask anyone who has knowledge of the details of this record, to share that knowledge with a comment to this post.

The International Criminal Court and the George W. Bush Administration

George W. Bush

Following the lead of the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration declined to submit the Rome Statute to the Senate for ratification. [1]

Moreover, in May 2002, the U.S. notified the U.N. Secretary General, as depositary of the Rome Statute, of the U.S. intent not to ratify the treaty.[2] The U.S. undoubtedly did so in order to prevent liability under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that provides, “A State is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty when . . . it has signed the treaty . . . until it shall have made its intention clear not to become a party to the treaty. . . .”[3]

The Bush Administration thereafter conducted a major campaign against the ICC. The campaign included a statute that originated with Senator Jesse Helms, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and that had what became known as the “Hague invasion clause,” authorizing the use of U.S. military force to retrieve any U.S. citizens held by the ICC. The U.S. also sought and obtained so-called bilateral immunity agreements with countries that were States Parties to the Rome Statute whereby they would not turn over any U.S. personnel to the ICC. Other federal legislation called for cancelling any foreign military aid to countries that would not sign such agreements.[4]

However, the Bush Administration, especially in its second term, softened its stance on the ICC.  In March 2005, the U.S. abstained on the U.N. Security Council vote to refer the Sudan/Darfur situation to the ICC, thereby allowing the resolution to pass. The Administration also granted waivers from cancellation of foreign military aid.[5]


[1] See Post: The International Criminal Court and the Clinton Administration (May 11, 2011).

[2] Letter, John R. Bolton (U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security) to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (5/6/02), http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/05/06/court.letter.text/index.html.

[4]  E.g., AMICC, U.S. Administrative Update, http://www.amicc.org/usinfo/administration.html; AMICC, U.S. Congressional Update, http://www.amicc.org/usinfo/congressional.html.

[5] Id.