Emerging Development of Cuba’s Mariel Port 

Only 28 miles west of Havana, Cuba has been developing the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone around a deep-water port. Now this project is reaching fruition.[1]

With a goal of becoming a bustling commercial city built on high-tech, advanced manufacturing and sustainable development, the Zone of 115,000 acres now has large tracts of land leveled and ready for construction of the following two major manufacturing operations:

  • The BrasCuba factory — a joint venturebetween Brazil’s Souza Cruz and Cuba’s Tabacuba–will turn out Popular, Cohiba and H. Upmann cigarettes for export and the domestic market.
  • Womy Equipment Rental, a Dutch company that rents cranes and other heavy equipment, has just finished its building as shown in this photograph.

In addition, a site has been prepared for a Cuban biotech factory, and two foreign companies–BDC-Log and BDC-Tec– have begun operating in the zone’s logistics sector.

Although only nine companies are currently operating there, another 18, including firms from Spain, the Netherlands, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, Vietnam, France, Belgium, and Cuba itself have been approved and are getting ready to start.

The port has more than 2,300 feet of wharf space, four super Post-Panamax cranes and the capacity to handle 820,000 cargo containers annually.

In light of President Trump’s June 2017 announcement of still forthcoming regulatory restrictions on U.S. business’ doing business in Cuba, U.S. firms have been reluctant to make commitments for Mariel projects.

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

[1] Whitefield, Mariel is Cuba’s big industrial gamble. Could U.S. companies be among investors?, Miami Herald (Oct. 23, 2017). An earlier blog post discussed potential U.S. interest in Mariel.

President Obama Welcomes New U.S. Citizens with Inspiring Challenge

As noted in prior posts, the final step for someone to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is to attend a ceremony in which the individual takes an oath of allegiance to the United States of America and officially is declared to be a U.S. citizen. This is after such an individual meets the requirements of U.S. law through submission of an application with various aspects of personal information and an interview for vetting that information.[1]

Such a ceremony took place on December 15, 2015, at Washington, D.C.’s Rotunda of the National Archives Museum, where the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are permanently displayed. December 15 also was the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Obama

new citizens

 

 

 

 

On this occasion President Barack Obama provided inspiring words to welcome 31 new U.S. citizens. Above are photographs of the President giving his speech and of some of the new citizens. Here is what Obama said.[2]

“To my fellow Americans, our newest citizens. You are men and women from more than 25 countries, from Brazil to Uganda, from Iraq to the Philippines.  You may come from teeming cities or rural villages.  You don’t look alike.  You don’t worship the same way.  But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.  I’m proud to be among the first to greet you as “my fellow Americans.”

“What a remarkable journey all of you have made.  And as of today, your story is forever woven into the larger story of this nation. . . . [Y]ou still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you — and that is the hard work of active citizenship.  You have rights and you have responsibilities.”

“Just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants.  But there’s something unique about America.  We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals — we are born of immigrants.  That is who we are.  Immigration is our origin story.  And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition.  It’s who we are.  It’s part of what makes us exceptional.”

“[U]nless your family is Native American, one of the first Americans, all of our families come from someplace else.  The first refugees were the Pilgrims themselves — fleeing religious persecution, crossing the stormy Atlantic to reach a new world where they might live and pray freely.  Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were immigrants.  And in those first decades after independence, English, German, and Scottish immigrants came over, huddled on creaky ships, seeking what Thomas Paine called ‘asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.’”

“Down through the decades, Irish Catholics fleeing hunger, Italians fleeing poverty filled up our cities, rolled up their sleeves, built America.  Chinese laborers jammed in steerage under the decks of steamships, making their way to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad that would transform the West — and our nation.  Wave after wave of men, women, and children — from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa — poured into Ellis Island, or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions — maybe a photograph of the family they left behind, a family Bible, or a Torah, or a Koran.  A bag in one hand, maybe a child in the other, standing for hours in long lines.  New York and cities across America were transformed into a sort of global fashion show.  You had Dutch lace caps and the North African fezzes, stodgy tweed suits and colorful Caribbean dresses.”

“And perhaps, like some of you, these new arrivals might have had some moments of doubt, wondering if they had made a mistake in leaving everything and everyone they ever knew behind.  So life in America was not always easy.  It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants.  Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.  There was discrimination and hardship and poverty.  But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them.  And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

“Just as so many have come here in search of a dream, others sought shelter from nightmares.  Survivors of the Holocaust.  Soviet Refuseniks.  Refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.  Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war.  Mexicans, Cubans, Iranians leaving behind deadly revolutions.  Central American teenagers running from gang violence.  The Lost Boys of Sudan escaping civil war.  They’re people like Fulbert Florent Akoula from the Republic of Congo, who was granted asylum when his family was threatened by political violence.  And today, Fulbert is here, a proud American.”

“We can never say it often or loudly enough:  Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.  Immigrants like you are more likely to start your own business.  Many of the Fortune 500 companies in this country were founded by immigrants or their children.  Many of the tech startups in Silicon Valley have at least one immigrant founder.”

“Immigrants are the teachers who inspire our children, and they’re the doctors who keep us healthy.  They’re the engineers who design our skylines, and the artists and the entertainers who touch our hearts.  Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn’t even their own yet.  As an Iraqi, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Naib was the target of death threats for working with American forces.  He stood by his American comrades, and came to the U.S. as a refugee.  And today, we stand by him.  And we are proud to welcome Mohammed as a citizen of the country that he already helped to defend.”

“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation.  And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals.  We haven’t always lived up to these documents.”

From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip.  They also built America.  A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, “No Irish Need Apply.”  Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, when JFK . . . [ran for office], he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.”

“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America.  During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese-American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.  We succumbed to fear.  We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values.  We betrayed these documents.  It’s happened before.”

“And the biggest irony of course is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.  How quickly we forget.  One generation passes, two generation passes, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.  And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be ‘them.’”

“On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again.  We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.  We are Americans.  Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do -– especially when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s not convenient.  That’s when it counts.  That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.”

“The truth is, being an American is hard.  Being part of a democratic government is hard.  Being a citizen is hard.  It is a challenge.  It’s supposed to be.  There’s no respite from our ideals.  All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.  When it’s tough.  When we’re afraid.  The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it’s about more than just immigration.  It’s about the meaning of America, what kind of country do we want to be.  It’s about the capacity of each generation to honor the creed as old as our founding:  “E Pluribus Unum” — that out of many, we are one.”

“Scripture tells us, ‘For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.’ In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago.  In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.  In these new Americans, we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins who packed up what they could and scraped together what they had.  And their paperwork wasn’t always in order.  And they set out for a place that was more than just a piece of land, but an idea.”

“America:  A place where we can be a part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed, a loyalty to these documents, a loyalty to our democracy; where we can criticize our government, but understand that we love it; where we agree to live together even when we don’t agree with each other; where we work through the democratic process, and not through violence or sectarianism to resolve disputes; where we live side by side as neighbors; and where our children know themselves to be a part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of this nation.”

“More than 60 years ago, at a ceremony like this one, Senator John F. Kennedy said, ‘No form of government requires more of its citizens than does the American democracy.’  Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship — of being informed.  Of understanding that the government isn’t some distant thing, but is you.  Of speaking out when something is not right.  Of helping fellow citizens when they need a hand.  Of coming together to shape our country’s course.”

And that work gives purpose to every generation.  It belongs to me.  It belongs to the judge.  It belongs to you.  It belongs to you, all of us, as citizens.  To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities and to speak up for what you believe in.  And to vote — to not only exercise the rights that are now yours, but to stand up for the rights of others.

“Birtukan Gudeya is here [today] from Ethiopia.  She said, ‘The joy of being an American is the joy of freedom and opportunity.  We have been handed a work in progress, one that can evolve for the good of all Americans.’”

“That is what makes America great — not just the words on these founding documents, as precious and valuable as they are, but the progress that they’ve inspired.  If you ever wonder whether America is big enough to hold multitudes, strong enough to withstand the forces of change, brave enough to live up to our ideals even in times of trial, then look to the generations of ordinary citizens who have proven again and again that we are worthy of that.”

“That’s our great inheritance — what ordinary people have done to build this country and make these words live.  And it’s our generation’s task to follow their example in this journey — to keep building an America where no matter who we are or what we look like, or who we love or what we believe, we can make of our lives what we will.”

“You will not and should not forget your history and your past.  That adds to the richness of American life.  But you are now American.  You’ve got obligations as citizens.  And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them.  You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is.  It’s not something to take for granted.  It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”

“Thank you.  May God bless you.  May God bless the United States of America.”

And I say, thank you, Mr. President, for a necessary and inspiring message to us all. It echoes some of the points recently made by Minneapolis clergy that were discussed in a recent post.

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

[1] Minnesota Welcomes New Citizens (June 8, 2015); Naturalized U.S. Citizens: Important Contributors to U.S. Culture and Economy (June 7, 2015).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Naturalization Ceremony (Dec. 15, 2015); National Archives, Press Release: President Obama to Deliver Keynote Address at National Archives Naturalization Ceremony on December 15 (Dec.11, 2015); Harris & Goodstein, Obama Counters Anti-Muslim Talk by Welcoming New Citizens, N.Y. Times (Dec. 15, 2015).

 

 

 

United Nations’ Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief

U.N. Human Rights Council
U.N. Human Rights Council

 

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council [1] has a Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. This official’s mandate is the following:

  • “to promote the adoption of measures at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief;
  • to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles;
  • to continue her/his efforts to examine incidents and governmental actions that are incompatible with the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and to recommend remedial measures as appropriate; and
  • to continue to apply a gender perspective, inter alia, through the identification of gender-specific abuses, in the reporting process, including in information collection and in recommendations.”

In order to fulfill this mandate, the Special Rapporteur transmits urgent appeals and letters of allegation to States with regard to cases that represent infringements of, or impediments to, the exercise of the right to freedom of religion and belief; undertakes fact-finding country visits; and submits annual reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, on the activities, trends and methods of work.

This official also has issued the “Rapporteur’s Digest on freedom of religion or belief,” which includes excerpts of its reports from 1986 to 2011. The following is its table of contents:

I. Freedom of religion or belief

  • Freedom to adopt, change or renounce a religion or belief
  • Freedom from coercion
  • The right to manifest one’s religion or belief
  • a. Freedom to worship
  • b. Places of worship
  • c. Religious symbols
  • d. Observance of holidays and days of rest          
  • e. Appointing clergy
  • f. Teaching and disseminating materials (including missionary activity)
  • g. The right of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children
  • h. Registration
  • i. Communicate with individuals and communities on religious matters at the national and international level
  • j. Establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions/solicit and receive funding
  • k. Conscientious objection

II. Discrimination

  • Discrimination on the basis of religion or belief/inter-religious discrimination/tolerance
  • State religion

III. Vulnerable groups

  • Women
  • Persons deprived of their liberty
  • Refugees
  • Children
  • Minorities
  • Migrant workers

IV. Intersection of freedom of religion or belief with other human rights

  • Freedom of expression including questions related to religious conflicts, religious intolerance and extremism
  • Right to life, right to liberty
  • Prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

V. Cross-cutting issues

  • Derogation
  • Limitation
  • Legislative issues
  • Defenders of freedom of religion or belief and non-governmental organizations

This position was created in 1986 by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and in 2013 was continued by the Commission’s successor, the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Heiner Bielefeldt
Heiner Bielefeldt

The current Special Rapporteur is Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. From 2003 to 2009, he was the Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. Mr. Bielefeldt’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief.

Last month (July 2014) the Special Rapporteur completed a visit to Vietnam and issued a statement about his visit. He said he had heard quite a number of allegations in that country of harassment, house arrests, imprisonment, destruction of houses of worship, beatings and pressuring people to join official religions and renounce their own. He said he could not make full assessment of individual cases, but concluded “there are serious violations of freedom of religion or belief taking place in this country.” (Assoc. Press, UN Official: Vietnam Violates Religious Freedom, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2014).[2]

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

[1] The U.N. Human Rights Council was the subject of an earlier post.

[2] The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recent report designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) or one that has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. The Commission also recommended that the State Department make the same designation, but the Department’s recent report did not do so even though it said, “Many requests by religious groups for registration [in Vietnam] remained unanswered or were denied . . . . Many unregistered religious groups reported abuses, with a particularly high number of reports coming from the Central and Northwest Highlands. These included allegations of beatings, arrests, detentions, and criminal convictions.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report 2014   

Comm'n Intl Religious Free                                                

On April 30, 2014, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its Annual Report 2014, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (“the Act”).[1]

Introduction

The Commission relies upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[2] (P. 9.)

The Report stressed the importance of this freedom. It says this right “protects the freedom of religious communities, as groups, to engage in worship and other collective activities. It also protects every individual’s right to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, as well as the freedom to manifest such a religion or belief, subject only to the narrow limitations specified under international law.” (P. 9.)

This right is important, says the Commission, “because it enables people to follow what their conscience dictates. . . . People are entitled to religious freedom by virtue of their humanity.” Therefore, there can be no “coercion or compulsion in these matters.” (P. 2.)

Moreover, whenever this freedom is abused, “societal well-being would suffer” as well as democracy and other human rights and economic productivity. So too “peace and security may become more elusive.” In short, according to the commission, “the defense of religious freedom is both a humanitarian imperative and a practical necessity.” (P. 3.)

General Recommendations

The Commission recommended that the U.S. do the following with respect to this freedom:

  • develop and implement a religious freedom strategy;
  • demonstrate the importance of religious freedom , including the designation of “countries of particular concern ” identified by the Commission;
  • reinvigorate and create new tools under the Act;
  • expand training, programming and public diplomacy about the subject;
  • expand multilateral efforts on the subject; and
  • protect asylum-seekers from being returned to countries where they face persecution for religious reasons. (Pp. 7-8.)

“Countries of Particular Concern” (Tier 1 Countries)

Under its authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. (P. 5.)

The latest report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight countries as Tier 1 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition, the Report recommends that the following additional eight countries also be so designated by the State Department: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. (P. 5.)

Tier 2 Countries

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met. (P. 5.)

The latest Report designated the following nine countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia and Turkey.[3] (P. 5.)

Other Countries

The latest Report also discussed seven other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka) and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. (P. 5.)

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will critique the Report regarding that country.

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

[1] The Act § § 202, 205. The Report contains an account of the development of the Act and the 15-year history of its implementation. (Pp. 11-23.) A prior post examined the fascinating structure and composition of the Commission, and another post its report issued in 2013.

[2] See Post: International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion (Jan. 1, 2012).

[3] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global Forced-Displacement Tops 50 Million

On June 20th, the United Nations refugee agency (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced (IDPs) people was 51.2 million in 2013. This is the first time after World War II that the number has topped 50 million. (Articles about this report may be found in the New York Times and the Guardian.)[1]

This represented an increase of 6 million over the prior year due largely to the war in Syria and conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Here is a graph showing the totals (with components), 1993-2013:

 

Refugee graph

Here is another graph showing the largest sources of refugees in 2013:

Source of refugees

Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. The top five host countries are Pakistan, 1.6 million; Iran, 0.9 million; Lebanon, 0.9 million; Jordan, 0.6 million; and Turkey, o.6 million. The U.S. ranks 10th as a host country with 0.3 million.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said,”We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.” He added, “The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors.”

Serge Schmemann of the New York Times editorial board observed that the report indicates that half “the refugees are children; a growing number of these are on their own . . . . More than half of the 6.3 million refugees under the refugee agency’s care have been in exile for five years or more, testifying to conflicts that rage on and on.” Schmemann added that the “stunning figures offer a bitter counterpoint to the growing resistance in Europe and the United States to letting in immigrants and asylum seekers, and to the endless sterile blame-games about responsibility for the various conflicts.”

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

[1] A brief history of the UNHCR was provided in a prior post while another post discussed its report for 2010. Another post reviewed the international law of refugees and asylum seekers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Latest U.S. Reports on International Religious Freedom

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.[2]

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[4]

The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).[5]

Latest State Department Report

USDeptStateseal

After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”

The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”

Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”

The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”

According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”

Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.[6]

Latest Commission Report

USCommRelFree

 

Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.

The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.[7]

The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:

  • Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
  • Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
  • Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
  • Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
  • “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
  • Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
  • Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
  • Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.

When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.

Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.


[2]  Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[5] A prior post examined the prior State Department report.

[6] The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.

[7] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

The National Geographic Bee

For at least the last 24 years, the National Geographic Society has conducted the annual Geographic Bee in the U.S. to promote the study of geography.

This year the National Champion will receive a $25,000 college scholarship, a trip to the Galapagos Islands and lifetime membership in the Society. The 2nd and 3rd place national winners will receive $15,000 and $10,000 college scholarships respectively. This year’s national Bee will be held at the Society in Washington, D.C., May 22-24, 2012 and will be shown live on the National Geographic Channel on cable television.

Minnesota State Geographic BEE Contestants, 3/30/12

Each state has its own Bee to select its candidate for the national competition. This year’s state competitions were held on March 30th. Minnesota’s was at St. Cloud State University for 100 fourth through eighth graders who won their local schools’ competitions and who were the highest scorers on a written examination out a field of 500. Here was the makeup of this year’s 100 Minnesota contestants: fourth graders, 3; fifth graders, 6; sixth graders, 9; seventh graders, 23; and eighth graders, 59. Only 7 of the 100 were girls.

Minnesota Geographic BEE Final Round, 3/30/12

The Minnesota Bee started with four Preliminary Rounds. The 15 top scorers in those four sessions with perfect scores of 8 were then assembled for a Tiebreaker Round to select the top 10 individuals for the Final Round, two of whom were girls. These 10 were questioned, and eventually only two individuals were left for the Championship Round. More questions were addressed to the two contestants until one individual was eliminated, leaving the other as the state champion. The deciding question was “Name the Baltic country that replaced its currency (the kroon) in early 2011 with the Euro, becoming the most recent country to join the eurozone?” (Correct answer: Estonia.)

The Minnesota State Champion this year was Gopi Ramanathan, an 8th grader from Sartell Middle School; he also was the State Champion in 2010 and the second-place state winner in 2011. The second-place winner this year was William Bogenschultz, an 8th grader from Ramsey Junior High School in St. Paul; he was the State Champion in 2011 and the second-place state winner in 2010.

The procedures for the Bee are very detailed and very fair as were the questions.

For example, in the Preliminary Round that I observed, there were 21 contestants, who were randomly assigned numbers 1 through 21 and who were then questioned in that order. For each of eight rounds of questions after an initial practice round, the moderator announced the type of question that would be asked. For example, the first round was a set of questions asking which of two named states in the U.S. had a certain characteristic. She then asked questions, and the contestant had 15 seconds to answer. One of the questions in the first round was “Which state has the longer shoreline, Maryland or New Hampshire?” (Correct answer: Maryland.) The questions got more difficult with each passing round. In the eighth and final round the questions were about political geography, and one of the questions was “What southeastern Asian country near the Gulf of Tonkin was reunited in 1976, Myanmar or Vietnam?” (Correct answer: Vietnam.)

Similar procedures were followed in the Tiebreaker, Final and Championship Rounds with increasingly more difficult questions.

Before the start of questioning in the Final Round, a film “What will you do with geography?” was shown. It had brief comments by a number of people whose jobs required knowledge of different types of geographical subjects. I learned a lot about this topic from the film and thought it was answering a question that many of the contestants and their parents probably had.

Elliott Krohnke

I attended the Minnesota Bee because my grandson, Elliott, a sixth grader at Lakes International Language Academy (LILA) in the town of Forest Lake, was one of the 100 contestants. Afterwards Elliot said that this year’s competition would help him prepare for next year’s BEE. (Last Spring as a fifth grader, he prepared a presentation at his school about Libya and the NATO bombing,)