BY GUSTAVO CAPDEVILA
HAVANA TIMES, Feb 11 (IPS) – The United Nations Human Rights Council report on the status of human rights in Cuba reflected solid support for Havana from an ample majority of countries, but also took note of objections raised by a smaller number of governments.
Cuban delegates hailed the document, registering the opinions expressed at the debate during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, as a “victory for truth and justice”.
Created in 2007, the UPR is a kind of expert tribunal that examines the human rights record of all 192 U.N. member states once every four years, within a common framework and with full participation by the state concerned.
“I feel completely reassured. I can not only live with this report, I can rejoice in it,” an enthusiastic Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban deputy foreign minister, told IPS.
The report, adopted by the UPR on Monday, awaits final ratification by a plenary session of the HRC in June. It summarizes the opinions of delegates from 60 countries who participated in the debate on Cuba on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Of those 60 speakers, “I would say 51 were generous, because they expressed recognition for the human rights achievements of the Cuban Revolution,” Rodriguez said.
Those delegates not only acknowledged the advances in the areas of health, education, employment and social security, “but also the social participation and the climate of freedom we have in the country,” he said.
In contrast, “a small minority of nine countries, including Israel and seven European nations, were critical of aspects of Cuba’s internal affairs,” the deputy minister admitted.
Israel expressed deep concern about “the absence in Cuba of an impartial and independent judicial system.” It also called for the “immediate release of human rights defenders, journalists and other illegally detained persons,” and recommended guarantees for exercising the rights to free speech and freedom of association.
In Rodriguez’s view, these statements “violate the principle of self-determination, and both the spirit and the letter” of the U.N. General Assembly resolution that created the HRC in 2005. He said “they interfere with matters that have to do with (Cuba’s) constitutional order.”
“We rejected only a handful of recommendations from those nine countries”, he emphasized. In contrast, Cuba did not object to any recommendation from the countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Rodriguez said.
The document recording the outcome of the review includes a request from Austria, calling on Cuba to report on any follow-up action it has taken on the recommendations made in 2003 by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which identified 79 people under “arbitrary” arrest and demanded an end to the practice.
Activist Adrien-Claude Zoller, the head of the non-governmental Swiss organization Geneva for Human Rights, told IPS he had “expected more from Cuba.” He had thought that Havana would extend an invitation to visit the island nation to rapporteurs on human rights from all parts of the U.N. system, he said.
Upon arriving in Geneva last week, the Cuban delegation announced that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, has been invited to visit Cuba. They pointed out that the island had already received a visit from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, in 2007.
The head of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), Elizardo Sanchez, had told IPS that he “did not expect any changes” in the field of human rights in 2009.
“I am absolutely skeptical, because the HRC is in the hands of governments that violate human rights,” Sanchez said shortly before Cuba’s presentation to the UPR. The CCDHRN, which is not legally recognized in Cuba, issues six-monthly reports about the situation of prisoners on the island, based on the testimony of relatives and the inmates themselves.
Cuba accepted 60 out of the 89 recommendations in the UPR report. Of these, 57 were made by African, Asiatic, Latin American and Caribbean countries, with the other three coming from Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
The Havana delegation announced that they will reply in writing to a further 17 recommendations before the HRC plenary session in June.
Two of the demands, presented by Italy and Switzerland, call for progressive reduction of the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty, and consideration of future measures to eliminate capital punishment altogether.
Rodriguez told IPS that “for fundamental reasons, we are philosophically opposed to the death penalty.” Under Cuban law, the death penalty is an exceptional punishment for extremely serious crimes, he said.
“When the circumstances surrounding Cuba change, we could make progress on this topic,” he said. It must be remembered that more than 2,000 Cubans have been victims of terrorist attacks, which also caused the death of an Italian tourist in 1997, and kidnappings of tourists and European citizens in 2003, he said.
“But at this time we cannot eliminate the death penalty from the statute books for two reasons,” he said. Firstly, we need it to defend our citizens’ right to life, and secondly, to protect national security, he said.
The deputy foreign minister remarked that “a substantial number of speakers” in the debate referred to the U.S. embargo against Cuba as “a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of the entire Cuban people”.
Until now, alleged human rights violations in Cuba were used as a pretext to justify the blockade, but this U.N. Council has just decided otherwise, put it in writing in its report and approved it by consensus, so this excuse is no longer valid, Rodriguez concluded.