Commentary

The Big Joke

The United Nations and human rights do not belong in the same sentence. Last Wednesday the UN Human Rights Council praised Cuba’s human rights achievements. The Council was far more concerned about the U.S. embargo against Cuba than the Cuban government’s brutality towards its own people.

The UN long has claimed to represent the greatest aspirations of humanity, running back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved more than six decades ago. But the UN’s Commission on Human Rights routinely embarrassed the “international community.” Often dominated by human rights abusers, the body routinely whitewashed oppressive governments and spent much of its time attacking Israel. It was one of Turtle Bay’s finest comedy clubs — only the performances were underwritten by U.S. taxpayers.

Three years ago the Commission was replaced by the Human Rights Council in a vain attempt to improve operations. The Bush administration refused to dignify the body with America’s presence, but in March the Obama administration announced its decision to return. Doing so obviously was a mistake.

The membership list reads like a Who’s Who of repressive regimes: Angola, Egypt, Gabon, China, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Cuba. Many of the other members have lesser human rights problems. Authoritarian states have an obvious incentive to go easy on their fellow autocracies. Even worse, these member governments view violating human rights as a positive good and one of the chief responsibilities of government (in their hands, at least).

As part of its commitment to human rights, the Council conducts an annual review — which culminates in a three hour debate on the nation’s human rights record. Strangely, these reviews seem a bit, shall we say, superficial?

Cuba’s record isn’t hard to assess. The State Department helpfully summarizes the Cuban record in its annual human rights report:

The government continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights and committed numerous, serious abuses. The government denied citizens the right to change their government. At year’s end there were at least 205 political prisoners and detainees. As many as 5,000 citizens served sentences for “dangerousness,” without being charged with any specific crime. The following human rights problems were reported: beatings and abuse of detainees and prisoners, including human rights activists, carried out with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-recruited mobs, police, and State Security officials; arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights advocates and members of independent professional organizations; denial of fair trial; and interference with privacy, including pervasive monitoring of private communications.

The group Freedom House ranks Cuba at the bottom in both political rights and civil liberties. “Although the degree of repression has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, the neutralization of organized political dissent remains a regime priority,” explains Freedom House.

Freedom House compiles a special report on freedom of the press and, not surprisingly, ranks Cuba as “not free” in this category as well. There was some relaxation of repression last year, but “Cuba continued to have the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the hemisphere.” Moreover, “state security agents continued to threaten, arrest, detain, imprison, and restrict the right of movement of local and foreign journalists throughout the year.”

Cuba also is one of the worst violators of religious liberty. Last year, explained the State Department in its annual International Religious Freedom Report: “The government continued to exert control over all aspects of social life, including religious expression. Certain groups, particularly Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, faced significant harassment and maltreatment.” Although repression had eased of late, “The Ministry of the Interior continued to engage in efforts to control and monitor religious activities and to use surveillance, infiltration, and harassment against religious groups, religious professional, and laypersons.” Last month the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom placed Cuba on its Watch List since “Within this reporting period, the government expanded its efforts to silence critics of its religious freedom policies and crack down on religious leaders whose churches operate outside of the government-recognized umbrella organizations for Protestant denominations.”

There are worse offenders, of course. Compare any country against Burma or North Korea and even the worse human rights offender looks pretty good. But Cuba’s record could not survive the most cursory review by a serious body. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Council is not a serious body.

The UN issued an official press release summarizing the debate, if it can be called that, on Cuba and two other states (Saudi Arabia and Cameroon):

In the discussion on Cuba, speakers said Cuba had withstood many tests, and continued to uphold the principles of objectivity, impartiality and independence in pursuance of the realization of human rights. Cuba was and remained a good example of the respect for human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. The Universal Periodic Review of Cuba clearly reflected the progress made by Cuba and the Cuban people in the protection and promotion of human rights, and showed the constructive and responsive answer of Cuba to the situation of human rights. Cuba was the victim of an unjust embargo, but despite this obstacle, it was very active in the field of human rights. The trade, financial and economic blockade by the United States should be brought to an end, as it was the primary obstacle to the full development of Cuba.

In short, the problem is not the brutality of the Castros’ regime. It is the American trade embargo — counterproductive in my view, but ignored by everyone else and actually used by the Cuban government to enhance its control. As my Cato Institute colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo put it, “This is not from The Onion, but the UN.”

However, the Council summary does not do the debate justice. Pakistan wished Cuba well in realizing “all human rights for all citizens.” Venezuela (you don’t have to be a member to comment) lauded “the iron will” of Cuba’s government. Russia said, “Cuba had taken a serious and responsible approach.” Uzbekistan “stressed Cuba’s work in the promotion of human rights.” China declared that “Cuba had made important contributions to the international human rights cause.” Egypt opined that “Cuba’s efforts were commendable.” And so it went.

Again, this is not from the pages of The Onion. It is from a debate before the Human Rights Council.

Needless to say, the Cuban government was pleased. The Cuban Interests Section (which acts as Havana’s de facto embassy) put out a press release headlined: “Cuba recognized in the Human Rights Council.” Havana grandly announced that it was accepting most of the Council’s recommendations, and “reaffirmed its commitment to the strengthening of international cooperation on human rights issues and to the UN Human Rights Council, which must be based on the principles of universality, objectivity, impartiality and non-selectiveness.”

Is there some way, in theory, in which the Human Rights Council might help advance the cause of human rights? Perhaps, but it certainly is not apparent how that might be. The official “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review” of Cuba was as stomach-churning as the ensuing debate. Rather than advancing the cause of human liberty, the Council is providing cover for the oppressors and persecutors. Like the Castro Brothers & Co.

After receiving its UN whitewash, the Cuban government exclaimed: “The exemplary achievements of the Cuban Revolution in relation to human rights have been acknowledged once again by the international community. It has not been possible to silence the truth.”

Rather than going back into the Council, the U.S. and other serious states should make a quick exit. The problem is not Cuba. It is the UN. Saudi Arabia, too, received gentle treatment. Up the next day were Azerbaijan and China — the latter of which praised the records of Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Cameroon. This incestuous process will continue, day after day, at the expense of the rest of us.

Human rights. United Nations. Never shall the twain meet, except in a tiresome comedy routine in an expensive club operating out of a famed high-rise in New York’s Turtle Bay.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).