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Cuban at the UN's human rights council

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Here's something you won't hear from the US corporate media: Cuba's human rights record was examined by the UN's Human Rights Council, and the country came out looking pretty good. There was a great deal of praise, some constructive criticism and relatively few intransigent issues.

Such reports are rarely reported on in meaningful terms. The corporate media, generally looking for a single story line, spin it their own way or ignore it especially if the news does not suit their predetermined stereotypes. The Cuban media presented some short, positive stories. Let's look at some of the details.

Since 2006, Cuba has participated more freely in the UN's Human Rights Council precisely because the Council has more equitable processes than the old Commission. The voting structure allows a wider range of countries to participate and the main accountability process is the 'Universal Periodic Review' (UPR), which applies to all countries.

The big powers no longer pick and choose their favorite 'human rights offenders' for UN scrutiny, as they did in the old Commission. The US tried to target Cuba (particularly during the administration of that great champion of human rights, George W. Bush) at the Commission, and for this reason Cuba refused to fully cooperate. But since the restructuring of 2006, things have changed.

In the eleventh session it was Cuba's turn for a UPR, and the little socialist country faced scrutiny from all participating countries plus a wide range of NGOs.

The structure of a UPR leads to the subject state either accepting, considering or rejecting submissions. The Human Rights Council report on Cuba, like all UPR reports, is not a UN opinion but summarizes the scrutiny process and sets out the state's responses to all the criticism or praise.

The UN summarized the responses as follows: sixty of the recommendations by other states were supported by Cuba; seventeen recommendations would be "examined" and responded to by Cuba; and eleven recommendations "did not enjoy the support of Cuba".

The most positive responses came from developing countries. Several urged Cuba to "continue in the path towards the building of socialism", others praised its remarkable solidarity efforts and domestic achievements, especially in health and education. Cuba accepted recommendations to strengthen its treaty commitments, anti-discrimination programs, human rights education, youth programs, disabled support, gender equality, disaster management and general cooperation with UN agencies.

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Bolivia, the major recipient of Cuban health sector assistance (with more than 5,000 young Bolivians on Cuban medical scholarships) urged Cuba to keep sharing its experiences in health, science and cooperation. Others praised Cuba's sustained efforts in health cooperation.

Cuba accepted the recommendation of Brazil to maintain its moratorium on the death penalty (this has been suspended since 2003), and of Mexico to strengthen national capacities to assist the victims of domestic violence. It also accepted the Russian and Pakistani recommendations to maintain its efforts in support of religious freedom, respect and tolerance.

Cuba accepted recommendations from several delegations, including the Palestinians, to continue to promote and defend international self-determination and right to development initiatives. It agreed to "promote the active participation of civil society" in preparing the country's national human rights reports.

Cuba did not accept eleven recommendations from Israel and several of the European powers. It said these were either based on false premises or involved an interference with sovereign rights. For example, Israel and the United Kingdom had urged the repeal of laws by which citizens can be charged with collaborating with a foreign power to subvert the constitution, and urged the immediate release of "unlawfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists and others". Cuba says those referred to have been tried under legitimate sovereign law.

Canada had urged that Cuba lift restrictions on the media (e.g. allowing the prerogatives enjoyed elsewhere by private media companies) and several states urged the "unconditional" release of a group of 'political prisoners'. Many of these were arrested in 2003 and charged with collaboration with the Bush administration in the prelude to a feared invasion of Cuba, around the time of the Iraq invasion. Cuba says these convictions were based on evidence of payments made under US programs to overthrow the constitution of Cuba, against the will of the Cuban people. As well as being used in open court proceedings this evidence was published in several reports and books.

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There were several complaints about mistreatment of prisoners and poor health facilities in prison, but Cuba rejected the claims. For many years Cuba did not allow UN investigators into its prisons, anticipating a propaganda maneuver by the US. However in 2008 Jean Ziegler became the first of what is likely to be a series of UN investigators entering the country and the Cuban prison system.

Cuba took away to consider and respond to the recommendations that they: "ratify and implement" several human rights treaties they have recently signed, consider acceding to the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, establish a national human rights institution, invite more UN special rapporteurs, open further to independent international organizations such as the Red Cross, establish a UN led review of their prison system, review trial processes and travel permit arrangements to ensure they are consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and move towards complete abolition of the death penalty.

It is notable that no country raised any of the most serious violations against Cuba - such as torture, detention without trial, disappearances and kidnappings, death squads, wars of aggression, war crimes and rape by soldiers. The same cannot be said about some of Cuba's close neighbors.

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Tim Anderson is an academic and social activist based in Sydney, Australia

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