U.N. official fooled by Cuba's `positive engagement'

Speaking at a recent press conference, the United Nations' highest human rights official, Louise Arbour, declared that Cuba is showing ''unprecedented positive engagement with the U.N. human rights system.'' The facts, however, show the complete opposite, and her undue praise will only encourage Havana's egregious record at the world body and toward its own citizens at home.

On Feb. 8, at the end of a visit to Mexico, Arbour justified her top grades for Cuba by, among other things, pointing to its expected signature of two international human rights treaties. What those paper commitments will mean, however, are questionable at best. Cuba is already an original signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet its most basic guarantees are materially breached by the Castro police state.

Instead of praising the regime, Arbour should condemn it for repressing all forms of dissent through a state apparatus of prosecutions, surveillance, arrests and restrictions on movement. She should speak out for a people who is systematically denied its basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy and due process of law.

Despite the latest deal with Spain that freed seven, Cuba's prisons still hold more than 200 prisoners of conscience, including many journalists who have languished behind bars since the Black Spring crackdown of March 2003.

Similarly, its record at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where Cuba is chair of the powerful Non-Aligned Movement, is hardly an example of ``unprecedented positive engagement.''

On the contrary, among the repressive regimes on the 47-nation council, none has been more vociferous than Cuba in leading efforts to extinguish the few remaining mechanisms of human rights scrutiny.

Most notoriously, last June, Cuba successfully put an end to the council mandate investigating that country's abuses. This was after Cuba's representatives had regularly insulted Christine Chanet, who dutifully held the position. Indeed, Cuba routinely assails any U.N. human rights expert or nongovernmental organization that dares to speak out for Cuba's victims of violations.

In an October 2007 study by the Democracy Coalition Project, countries were evaluated by their support for council mechanisms addressing violations in specific countries, ensuring that the new periodic review of all states would be more than a toothless exercise and protecting the independence of country and thematic investigators.

In all cases, Cuba was found to have voted on the wrong side, acting to eviscerate Kofi Annan's original plan for an effective council. Cuba also has continued its practice of sending state-controlled ''NGOs'' to the council in order to attack the work of independent experts -- such as the now-terminated Chanet -- while it continues to deny that right to legitimate Cuban human rights activists. Is this ``unprecedented positive engagement?''

Another example Arbour cited was that Cuba -- which hitherto denied entry to U.N. investigators -- recently received an official visit by Switzerland's Jean Ziegler, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food.

That visit was indeed an example -- only not of Cuba's openness, but rather of its cynical subversion of the U.N. human rights system.

As everyone in Geneva knows, Ziegler is a radical Marxist who has for decades been a sworn loyalist of the Castro regime. His trip was a stage-managed Potemkin visit for international consumption, designed to cleanse Cuba's U.N. reputation after the elimination of Chanet's mandate.

If the Human Rights Council applied its own rules, Ziegler should have been forced to recuse himself from reporting on Cuba.

While in Cuba, Ziegler declined an invitation to meet dissidents because, he said, it might ''put in danger'' his hosts' ''openness.'' Instead, he hailed the Castro regime as a model government -- ''in the vanguard of the struggle for the right to food'' -- making Ziegler the only U.N. human rights expert whose country investigations praise, rather than critique, government actions. So what was Arbour thinking? Perhaps that compliments would encourage Havana in the right direction.

But if the past is any guide, the high commissioner ought to know that the communist regime -- which just held elections featuring only one candidate for each position -- will use her endorsement to bolster its rule to the detriment of the island's victims of gross and systematic human rights violations.

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO in Geneva.

Copyright 2008, Miami Herald

Copyright UN Watch