Letter urging High Commissioner Arbour to clarify her position on Cuba and UN official Jean Ziegler

Statements and Letters

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The Honourable Louise Arbour
High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN Office Geneva
1211 Geneva 10

14 February 2008

Dear Madame High Commissioner,

UN Watch is deeply concerned by news reports quoting you on Friday as having praised Cuba for showing “unprecedented positive engagement with the UN human rights system,” and as praising Cuba’s hosting of UN official Jean Ziegler as an example of such engagement. With respect, we believe the facts show the very opposite.

1. Cuba should be criticized for its human rights record, not praised

We are concerned that your unqualified praise of Cuba regarding human rights may be misinterpreted and misused. Whatever international commitments it may sign on to on paper, Cuba remains a police state that has been widely criticized as a serial human rights violator. The government represses all forms of dissent through a state apparatus of prosecutions, surveillance, arrests and restrictions on movement. Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, and due process of law. Cuba’s prisons currently hold 234 prisoners of conscience, including many journalists who have languished behind bars since their arrest during the “Black Spring” crackdown of March 2003. We urge you to make clear your position on Cuba’s human rights record.

2. Cuba leads efforts to subvert UN human right mechanisms

Second, regarding Cuba’s actions within the UN human rights system, we urge you to recognize that among all the repressive regimes on the Human Rights Council, none has been more vociferous than Cuba in leading efforts to eliminate or subvert the few remaining mechanisms of human rights scrutiny and protection. Most notoriously, in June 2007, Cuba successfully put an end to the mandate investigating that country’s abuses. Prior to doing so, it had regularly insulted the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Christine Chanet.1 Indeed, Cuba routinely shows contempt for any UN human rights expert or non-governmental organization that dares to speak out for Cuba’s victims of violations.

According to the October 2007 study by the Democracy Coalition Project, Cuba in the past year has systematically voted to undermine institutions of human rights scrutiny:

• On the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Cuba ensured that the countries under review shall themselves control the review process, acting as the primary suppliers of information, while it opposed the role of experts and independent human rights groups.

• Cuba demanded and obtained governmental control over the appointment process of the independent experts.

• Cuba pushed for the creation of a “Code of Conduct” for all of the Council’s independent experts, designed to cow them into silence.

• Cuba demanded the elimination of all country-specific mandates, which has already succeeded in eliminating the mandates on Belarus and Cuba.

• Cuba last year voted to discontinue the Council’s confidential investigations of human rights violations in Iran and in Uzbekistan.

• Regarding the atrocities in Darfur, Cuba was among the states that sought to subvert the Council’s investigation team to Darfur by embedding pro-Sudan government representatives, instead of independent experts.

• Cuba opposed admitting the Report of the High-Level Mission to Darfur.

In addition, Cuba has continued its practice of sending state-controlled “NGOs” to the Council in order to attack the work of independent experts such as Ms. Chanet, while it continues to deny legitimate Cuban human rights activists the right to leave Cuba and appear before the Council.

In sum, the government of Cuba has used every opportunity to eliminate, oppose or undermine the independent mechanisms of the UN human rights system.

3. Cuba’s hosting of Jean Ziegler is evidence of Cuban subversion of the UN, not “unprecedented positive engagement”

Third, we urge you to recognize that Cuba’s October 2007 hosting of Mr. Ziegler—a sworn loyalist of the Castro regime, whose very position at the UN is a product of Cuban sponsorship—was nothing but a propaganda exercise, designed to cleanse Cuba’s reputation after the mandate of Ms. Chanet was eliminated; and that this was indeed a classic example not of Cuba’s openness, but—on the contrary—of Cuba’s cynical subversion of the UN human rights system.

We find it difficult to understand how you could praise Cuba’s invitation of Mr. Ziegler in light of (a) Cuba’s decades-long political ties with Mr. Ziegler, including sponsorship of his mandate; and (b) the actual results of that mission, which, by any measure, were embarrassing to the Human Rights Council and the UN as a whole.

(3)(a) Jean Ziegler’s political ties to Cuba violate UN impartiality principles

As everyone in Geneva knows, Jean Ziegler has for decades enjoyed intimate ties to the Cuban regime, which—if the Human Rights Council were to follow its own rules or the basic rules of justice—should have required him to recuse himself from reporting on Cuba. These ties include:

• Cuba was the official sponsor of Ziegler’s UN appointment and renewal in 2000, 2003 and 2007. (See UN Resolutions E/CN.4/2000/L.19, E/CN.4/2003/L.27, and Resolution A/HRC/6/L.5, all listing Cuba as sponsor.)

• In 1998, Fidel Castro was awarded the Moammar Khaddafi Prize for Human Rights, an award co-founded by Jean Ziegler nine years earlier, and which is managed by the “North-South XXI” organization where Mr. Ziegler is a vice-president of a related North South XXI entity.

• Mr. Ziegler has boasted of his lifetime fascination with the Castro regime:

“[I]n 1964, Jean Ziegler … spent a long day serving as chauffeur to the revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, who was here as head of a Cuban trade delegation… Ziegler told Guevara that he wanted to emigrate to Cuba, to help the young Communist nation build a more just society. Guevara motioned to the shimmering lights of the wealthy lakeside city below. ‘Here is the brain of the monster,’ the revolutionary told the scholar. ‘Your fight is here.’” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 23, 1998.)

(3)(b) Ziegler’s mission to Cuba biased from the start

Before, during, and after his 10-day mission to Cuba, Mr. Ziegler hailed the Castro regime as a model government—“in the vanguard of the struggle for the right to food”—making him the only U.N. human rights expert whose country investigations praise, rather than critique, government actions. While in Cuba, Mr. Ziegler declined an invitation to meet dissidents because, he said, it might “put in danger” his hosts’ “openness.” As planned, both Mr. Ziegler and the Cuban government made great propaganda use of his visit, before and after:

• “Ziegler says that his invitation is ‘a signal that Cuba is opening up’… and wants to cooperate actively with the new UN Human Rights Council.” (“Cuba invites UN envoy from Switzerland,” SwissInfo, October 28, 2007.)

• “Making use of great creativity, Cuba has been able to deal with food limitations and the suffering caused by the US economic blockade, said the UN Special Rapporteur.” (“US Blockade of Cuba, an Attack on the Declaration of Human Rights,” Cuban News Agency (ACN), October 30, 2007.)

• “Ziegler said he did not see any undernourished person in Cuba, something that is commonplace in other countries… The visit to Cuba by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food expresses the will of the island to resume this kind of cooperation with the world and non-discriminatory mechanisms of the UN in the field of human rights.” (“UN Rapporteur: Cuba Protects its People’s Right to Food,” Cuban News Agency (CAN), November 7, 2007.)

Other examples abound.


In light of the above, we urge you to clarify your statement that Cuba is showing “unprecedented positive engagement with the UN human rights system,” as well as your praise of Cuba for arranging the Ziegler mission. It is vital that you do so because, if the past is any guide, we fear that Havana’s Communist government—which just held elections featuring only one candidate for each position—will use your statement to bolster its dictatorial regime to the detriment of the island’s victims of gross and systematic human rights violations. It is these victims who now look to your moral clarity and leadership.

Yours truly,

Hillel Neuer
Executive Director


1  Speaking before the Council plenary on September 26, 2006, Cuban Ambassador Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios said Ms. Chanet’s ’s report was “libelous,” and that it “does not deserve any respect or credibility. We will send it to the same place that we have sent all previous reports: the paper-recycling bin. . . There is, however, Madame, a significant contribution that you might make—and that would be by quitting.”

UN Watch