The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Cuba to represent Latin America
on United Nations body

Mireya Castaneda

When the Latin American and Caribbean group of the UN's Human Rights Commission (HRC) elected Cuba to the Standing Committee, it was unanimous acknowledgement of Cuba's immensely prestigious reputation following a decade of work with that organisation.

The news hit the media controlled by the major powers and resulted in commentaries against the Cuban presence on the Committee.

Why such a major reaction? The reasons were explained to Granma International by Cuban diplomat Juan Antonio Fernández, who was head of the HRC delegation during the 1959-1960 period, and who is now director of multilateral affairs at the Cuba's Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

What is the Standing Committee?

The Standing Committee is part of what is known as the 1503 confidential process which responds to the HRC and makes reports on individuals, groups or organisations in relation to alleged violations. It is the first step in the process before the reports reach the Commission. Prior to that, they arrive at the Communications Committee where expert Miguel Alfonso Martin also represents Cuba.

What are its functions?

The Standing Committee reports on recommendations that are first made by the Communications Committee. It analyses and considers each case and then there are several options: to discontinue the reports, put them on a pending status while more information is sought, or submit them to the Commission.

What are the standards that the Committee must follow in carrying out its analysis?

To demonstrate there is a serious, large-scale, and continuous pattern of human rights violations. That is not to say that an isolated incident would not conform to a situation that could be considered serious, large-scale, and systematic. The group makes its decisions and submits its considerations to the HRC, and during its next period — from March 14 to April 21 — will devote two sessions to reviewing the recommendations and making a decision. The Standing Committee has an important role because it is the gateway to the HRC.

Who are its members?

It has members from five countries, one for each regional group. At the end of last year and continuing through into the beginning of this year, four new members were elected.

The African group elected Zimbabwe; The Western European and Others group elected Holland; The East European group elected Hungary and the Asian and Oceanic group elected Saudi Arabia. Only the Latin American group had failed to elect a candidate.

Our candidate was nominated a year ago and we were just waiting for the endorsement of the Latin American and Caribbean group which was delayed a little. The delay was not unconnected to certain behind-the-scenes manoeuvres which we knew about, regarding a certain extra-regional power that was interested in making sure that Cuba was not elected.

Finally, two weeks ago, in response to a proposal by the Group's coordinator Argentina, the Latin American group unanimously voted to endorse our nomination and fortunately, the elections were completed.

The election provoked different reactions. Could you comment?

After the election, we read press organs controlled by the major power blocs, and statements by certain so-called non-governmental and governmental organisations, some of which are a clear cover for the CIA. I am referring basically to the Reporteurs Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department's spokesperson, all of whom, using insulting phrases, strongly criticised the membership of both Cuba and Zimbabwe to the HRC.

I believe that what is most important is that our election is an acknowledgment of the role and prestige that Cuba enjoys on that Commission. The fact that we can have our own voice, with absolute independence and freedom, and that for more than a decade our presence on the HRC has been precisely the result of our ethical stance, in defence of the most just causes taken up by the Commission, and a rejection of the enormous politicisation, the double standards, the hypocrisy that from the '90s until the present has encumbered the HRC's work and that has caused its credibility to decline, a fact I believe that is recognised by everyone.

These criticisms and concerns are not fortuitous either. What happened in the past was that the major power blocs, the Western countries and the United States, could easily manipulate all these mechanisms, whilst the Standing Committee only devoted its time to making recommendations on alleged human rights violations in countries in the south, and we were always condemned by the HRC.

Fortunately, things have changed and the Committee has changed accordingly, and has before it numerous — hundreds, if not thousands — of reports which, according to world public opinion, are the most serious human rights violations being committed in what President Fidel Castro has referred to as "an international torture centre" in the illegal naval base at Guantánamo on our territory.

In addition to this are reports on the abhorrent torture and mistreatment practiced at the Abu Ghraib prison in occupied Iraq. Also there have been hundreds of reports on our five heroes, reports from all over the world [Cuban Five imprisoned in the US]. It is a cause that numerous sectors and Cuba solidarity groups around the world have taken on.

The committee also has dealt with numerous violations of human rights in industrialised countries associated with racism, growing xenophobia in the developed world, anti-immigration policies that also violate human rights, discrimination against minorities and indigenous people.

Now they are concerned because of Cuba's presence on this Standing Committee, because they are in the dock and not us. We are going to see the final result of these reports, some of which are in favour and others, against.

Cuba enjoys a certain prestige within the HRC. Not like the United States that was expelled from the Commission and subsequently gave the seat away so that it would not be submitted to a vote. We always have been elected.

How is the HRC's forthcoming 61st Session taking shape?

A particularly complex situation is going to take place. HRC is going through a serious identity and credibility crisis because of the hypocrisy and double standards it has practiced. For the last 15 years Cuba has denounced it and it seems that it reached receptive ears.

In a report delivered to the UN Secretary General, the Threats, Challenges and Change group stated the following with respect to the HRC: "In the last few years, less credibility and less professionalism have caused a decline in the Commission's ability to carry out its functions. The Commission cannot be a credible institution when it applies different standards to address human rights questions."

If they lacked the proof of where the HRC had failed, it was right there.

This period will be a litmus test, to see if it can move forward along the road towards rectification, and cease its selective condemnations. For example, during its last session, it could not even meet to discuss the aggression against Iraq. Cuba's proposal regarding the status of prisoners in Guantánamo where the use of torture is systematic is still pending.

Can you disclose what Cuba's participation will be?

We are again ready to confront the manoeuvres against our country. Ready to defend what is true and we will also present different motions, covering the right to food, a position against foreign debt, condemnation of the use of mercenaries, the right to peace, and the permanent condemnation of the situation of our five heroes imprisoned in the United States.

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