Frank and Candid Conversations About Human Rights in Cuba

Yesterday was an historic day for US-Cuba relations. President Obama and almost 40 members of Congress, including both Republicans and Democrats, traveled to Havana for an unprecedented visit. President Obama spoke warmly about the growing rapprochement between both countries, and the opportunities that opening diplomatic relations creates for both people (full text here). He also spoke candidly about human rights, acknowledging the enormous achievement of Cuba in healthcare and education but stressing the importance of basic civil and political rights for all people. The President said:

At the same time, as we do wherever we go around the world, I made it clear that the United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future. We’ll speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly and religion. Indeed, I look forward to meeting with and hearing from Cuban civil society leaders tomorrow.

The President was right to bring attention to universal human rights. But the casual observer might wonder if the same deep and trenchant concern for human rights extend equally to all parts of the island. As of January 2016, the United States continues to hold 91 men in prison at the incongruously named Camp Justice. Thirty-four of those men have been cleared for release and continue to be held indefinitely without trial, rehabilitation, or reparations for the torture and inhumane treatment they have experienced as detainees. Another 28 men have been identified as too dangerous to release and will be held without trial indefinitely in this “fuzzy forever war.”

As the Senate Torture Report so brutally exposed, some of these detainees were waterboarded, sodomized, subjected to sustained sleep deprivation, and psychologically ill-treated in multiple and varied ways, including the use of culturally unacceptable practices to break their spirits and minds. The ongoing and indefinite nature of their arbitrary detention, the lack of meaningful access to family members, the deprivation of meaningful consular access, the inadequacy of their medical and psychological care, and the inattention to any substantive rehabilitation arguably constitute ongoing ill-treatment that meets the torture definition under international law.

We should take seriously the President’s words that universal human rights matter. But those words are not merely external obligations that we benevolently visit upon other states, and certainly not to an island state where we maintain effective control over part of its territory. On the part of the island of Cuba where the enforcement of universal human rights obligations is within the control of the United States, the most basic human rights of fundamental due process, equality of arms in legal procedure, dignity, and a right to be free from torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment continue to be denied. If we are to be frank and candid about human rights in Cuba, the mirror turns right back to us. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).