Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ten Years of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy: Reflections on the first decade

Reflection on ten years of summits and a call to attend the next one

The 10th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy convenes in Switzerland on February 20, 2018. Over the past decade this summit has been a vital space for dissenting voices to gather and engage in this important conversation to diagnose the problems challenging human rights and dignity and to do better and be better in order to turn the global decline of human rights around.

The first edition was held on April 19, 2009, "one day before the international community gather[ed] in Geneva to address racism, intolerance and persecution in the High-Level Segment of the UN Durban Review Conference (DRC)" and it had a longer title, "Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy" and the tag line, "Stop Discrimination, Go for Human Rights." UN Watch, a Geneva based NGO whose mission is "to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter", brought together an international coalition of nineteen organizations to co-sponsor the summit.

The founding members of the Coalition are: The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), AVEGA (Rwanda), CADAL (Argentina), Directorio (Cuba), Darfur Peace and Development Center (Sudan), Fondation Généreuse Développement (Cameroon), Freedom House (USA), Freedom Now (USA ), Groupe des Anciens Etudiants Réscapés du Genocide (Rwanda), Global Zimbabwe Forum (Zimbabwe), Human Rights Without Frontiers (Belgium),  International Federation of Liberal Youth, (United Kingdom), Ingenieurs du Monde (Switzerland) LICRA (France), SOS Racisme (France), Stop Child Executions (Canada), Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (USA), East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (Uganda), UN Watch (Switzerland). Ten year later the partners coalition has grown to 26.

Arielle Herzog, Leon Saltiel, Hillel C. Neuer and other UN Watch staff were the chief organizers of the first six editions and responsible for their great success and establishing this space for dialogue. UN Watch today continues to lead this coalition and build on this great legacy, but it is important to return to the beginning to see how we arrived were we are today.

The UN Durban Review Conference (DRC) of 2009 was one more example of the ongoing moral bankruptcy of the United Nations. The star speaker, and apparently the only head of state invited to speak, was Iran's notorious president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who engages in holocaust denial and has called for the destruction of Israel. This conference, ostensibly to confront the problem of racism, began a gathering point of the worse dictatorships on the planet to legitimize themselves.

Meanwhile, in marked contrast, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy was held at the Centre International de Conférences Genève, just down the street from the Palais des Nations UN compound were the DRC was being held. Human rights defenders, victims of repression and political dissidents gathered to share their experiences, bear witness and attempt to wield real political force from the power of human conscience. This is what the martyred Czech dissident and philosopher Jan Patočka called the "solidarity of the shaken'. This coalition called for an end to discrimination and for human rights promotion.

The first summit's inaugural speech was given by by Iranian Activist and President of Stop Child Executions, Nazanin Afshin Jam, who outlined the human rights situation in Iran. She addressed that under Iranian laws the life of a woman is worth half of a man's and other sexist practices, the execution of homosexuals, and the executions of minors. The Iranian activist also gave an overview of the summit that began at 9:00am and ended at 6:30pm.

The inaugural summit was divided into four sessions that were tied into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Session I was titled "Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity: Assessing the Genocide Convention After 60 Years" and the panel was made up by Irwin Cotler, Counsel for genocide victims and dissidents, Canadian MP, Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch and International Association of Genocide Scholars, Ester Murawajo, Tutsi survivor, founder of AVEGA and Dominique Sopo, President of SOS Racisme.  

Session II was titled "Resisting Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Democracy, and the Dissident Movement" with speakers Bo Kyi, Burmese dissident and winner of the Human Rights Prize from Human Rights Watch, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egyptian dissident, José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, Cuban dissident and prisoner of conscience, and Esra'a Al Shafei, dissident blogger, Mideast Youth - Thinking Ahead.

Session III was titled "Torture and Cruel and Inhuman Treatment" with speakers Nazanin Afshin-Jam, president of Stop Child Execution,  Parvez Sharma, Producer of the documentary Jihad for Love, and Ahmad Batebi, Iranian dissident.

Session IV was titled "Freedom of Expression and 'Defamation of Religion'" with panelists  Mohamed Sifaoui, Journalist, Algeria, Floyd Abrams, U.S. advocate for First Amendment press freedom,  Patrick Gaubert, President of LICRA and Member of the European Parliament.

The 2nd Geneva Summit was held on March 8-9, 2010, strategically timed to coincide with the main annual session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The objective of the 2010 Geneva Summit was to give voice to victims of the world’s worst abusers, empowering those who suffer repression under closed systems of government.

The program featured plenary sessions, workshops and training sessions over two days. A large portion of the program was dedicated to presentations—personal and compelling testimony—from victims of the world’s worst abusers.

On March 8, 2010 gave the opening address on behalf of the Geneva Summit Coalition for the second edition of the Geneva Summit. Sadly, these words remain relevant today, but now the global decline in political freedoms and civil liberties has expanded from four to thirteen years in a row.
Regrettably, the chief international body charged with protecting human rights is failing to live up to its mission to stop these and other abuses. The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council—as acknowledged in a recent report by 17 of its 47 member states, supported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists—falls short in its handling of country situations, in the efficiency of the process involved in highlighting violations, and in its reactivity to crisis situations. Strong politicization of the Council, driven by bloc-based voting patterns, has led to inaction in face of atrocity and abuse. We saw this sad spectacle last week within the Council, first with the secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights denying the documented and rampant instances of torture, executions, and mass detentions of Iranians followed by the Cuban Foreign Minister’s speech who echoing his Iranian colleague also denied Cuba’s horrible human rights record and to add insult to injury went on to blame the United States for the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo as well as slander the deceased Cuban prisoner of conscience as a criminal.

Little wonder that the March 1st magazine issue of Newsweek contains an article titled “The Downfall of Human Rights.” The article highlights Freedom House's report "Freedom in the World," released in January, and reveals a global decline in political freedoms and civil liberties for the fourth year in a row, the longest drop in the almost 40 years that the survey has been produced.
According to Summit organizers, "[m]ore then 800 people registered to attend the summit and over 1600 watched the live webcast. 35 dissidents and human rights activists took the floor to condemn and testify about some of the worst human rights situations around the world and issued a joint call for Internet Freedom around the world."

Cuban dissident Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina was denied an exit visa by the Castro regime despite being invited to attend the Geneva Summit, but the coalition did not stop there and started a campaign for him to attend.
30 NGOs from this Summit called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of Cuban human rights defender Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina barred by the Cuban dictatorship from attending this meeting. The Cuban ambassador protested loudly when Hillel Neuer of UN Watch raised the matter in an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner, but Nestor on the other hand was grateful that the UN Watch representative spoke up for his human rights.
In the end Nestor addressed the summit by phone, and would attend and address the 2012 Summit in person. Still remember the powerful and haunting testimony of Caspian Makan, human rights activist, and fiancé of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was murdered in Iran by pro-regime agents months earlier on June 20, 2009. Another speaker who made a powerful impression was Yang Jianli, activist in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, a former political prisoner, and founder of Initiatives for China and today a friend. The Geneva Summit created network of activists that remain in contact and continue to collaborate.

Cuban human rights defenders and victims of repression have had a voice at this gathering over the past decade to denounce their plight and call for human rights and freedom for Cuba. Former Cuban prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo (2009, 2010), Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia (2011), Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina (2012), Regis Iglesias (2013), and Juan Francisco Sigler Amaya (2015), human rights defender and daughter of martyred actvist Rosa Maria Paya (2013, 2016), human rights defender Damarys Moya Portieles (2014), human rights defender and social democrat Manuel Cuesta Morua (2015), and former prisoner of conscience, human rights defender and artist Danilo Maldonado El Sexto (2017). 

2013 was the last time I addressed the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy during the fifth edition of the gathering and less than seven months after Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante had been murdered by State Security on July 22, 2012. Present in the room were Rosa María Payá Acevedo, and Regis Iglesias Ramírez of the Christian Liberation Movement. Both had addressed the meeting.
The 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy today is an opportunity for reflection. Unfortunately, the human rights situation around the world has not improved over the past five years and in many instances worsened. The question is why? Cuban democratic opposition activist, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, when awarded the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought on December 17, 2002 observed that “The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized.” The past decade has demonstrated that he was right.
Cuban state security has worked for decades trying to discredit and silence authentic dissident voices and continues to today with their agents and agents of influence.  It is a constant struggle to frustrate their efforts. They are willing to lie, slander, assault and even murder those who have the courage to dissent. The 2012 killings of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero and the aftermath demonstrate this.

For decades Cuban victims of repression said that nobody listened, and in 1987 an award winning documentary titled "Nobody Listened" interviewed Cuban political prisoners and human rights defenders describing the lack of international solidarity.  Over the past ten years thanks to the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy their voices have been heard. 

This is the first reflection on the past decade of Geneva Summits.  The next summit begins on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 at 9:00am. For more information visit the Geneva Summit website here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Journal of the American Medical Association: 21 U.S. Embassy Staff in Cuba had concussion-like symptoms

The mystery deepens and the injuries are serious.

U.S. Embassy in Havana
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a preliminary report on February 15, 2018 and an accompanying editorial studying health impacts on 21 U.S. government employees in Havana between December 2016 and August 2017. These individuals had severe injuries and the bottom line on medical findings are that:
Concussion-like symptoms were observed in U.S. government personnel in Cuba after they reported hearing intensely loud sounds in their homes and hotel rooms and feeling changes in air pressure caused by an unknown source. The symptoms were consistent with brain injury although there was no history of head trauma.
Castro regime officials on October of 2017 said talk of acoustic strikes was “science fiction” and accused Washington of “slander.” investigating U.S. complaints of attacks that sickened American diplomats in Havana. Denials later in October and their narrative was that the alleged noise behind the “sonic attacks” was coming from cicadas and crickets. Cuban scientists convened by the government argued that the symptoms were the product of a "mass psychogenic illness"(MPI). However the JAMA report said MPI was unlikely because some of the individuals had no idea others had been affected and it "is often associated with transient, benign symptoms with rapid onset and recovery often beginning with older individuals.”

Last month on January 9, 2018 the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the subject of the 2016-2017 attacks on U.S. diplomats and dependents stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Senator Menendez asked when officials became aware that brain trauma was involved and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, of the Medical Director for the Bureau of Medical Services, responded that the first patient was medically evacuated on February 6, 2017 and over the next two months evacuated 40 people.

Some Canadian diplomats were also impacted. The regime in Cuba has a long track record of outlaw behavior against foreign diplomats, but this would be an escalation. This also raises the question if concessions towards the Castro regime between 2014 and 2017 worsen the dictatorship's behavior?

The Journal of the American Medical Association
JAMA concludes that "[t]he unique circumstances of these patients and the clinical manifestations detailed in this report raise concern about a new mechanism for possible acquired brain injury from an exposure of unknown origin."

This is not to be taken lightly.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

2018 SOUTHCOM Posture statement: Cuba’s negative influence in Venezuela, support for North Korea

Excerpts from today's testimony mentioning Cuba.



15 FEBRUARY 2018


Russia’s increased role in our hemisphere is particularly concerning, given its intelligence and cyber capabilities, intent to upend international stability and order, and discredit democratic institutions. Russia is a strategic competitor actively seeking to degrade U.S. partnerships and undermine U.S. interests in the region. Moscow attempts to falsely shape Latin America's information environment through its two dedicated Spanish-language news and multi-media services, and through its influence campaigns to sway public sentiment. Expanded port and logistics access in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela provide Russia with persistent, pernicious presence, including more frequent maritime intelligence collection and visible force projection in the Western Hemisphere. The sanctuary of robust relationships with these three countries provides Russia with a regional platform to target U.S. and partner nation facilities and assets, exert negative influence over undemocratic governments, and employ strategic options in the event of a global contingency. Left unchecked, Russian access and placement could eventually transition from a regional spoiler to a critical threat to the U.S. homeland.

Additionally, North Korea may use its small presence in Latin America to do us harm while also looking to develop expanded economic and diplomatic partnerships. We remain concerned that Pyongyang could use its limited footprint in the region to collect or plot against us. Given the permissive environment in the region, North Korean efforts to generate revenue, and its history of working with supporters like Cuba to circumvent sanctions, North Korea is likely to engage in some form of illicit activity in Latin America.

Challenges to U.S. interests are not limited to extra-hemispheric actors. From a national security standpoint, Cuba has demonstrated clear intent to target U.S. interests through collection, surveillance, and counterintelligence activities in countries throughout the region. It has also demonstrably failed in its international obligation to protect diplomatic personnel. The planned political transition this spring is unlikely to change Cuba’s approach, diminish the military’s position of influence, or alter continued cooperation with Russia, China, and even North Korea on a range of security, political, and economic issues. Cuba’s negative influence in Venezuela—notably through its intelligence service and Armed Forces, which play key advisory roles shaping Venezuelan domestic policy —is evident in the Maduro regime’s increasingly authoritarian tactics and human rights abuses. This relationship is symbiotic, as Cuba receives oil and financial support in exchange for keeping the Maduro regime afloat.


Venezuela has long provided a permissive environment for narco-terrorist groups and Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, and is a transit country for the smuggling of illicit drugs and SIAs. The continued assault on democratic institutions provides increased space for illicit actors to operate with impunity, and for Russia, China, and Cuba to expand their influence over the corrupt Maduro regime. The next few months will likely prove critical, with a presidential election, continued economic deterioration, and widespread shortages of medicine, food, electricity, and consumer goods.

Complete testimony available here.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Year one of the Trump Administration and a new Cuba policy: Trade is up and detentions are down

A look at some numbers for 2017 and U.S. - Cuba relations.
President Trump at the Manuel Artime Theater with Cuban Americans in 2017
Cuba in 2017 remained a repressive totalitarian regime with prisoners of conscience, and a one-party communist dictatorship that has used its military and intelligence apparatus to control Venezuela, turning that nation into a colony that it is plundering.Things had gotten worse for Cubans, especially following the Obama Administration's engagement with the Castro dictatorship, including a state visit in March of 2016. The current Administration has rolled back a number of Obama era Cuba policies, spoken out on the human rights situation in Cuba, and Ambassador Nikki Haley defended the morality of U.S. sanctions on the Castro regime.

Despite the claim by the architect of the previous Administration's Cuba policy, that President Trump's turn around on the Obama Administration's Cuba policy would fail, trade between the United States and Cuba was at its highest level in 2017 following its collapse between 2014 and 2016 when the previous Administration was pushing its new Cuba policy.

President Barack Obama announced his new Cuba policy on December 17, 2014 and the following year U.S. trade in goods with Cuba dropped $118.9 million from $299.1 million in 2014 to $180.2 million in 2015. This economic relationship has improved under the Trump Administration despite news that the Cuban economy is worsening and the regime's creditors are nervous.

Trade peaked under Bush in 2008 and began a steady decline under Obama
Obama Cuba policy flawed
President Obama downplayed commuting the sentences of three Cuban spies, including Gerardo Hernandez who was serving a life sentence for his role in a murder conspiracy that claimed four innocent lives in 1996 and freed them the same day.  This was part of the price paid to free an American hostage, Alan Gross, that had been an impediment to normalized relations.

President Obama does the wave with Raul Castro at a baseball game in Cuba
The Obama Administration apparently ignored the mysterious attacks that began in November of 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Havana when 24 American diplomats and their dependents suffered severe injuries, including brain trauma.

On the human rights front the Obama Administration's new Cuba policy was also a disaster. The suspicious deaths of human rights defenders such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (2012), and Harold Cepero Escalante (2012) is a terrifying alternative to the long prison sentences that the Castro regime would use to take opposition leaders out of circulation, as was the case in 2003, during the Bush administration.

Some of the Cubans killed by the Castro regime during the Obama years
Over the eight years of the previous Administration (January 2009 through January 2017) high profile activists met untimely deaths that appear to have been carried by Castro's state security service. The same spy agency that President Obama's October 2016 Presidential Directive on Cuba orders the CIA to share intelligence with.

The number of politically motivated arbitrary detentions documented by the Havana based, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation since 2008 demonstrates a dramatic rise in repression between 2008 and 2016, that spiked dramatically in the year of the Obama Administration's new Cuba policy announcement in 2014 from 6,424 arbitrary detentions in 2013 to 8,899 in 2014. This also occurred with troubling incidents of violence by regime agents.

 During President Obama's last year in office the number of arbitrary detentions reached their highest number since 2010 with 9,940 arbitrary detentions. Despite this, on his way out of office in January 2017, President Obama closed the door on Cuban refugees.

Under Trump's first year a dramatic reduction in arbitrary detentions in Cuba
During 2017 there were 5,155 Cubans arbitrarily detained, and although still far too high, it is a dramatic improvement over 2016. There are still prisoners of conscience enduring horrid and dangerous conditions in Cuban prisons and dissenters sent to psychiatric institutions for punishment.

However in the area of religious freedom. Things have gotten worse in Cuba. "From January to December 2017 Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) recorded 325 separate violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba. Christians across a wide range of denominations were affected. Many of these cases involved large numbers of victims. By comparison, CSW reported 220 FoRB violations in Cuba in 2014, 180 in 2013, 120 in 2012 and 40 in 2011."

Overall the changes in tone and substance by the current Administration, so far, have been an improvement over the previous failed policy of the prior Administration that scrapped an old policy that was containing the regime, replacing it with one that legitimized the dictatorship, marginalized democrats, and negatively impacted U.S. interests.

The Trump Administration has taken positive steps, with its policy changes on Cuba, but more needs to be done.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Venezuela's National Youth Day on February 12, 2014 was a defining moment: Students rose up and Maduro murdered them.

"Gentlemen, he who is here will go out tomorrow to find a better future." - Bassil Alejandro Dacosta, age 24 , over Facebook on February 11, 2014. He was murdered the next day by the Maduro regime.

Robert Redman and Bassil Alejandro Dacosta murdered four years ago today
Four years ago today nonviolent student protesters Bassil Da Costa and Robert Redman were gunned down on February 12, 2014 in Venezuela, while engaged in nonviolent street protests against the government of Nicolas Maduro. Robert Redman was shot and killed hours after he had carried Bassil, who had also been shot and died earlier that same day, and tweeted about it.

"Today I was hit with a rock in the back, a helmet in my nose. I swallowed tear-gas, carried the kid who died, and what did you do?" - Robert Redman, age 28 over twitter on February 12, 2014 
On February 12, 2014 Venezuela's National Youth Day millions of young students took to the streets to nonviolently protest "the social and economic crisis caused by the illegitimate government that Venezuela has today."  

Robert Redman with other youths carrying Bassil Dacosta on February 12, 2014.
Young Venezuelans inside and outside of the country mobilized in a coherent and sustained effort to expose the anti-democratic nature of the Maduro regime. A full and brief explanation was offered by Andreina Nash at the time in the video titled: What's going on in Venezuela in a nutshell.


The violence had escalated in the days prior to February 12th. On February 11, 2014 in an update via twitter from Roderick Navarro and Guido Mercado they reported: wounded by bullets today: Jorge Monsalve 20 years old, Franco Perez 15 years old (Thorax), Pedro Alison 24 years old (Left arm), Anny Paredes 36 years old (Abdomen). 

Student nonviolently faces off with a security vehicle holding up a flag in 2014
These students continue to face a government that over the past eighteen years has been stripping Venezuela's democracy of all its constitutional and institutional democratic safeguards in order to consolidate power into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and in the presidency. At the same time the presence of both Cuban state security and military officials in the country who have presided over the building of a totalitarian apparatus is cause for great concern. They have used technological tools to censor images over twitter. Over the past 18 years independent television press outlets have been taken over or shutdown by the government. 

Brutal repression against students in Venezuela in 2014
Four years later and across Venezuela the youth still remember the fallen and the Maduro regime's repressive forces who murdered them. They have not forgotten and it marked a before and after in the history of the South American country. Ana Karina Garcia over twitter stated in Spanish that, " February 12, 2014 marked us as a generation. Bassil Da Costa, Juancho Montoya and Robert Redman were murdered by the tyranny while they were in the streets demanding a country of opportunities. #AHeroIsNotForgotten"