U.N. members offer 339 suggestions on how Cuba can improve human rights record

Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, left, speaks with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during an EU-Cuba Joint council in Brussels on May 15, before heading to Geneva for a United Nations review of Cuba's  human rights record.
Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, left, speaks with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during an EU-Cuba Joint council in Brussels on May 15, before heading to Geneva for a United Nations review of Cuba's human rights record. AP

United Nations members have recommended that Cuba establish an independent national human rights institution, immediately release prisoners of conscience and end the harassment of human rights activists.

Those suggestions were among 339 recommendations in a draft report on Cuba adopted by a U.N. working group that is reviewing progress Cuba is making on fulfilling its human rights commitments. Cuba was one of 14 member nations whose human rights records were reviewed this year by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

The final report is expected to be published in a few weeks after official translations are completed. Cuba, which was reviewed on May 16, will be given a chance to respond to the recommendations.

Some were aimed at Cuba becoming a signatory to more international human rights conventions, but others like those from the United States were more pointed.

The United States recommended that Cuba reform its one-party political system to allow for free and fair multi-party elections; stop arbitrarily detaining journalists, opposition members and human rights defenders; and adopt a legal framework that ensures judicial independence.

During his presentation before the working group last week, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez defended Cuba's political system, saying "there is not a unique democracy model."

He added: "Our electoral processes are not media contests among elitist political parties in which candidates make promises they do not keep."

Compliance with other suggestions by some of Cuba's friends will be easier. Venezuela, for example, recommended that Cuba "keep denouncing the negative impact of the criminal economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States .... which affects the enjoyment of human rights."

The U.N. Human Rights Council said the recommendations came from individual nations and aren't necessarily endorsed by the working group as a whole. During the Cuba review, 143 nations made statements.

During Cuba's last review in 2013, it received 292 recommendations. It accepted 230 of them, took note of others and rejected 20 because it said they were interventionist.

Rodríguez emphasized Cuba's achievements in healthcare and education and chastised the U.S. embargo as a major factor in depriving Cubans of their human rights. In his report, he said that Cuba was one of the safest countries in the world with low homicide rates and no legal sales or traffic in firearms and that Cuba is currently in the process of reforming its constitution.

But he said: "In Cuba, the legal system cannot be infringed upon or subverted to satisfy a foreign agenda that calls for a change of regime."

Here's a sampling of this year's recommendations for Cuba:

Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cabo Verde, France, Portugal, Switzerland and New Zealand all suggested that Cuba abolish the death penalty, and Liechtenstein, Rwanda and Italy said it should consider abolishing it.

Ireland and Australia recommended the end to arbitrary arrests of political activists, and New Zealand advocated for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.

The Ladies in White, a dissident group that calls for the release of political prisoners, making their weekly march in Havana on Sunday, March 20, 2016, just before former President Barack Obama arrived for a three-day visit to the island. Rebecca Blackwell AP

Canada recommended providing legal status for NGOs and independent journalists.

A number of nations recommended that Cuba take steps to ensure the right of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to form peaceful associations.

There were several recommendations to set up an independent national human rights institution. Among the nations that advocated for versions of this were Botswana, Costa Rica, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mexico, Nepal, Togo, Portugal, Uruguay, Niger, France, Poland and Zambia.

The United States also recommended release of all individuals who have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned for peaceful assembly, investigating and reporting on government activity, or expressing political dissent. It also said such individuals should be allowed to travel freely both domestically and internationally.

Before the Geneva review, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said there were "deeply worrying reports that officials in Cuba have prevented a number of human rights defenders and civil society representatives from boarding flights to travel to meetings abroad on the pretext of requiring more detailed identity checks."

It said it had received reports of 14 such cases this year and expressed hope that Cuban authorities wouldn't prevent human rights defenders and civil society representatives from traveling to the Geneva meeting. But the United States complained that such activists were prevented from traveling to both the 2018 Summit of the Americas in Lima and to take part in the periodic review process in Geneva.

Many nations recommended that Cuba ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Cuba says it has already signed 44 of 61 human rights conventions.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi