Cuba Being on the UN Human Rights Council Is a Travesty | Opinion

The Cuban government is settling into its new role as an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Juxtapose this against recent news of eight Cuban migrants, including two expectant mothers, rescued after capsizing in a styrofoam boat en route to Florida. In the face of seemingly irreconcilable headlines, we must ask—how can one of the foremost perpetrators of human rights abuses assume a credible role on the international stage?

Evidence points to increasing repression on the island, with Amnesty International recognizing six official prisoners of conscience representing only a fraction of those detained. And a dissident music video has grabbed international attention with impassioned lyrics and reggaeton beats. It is in this context that it is so jarring to hear the Cuban representative assert to the UN at the ongoing 46th session of the Human Rights Council that "Cuba has given irrefutable proof of its firm commitment to the promotion and protection of the human rights of its people and other peoples in the world."

As a Cuban-American human rights lawyer with a decade-long career at the UN, the legitimization of Cuba as a valid human rights player brings me great personal and professional anguish. I reflect upon the history of my family, exiled from the island in 1961. My grandfather was a revolutionary seeking a free Cuba. He championed the insurrection against the repressive Batista dictatorship—an initial attempt at authentic nationalism that sadly fell prey to socialism. He rose to a position of prominence in the early Castro government, only to be betrayed by the quick onset of violence in the regime. Seeing the writing on the wall, he prepared for his family's exodus to Miami, and in so doing caught the attention of the CIA, culminating in being asked by the American government to assassinate Fidel Castro as confirmed by declassified documents.

Seated only a few feet away from Castro at his desk as first secretary, my grandfather was prevented from killing him by moral compunction—a fact that Castro vehemently rejected. While the details are lost in history, what is clear is that Castro, and his Cuban revolutionary government, lived to take their toll. Having put his family on a plane to Miami, my grandfather left his position, taking asylum in an embassy. He remained there for three years, waiting for his own safe passage. Meanwhile, his family in Florida, including my teenage mother, led the rallying cry for his freedom, picketing, handing out leaflets and contacting heads of state to get him out of Cuba.

I recall cousins arriving in Miami in the 1990s, starved thin and battered by sun and sea, having just barely survived the trek across the ocean on a wooden plank—a few of their companions lost on the way, having succumbed to sharks. Regardless of one's stance on American obligations toward Cuban refugees, conditions on the island must be far from ideal to inspire so many struggling Cubans over the decades to risk the treacherous trip to freedom.

UN Human Rights Council in September 2020
UN Human Rights Council in September 2020 ABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

It goes without that saying that I firmly object to the presence of Cuba on the Human Rights Council. Raised with the anti-Communist virulence of a Cuban-American in exile, my history leaves me with no choice but to conclude that some governments are indeed so repressive as to be incontrovertibly unfit for positions of human rights leadership. That said, I would be remiss if I were to project a straightforward answer to the widely-recognized crisis of human rights before us.

At the risk of reiterating the revolutionary rhetoric my family so vehemently eschews, I will say that my work at the UN has made clear that the West does not always know best. In fact, I see firsthand that Western states are often themselves perpetrators of coercive dynamics, rendering them complicit in the weakening of the global human rights system.

Given the pervasiveness of human rights hypocrisy, it is nearly impossible to impart black and white labels, designating some governments as unreservedly "good" and some as unreservedly "bad." There is thus no straightforward way to deal with the presence of human rights abusers on the Council. We must take seriously efforts to displace the worst human rights offenders (such as UN Watch's new initiative on Venezuela), and there is sufficient cause for the same to apply to Cuba. The reality, however, is that the Human Rights Council has deep-seated problems of politicization that go far beyond mere membership.

The United States has announced that it will run for a seat on the Council for the 2022-24 term. I urge the Biden administration to look critically at what will solve the crisis of human rights—a crisis epitomized by the presence of Cuba on the Council, but with myriad other ramifications. As the Council embarks upon its own extensive reform process, it must be emphasized that the bodies of the UN are indeed needed and worth reforming. I maintain hope that the international community can muster the creativity, as well as requisite humility, to correct the imbalances that threaten the very sustainability of the human rights system.

Elyssa Koren is director of United Nations advocacy for ADF International. Follow her on Twitter: @Elyssa_ADFIntl.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.