Permanent Mission of Cuba in Geneva
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Ending the Cuban Blockade Promotes Human Rights

Ending the Cuban Blockade Promotes Human Rights

Martin Khor 

Executive Director, South Centre

October 2016

For almost a quarter of a century now, the United Nations General Assembly has been adopting, near unanimously, annual resolutions calling for ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba and its people for over five decades, which has been counter-productive and caused enormous social, economic and trade losses to the people of Cuba. This year, on 26 October 2016, yet another resolution will again be tabled and voted upon.

The blockade imposed against Cuba, particularly under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act of the United States, an act that is contrary to international law and long-standing treaty commitments, have had negative impacts on the enjoyment of human rights of people of Cuba, particularly on the most vulnerable groups including women, elderly and children. It goes against the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, which calls on all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures that are against international law and the principles of sovereign, equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs and freedom of international trade and navigation. 

The change in US policy towards Cuba announced in December 2014 and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations which became effective in July 2015 opened a new era in the relations between the two countries and is much welcomed. Unfortunately, the embargo still remains in place and most transactions between the United States, or persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and Cuba continue to be prohibited, as recently reaffirmed by the US Treasury. 

Despite the positive efforts undertaken by the Obama Administration during 2015 and 2016 to effect policy changes vis-à-vis US relations with Cuba, the embargo continues to subsist. Although the U.S. Congress is the body empowered to repeal blockade-related legislation and eliminate the blockade, the President of the United States has broad prerrogatives to continue modifying the application of the blockade and dismantling the majority of its restrictions without the necessity of going to Congress.

Recent decisions of the US Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) highlight the extent to which the embargo remains in place against Cuba, with third countries, their companies and banks being subjected to the payment of huge fines because they have maintained trade and finance relations with Cuba. From 2009 to 2016, a total of 49 fines have been imposed by the OFAC due to violations of the embargo. Some of the most recent examples include: 

Penalization of the French company CGG Services SA in February 2016 for providing services and equipment of American origin for oil and gas exploration in Cuba´s territorial waters and for seismic research by a Cuban entity in Cuba´s Special Economic Development Zone; 

Imposition of penalties to two European banks for maintaining legitimate banking relations with Cuba and other countries – to Commerzbank from Germany a penalty of US$1.710 billion, and to Crédit Agricole from France a penalty of US$1.116 billion. Because of such penalty, the German bank terminated its transactions with Cuban banks and the Embassy of Cuba in Berlin; 

Rejection of a transfer from a Cuban nickel trading company by Swiss bank BCGE.

The embargo also affects not only the Cuban people and Cuban commercial and financial transactions but also the South-South cooperation activities that Cuba has been undertaking for decades. For example, Cuba’s emergency medical assistance response to the African countries affected by the Ebola crises in West Africa recognized worldwide is a great example of solidarity with the international community. Cuban assistance in addressing this health crisis would have been more extensive had it not been for the embargo. The permanent lifting of the embargo will allow Cuba to cooperate more with other developing countries on health, environment, agriculture, among other issues. 

Developing countries have continually stressed that the international law principles relating to the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in internal affairs, and the freedom of international trade and navigation, are key principles that ensure the development and maintenance of a rules-based multilateral regime that is conducive to peace and the development of developing countries. 

Developing countries have also been consistently united in calling for the elimination of the application of unilateral coercive measures, including the application of economic and trade measures by one State against another that affects the ability of the latter state to enjoy the benefits of unhampered international commerce and navigation and that interferes and also, in relations with third countries impacting negatively on their trade, investments and cooperation activities. The damages accumulated in these almost six decades since the blockade was implemented amount to no less than $753,688,000,000, which have been calculated at the value of gold, taking into account its depreciation. At current prices, these accumulated damages amounts to no less than $125,873,000,000.

The Foreign Ministers of the G77 and China, representing 133 developing countries, at their Fortieth Annual Ministerial meeting held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 23 September 2016, expressed their strong objection to such measures and “reaffirmed that the imposition of coercive economic measures, including unilateral sanctions, against developing countries, do not contribute to economic development, including dialogue and understanding among countries.” 

In paragraph 152 of their 2016 ministerial declaration, G77 and China Ministers reaffirmed their firm rejection of the imposition of laws and regulations with extraterritorial impact and all other forms of coercive economic measures, including unilateral sanctions, against developing countries, and reiterate the urgent need to eliminate them immediately. They emphasized that such actions not only undermine the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and international law, but also severely threaten the freedom of trade and investment. The Ministers therefore called on the international community to adopt urgent and effective measures to eliminate the use of unilateral coercive economic measures against developing countries. 

In particular, the Group of 77 and China Ministers “expressed their strongest rejection of the implementation of unilateral coercive measures and reiterated their solidarity with Cuba. As they welcomed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America, and within that context, the visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba, they reaffirmed their call upon the Government of the United States to put an end to the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on that sisterly nation for more than five decades. The Ministers, by recognizing that the actions taken by the executive branch of the United States Government to modify some aspects of the implementation of the blockade are positive, and that these still have a limited scope, encouraged the President of the United States of America to continue taking all actions within his executive powers to substantially modify the application of the blockade against Cuba and the United States Congress to initiate, as soon as possible, a discussion on removing it.”

The Group of 77 and China also condemned the use of unilateral economic measures against Sudan, Islamic Republic of Iran, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Syrian Arab Republic and the Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip which affects the lives of millions of Palestinian people and called for their immediate removal or lifting. 

In its Final Declaration adopted by the XVIIth Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Isla Margarita, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on 19 September 2016, the leaders of the Member States of the Non-Aligned Movement, representing 120 developing countries, “expressed their condemnation at the promulgation and application of unilateral coercive measures against countries of the Movement, in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law, particularly the principles of non-intervention, self-determination and independence of States subject of such practices. In this respect, they reiterated their determination to denounce and demand the repeal of such measures, which affect human rights and prevent the full economic and social development of the peoples who are subjected to them. Similarly, they reaffirmed that each State has full sovereignty over the totality of its wealth, natural resources and economic activity, exercising it freely.”

Several recent outcomes of UN conferences and other forums have also rejected the use of unilateral coercive measures, including on the US embargo on Cuba. For example, in September 2015, world leaders adopted by consensus the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/1) “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  In paragraph 30, the 2030 Agenda stressed that “States are strongly urged to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that impede the full achievement of economic and social development, particularly in developing countries”. 

Having a more comprehensive analysis of the impact on the enjoyment and achievement of human rights of all unilateral coercive measures being currently applied would be an important initiative. This is particularly important in relation to assessing the impact of such measures on the human rights of people living in affected countries, particularly on women, elderly and children, who are too often the main victims of such measures as in the case of the prohibition in the access of medicines and technology for the production of medicines in Cuba and in the Islamic Republic of Iran, two countries most affected by the US embargo. The United Nations would be best placed to make such an analysis and assessment on a more regular and substantial basis. In this regard, the recent appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the negative impacts of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights by the Human Rights Council (HRC) stemming from HRC resolution 27/21 of 3 October 2014 is an important achievement. The resolution also mandated the conduct of a biannual human rights mainstreaming panel discussion on the issue of unilateral coercive measures and human rights.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba under the leadership of President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro marked a positive historical turning point. This positive step should be followed up actively with a permanent lifting of the embargo. 

The embargo on Cuba has adversely impacted on the economic growth and development of Cuba and its population. It also affects the full potential of Cuba to be an actor in international trade and development. There is great positive potential arising from improving Cuban ties with the US and the rest of the world, and this potential can be unlocked by permanently ending the embargo against Cuba as soon as possible, consistent with the calls made by the UN General Assembly and the all developing countries in the Group of 77 and China and in the Non-Aligned Movement. 

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