Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Every year, the United Nations holds a symbolic but important vote on a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba and every year the United States and Israel are the only two countries to vote against it. Last year, the United States abstained in accordance with the rapprochement that the Obama administration began in 2014. A few hours ago, the U.S. and Israel stood alone and voted once again against the UN resolution, while 192 other nations voted for it. Ambassador Haley explained that the vote demonstrated, “continued solidarity with the Cuban people and in the hope that they will one day be free to choose their own destiny.” Prior to the vote she announced to the General Assembly that "today, the crime is the Cuban government's continued repression of its people and failure to meet even the minimum requirements of a free and just society… The United States does not fear isolation in this chamber or anywhere else. Our principles are not up for a vote … We will stand for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms that the member states of this body have pledged to protect, even if we have to stand alone." The United States is indeed isolated in its thinking. Furthermore, the vote and the embargo inflame tensions with allies in Latin America that the U.S. needs for the war on terror and drug smuggling.
I feel strongly about this issue having visited the island three times in the past two years to research business and human rights issues. I’ve sat on a panel with Cuban lawyers and judges in Havana to discuss the embargo. I’ve attended countless seminars and meetings with lawyers and businesses who want to trade with Cuba. At the American Bar Association International Law Section meeting last week there were at least 6 sessions on Cuba. The world wonders why the United States places so much attention on this tiny island nation.
A few minutes ago, I put my finishing touches on my third law review article on Cuba (I had to wait to add in the UN vote). I argue that if and when the U.S. lifts the embargo and considers a bilateral investment treaty, it should require human rights provisions as a condition precedent for investor-state dispute resolution. I will post more about the article when it’s finally published but here’s a sneak peek of an argument relevant to today’s UN vote and the United States’ purported concern about the lack of human rights in Cuba:
[P]rior to lifting the embargo, the United States needs to examine its own record on human rights and how it treats other violators, otherwise it will have no credibility with the Cuban government. The U.S. Congress demands human rights reform in Cuba but has not been consistent in its own business dealings with other authoritarian or socialist regimes. For example, although the U.S. Department of State has criticized Cuba’s human rights record, China, another communist country with a poor human rights record, is the United States’ third largest trading partner. The United States lifted its trade embargo with Communist Vietnam twenty years ago and major U.S. companies now operate there today even though the U.S. government has leveled some of the same human rights criticism against Vietnam as it has against Cuba. The communist government of Laos did not fare much better than Cuba in human rights states department reports, but the U.S. government actively promotes potential investment opportunities there. This inconsistency in approach to human rights violators diminishes the U.S. government’s integrity in negotiating with Cuba. Tellingly, in its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch, a respected NGO, warned of the dangers of the Trump Administration from a human rights perspective. This hardly puts the U.S. in a strong bargaining position with Cuba when discussing the conditions on lifting the embargo.
The Trump Administration still has not released its official changes to the trade rules that it announced in June. In the meantime, although it’s hardly easy to do business in Cuba or with the Cuban government, U.S. businesses now remain in limbo until the implementing rules come into force. To be clear, I do not condone the human rights violations that the Cuban government commits against its people. In my upcoming article, I propose mechanisms to prevent foreign investors from perpetuating violations themselves. However, these same businesses that cannot do business with Cuba have no problem doing business with Russia, China, or other regimes with oppressive human rights records. Perhaps the Trump administration has not read State Department and NGO reports on those countries, but I have. Today, the hypocrisy was once again on full display for the world community to see.