The time capsule: Reflections from Cuba

CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer reflects on the island where things are supposed to changing politically, but in many ways stay the same.

Visitor numbers are soaring, with over 2 million tourists arriving in Cuba each year.  And why wouldn’t they be? Historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, vintage cars, live music, art galleries and museums, UNESCO heritage sites, beautiful beaches and the warm climate all make for the perfect holiday destination.

Cuba, a land where you can experience the past, in the present. When people think of Cuba, isn’t this what comes to mind?

But much of the world remains unaware that travelling off the  beaten path leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. In a country with some of the most hospitable and generous people you will ever meet, you will also find that many live on less than $2 a day – and for a number of reasons, the exact figure of those living in poverty is hard to ascertain.

Outside the capital most people cannot afford the comfortable luxury of a Chevrolet and many get around by horse and carriage or ‘cogiendo botella’; in other words, they hitch a ride with whoever is passing by. And whilst a horse and carriage may make for a true Cuban experience and a good photo opportunity, it is also symbolic of a time warp that isn’t so positive for its citizens.

What is apparent is that whilst the tourist sector may have boomed, the only place benefiting from this boom is Havana, the national capital of the communist island and the government’s trust fund.

And this is only part of the story.

In a land that is green and fertile, it’s hard to know exactly what becomes of the wealth generated by tourism. Visitors are often unaware that the meagre ration book (Libreta de Abastecimiento) the government gives to the people is not even enough to last one week, let alone one month.

According to the Economist, Hurricane Irma, which struck the island in 2017, killing at least ten people, and led to an estimated $13 billion of damage, also delivered a heavy knock to an economy that was “already in terrible shape.”

Like Cuba’s iconic colourful colonial buildings, the one thing that tourists won’t fail to notice, the government’s insistence on denying such problems is ‘tiene mucha fachada’ – all show and no substance. Those who live in tourist areas, on main streets, are given paint to decorate the fronts of their houses – a luxury for the majority of the population –  in order to disguise the cracks in the buildings. These ‘fachadas’ represent the façade that the Cuban government has portrayed to the world.

Cuban officials will liberally declare the full right to freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, exist in the country. However, although Cuba has signed both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), neither has been ratified.

Instead, through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which is mean to regulate religious affairs in the country, the government continues to oppress religious and belief groups across the island. According to CSW’s research, the majority of FoRB violations are perpetrated by the ORA, which is a branch of the Communist Party rather than an official government department. Its decisions are not subject to oversight and cannot be challenged through official channels or in a court of law.

Property rights is one issue affecting a wide variety of religious groups in the country. The government continues to target church buildings affiliated with both registered and unregistered religious groups. Churches are required to register their buildings in order for them to gain legal status, but church leaders have told CSW that when they make these requests, they are either denied or receive no answer.

Many churches have been waiting for around 25 years for legal permission to exist, which means that many churches are forced to meet illegally, making them vulnerable to confiscation or demolition. In addition, religious leaders regularly report harassment which appears to be aimed at intimidating them and interfering with church activities.

The use of temporary arbitrary detention, harassment of church leaders, and attacks on property rights has occurred for a number of years. However, in 2017, CSW noted that the government is now also diversifying its tactics by threatening activists and religious leaders with trumped up criminal charges, arbitrarily preventing them from traveling out of the country and targeting their children.

This is Cuba. With Fidel’s death, many hoped for change, but politically, with Díaz-Canel in power, Castro propaganda and metal cut-outs of Fidel still dominate the countryside in this one-party regime. Meanwhile, the economy is collapsing and the infrastructure is crumbling.

Mobile phones, which were restricted to those working for foreign companies and government officials, were legalised in 2008. But in many ways, this just enables state security to monitor more conversations, a reality that is already assumed by every Cuban.

Keeping wild birds in cages is a Cuban tradition, although, ironically, Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus), cannot live in a cage because it dies of sadness in captivity.

The reality for many in Cuba is that the government’s tight control of education, broadcasting, newspapers, magazines and churches, and its use of political propaganda, leaves them feeling trapped.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer.

 

 

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Extremists Emboldened As Religious Intolerance Rises in India’s Tamil Nadu state.

It has been two months since Persia Jacob was repeatedly kicked in the face when she resisted a mob of Hindu extremists who tried to snatch her Bible away from her. She wakes up with a heavy head every morning, having to take medication to relieve her of the trauma, even if temporarily, so that she can get on with her day.

The 38 year-old Christian remained persistent that she would die and couldn’t be without the Bible as they pushed and slapped her, stripping off her saree as they tried to grab it [the copy of Bible] from her. The Bible was then set ablaze along with several other copies of Christian literature.

As well as attempting to force her to convert to Hinduism, the mob of men raided four other prayer halls in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu state, as Christians gathered for Sunday worship.

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Human Rights Must be Included in Talks to Ensure True Peace in North Korea

Statue of Kim II Sung

Just over a week ago, US President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un, leader of the world’s most repressive regime which has been accused by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry of “crimes against humanity”. It was historic – the first time a sitting American President and a North Korean dictator had met face-to-face.

On the surface, in words attributed to Winston Churchill, “jaw jaw” has to be better than “war war”. It is good that the two men have moved from talk of “fire and fury” and whose nuclear button is bigger to discussion of denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Perhaps a new era may be dawning.

However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.

“However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.”

CSW has been documenting the human rights crisis in the world’s most closed nation for almost two decades. Our report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, was one of the first human rights reports to call for a UN Commission of Inquiry, in 2007. We co-founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea in 2011. We led the applause for the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry when it came in 2013, gave evidence to its hearings, and have championed its recommendations since its report was released in 2014. Two years ago we released a new report on violations of freedom of religion or belief in North Korea – Total Denial – and earlier this year we published a ground-breaking new report on changes in the country over the last decade, titled Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance. And just before the summit, CSW joined over 300 other non-governmental organisations in sending a letter to Kim Jong-Un, urging him to make “lasting improvements to the dire human rights situation”.

“Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief.”

Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief. If you identify as a Christian in North Korea, you are risking a death sentence. Christians worshipping in secret risk certain incarceration in a prison camp, and possible execution.

Over the years, we have interviewed – and hosted – North Korean escapees, giving them platforms to tell their horrific tales of torture first-hand. It is therefore no surprise that they feel angry at the way last week’s summit proceeded. Kim Yong-hwa said that it was like “stabbing the heart” of North Koreans. Jung Gwang-il, who met President Trump earlier this year, says he feels let down.

To sideline human rights is disappointing enough, but for President Trump to salute a North Korean General, express admiration for the fact that when Kim speaks, North Korean people sit up, and declare that “I want my people to do the same,” is appalling. North Korean people have no choice, and if they are even suspected of anything other than absolute devotion to the ruling family, they end up in a gulag. Mr Trump said he was joking. But Mr President, gulags are no joke. And North Korea’s regime has incarcerated at least 100,000 people, perhaps twice that number, in prison camps that have been compared to Auschwitz.

Yet we in CSW are not opposed to the summit itself. Indeed, in principle we welcome engagement. We have long advocated engagement. In 2010, I travelled to North Korea with Britain’s tireless champion of human rights in North Korea, Lord Alton, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, to engage the regime. We published a report – Building Bridges, Not Walls – which advocated critical engagement. But human rights must be clearly on the table, as they were in the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union – a model for engagement with North Korea. For as Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said during his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel.”

It should not be forgotten that the Trump-Kim summit took place on 12 June, the 31st anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. That speech linked the security of the world with the basic human rights and freedoms of an oppressed people. “Freedom and security go together: the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace, said President Reagan.” Just as Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and “open this gate”, Mr Trump should deliver the same message to Mr Kim.

“Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion.”

Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion. In the meantime, we must increase efforts to increase the information flow into North Korea, to counter the regime’s propaganda and undermine its information blockade. As our new report, Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea after a Decade of Change shows, in the last ten years increased flows of information, through radio broadcasts and smuggling of DVDs and USBs with South Korean dramas on them, have enhanced awareness about the outside world, and about human rights. Together with economic changes, this has led to an opening of hearts and minds in North Korea – despite, not because, of the regime. In this new engagement, we must build on that.

As Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry, said in a recent article, “I am glad that President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore … But I cannot put out of my mind the people who came to the public hearings of the United Nations inquiry. They told their stories of suffering. They trust the world and the United Nations to right the wrongs. Their testimony is on the Internet. It haunts our world. But not North Korea where it is inaccessible to all but the elite around Kim. I will begin to respect his word when he opens up his isolated country to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the mass detention camps. Let him do this immediately and then I can join in the rejoicing for the self-proclaimed triumph of the Singapore Summit of June 2018.”

Real peace is impossible, unless the human rights and dignity of the people of North Korea are respected, crimes against humanity end and accountability established. That must remain the goal for which we work and pray.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader

Justice for Noura, Justice for Sudanese women

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A petition is circulating for Noura Hussein, a young Sudanese woman, to receive clemency after she was sentenced to death by hanging by a court in Khartoum last week.

Noura was charged with pre-meditated murder after she stabbed and killed a man who raped her six days after she was forced to marry him.

Her case has brought to light the legal discrimination that women in Sudan face regularly. The name of the person being charged may change, but the oppressive laws that discriminate against women of all religious and ethnic identities remain in place.

Four years ago the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian woman, caused international outcry after she was sentenced to death for apostasy and adultery. Noura’s case has yet to garner the same level of attention.

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Video Footage Shows Stark Reality of Physical attacks on India’s Religious Minorities

Recent years have seen a worrying, increase in attacks against religious minorities in India. Even as the country marks the 68th anniversary of the constitution, which guarantees the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, there is evidence that there has been a dramatic rise in tensions between religious groups, due in large part to the validation of Hindu nationalism propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, guided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh  (RSS), its ideological wing.

Recent video footage obtained by CSW of a physical attack against two Christians portrays the stark reality for many religious minorities in India today.

VIDEO: Two church leaders from Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Kadamalaikuntu, Tamil Nadu are seen here being threatened, ridiculed and forcefully detained by six men on motorbikes as they attempted to leave a village after distributing Christian tracts. They also had sacred ash forcefully applied on them.

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Thousands of Eritreans of all faiths and none are detained without charge or trial in Eritrea. Join us as we protest for change.

Tank Cemetry, Outside Asmara

Tank Cemetry, Outside Asmara

Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.

His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018.  He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.

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#FREELEAH

A guest blog by the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP. 

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The Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP is Conservative Member of Parliament for Meriden and Second Church Estates Commissioner. In May 2018 she met with Rev Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of CSW Nigeria and CSW UK’s Parliamentary Officer, Alice Braybrook to discuss freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria.

 

Today is the 15th birthday of Leah Sharibu. But, unlike most young girls around the world, she will be spending her birthday in captivity.

On 19 February 2018, Leah was among 110 girls who were abducted from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, north eastern Nigeria, by the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. The oldest abductees were 18 years of age; the youngest were 11.

On 21 March 2018, over a month after their capture, Boko Haram returned 105 of the girls to Dapchi, following negotiations with the government. Five had reportedly died during the arduous journey to Boko Haram’s hideout.

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Impunity Breeds Distrust – Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders in Mexico

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Who do you trust to look after your community? According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, 71% of Mexican citizens would rather put their trust in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) than the government, which has the confidence of a mere 24% of the population.

These stark statistics beg the question: what could be driving such levels of distrust in the Mexican government?

Currently, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a Catholic priest. Other religious leaders are also increasingly targeted; between November 2013 and April 2018, 30 religious leaders were killed. In April 2018 alone, three religious leaders were killed. Moreover, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.

Religious leaders often take on the role of human rights defenders (HRDs), engaging with various human rights initiatives in order to bring the issues of their respective communities to the attention of those who can provide legal, practical or advocacy assistance. As such, these religious leaders often fulfil the role of community leaders as well as HRDs. It’s dangerous work. In 2017, 32 HRDs were killed according to a report by Front Line Defenders.

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Warning Signs Unheeded: The Kandhamal Tragedy

India_Sept09_010Kandhamal district is among the poorest and most marginalised in Odhisa (formerly Orissa) state, India. On 25 August 2008, it was the epi-centre of communal attacks against the Christian community in India. Local monitoring groups have estimated that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced and over 300 churches destroyed by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouses the Hindutva ideology.

Ten years on, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression by groups belonging to the RSS continue. The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.

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As a newly elected member of the Human Rights Council, Nepal must practice what it pledges

Prayers inside the Catholic Church of the Ascension, Kathmandu,

Prayers inside the Catholic Church of the Ascension, Kathmandu, Nepal

All elected Member States of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) have a special obligation to protect and promote human rights. While every State has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.

During the HRC elections, candidates submit voluntary pledges, committing to the promotion and protection of human rights, and once elected, to maintaining high standards towards the protection and promotion of human rights.

Often, a State’s campaign for election is not free from criticism. Indeed, current HRC Council Members include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China; countries which are frequently pulled up for serious human rights violations.

“While every state has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.”

In 2017, Nepal was elected as a Member of the HRC. The country will serve for a period of three years, and could serve up to two consecutive terms. It is important that Nepal embraces its position on the Council, calls out human rights abuses, makes recommendations, and promotes peace and reconciliation and supports the work of Special Procedures among other human rights mechanisms.

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