The Miami Herald
In the movie Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy about nuclear war, the character played by the late Peter Sellers snaps indignantly at two colleagues engaged in fisticuffs: “You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’‘
Apparently, much the same can be said for the agency of the United Nations that is wrapping up its annual session in Geneva: You can’t discuss arbitrary arrests, drumhead trials and summary executions here. This is the Commission on Human Rights!
The difference is that Kubrick’s film is black humor, whereas the Geneva drama over Cuba properly belongs to the Theater of the Absurd. Not to mention that one is a movie and the other really happened. Not to mention also that Strangelove is a masterpiece of comedy; the pathetic stage show in Geneva is the stuff of tragedy.
The outcome of the annual vote on human rights by the commission last week has rightly been labeled a setback for Cuba. But, at best, it’s a weak victory for human-rights advocates. The anemic resolution that the commission approved fails to mention the wave of repression that has destroyed the hopes by moderates here and in Havana that there is room for peaceful dissent in Cuba.
A brief review of this drama:
The scene is the annual meeting of the Human Rights Commission. The players prepare once again to verbally spank Fidel Castro by pleading with him, as they do every year, to please, please, allow a representative to enter Cuba to examine the state of human-rights conditions. Castro, in his favorite role as enfant terrible says that he will refuse, as he has for years.
The scene changes to Havana. The enfant terrible goes on a rampage. He arrests 75 dissidents for . . well, for dissenting . . . peacefully. By putting their dissents in writing. By holding meetings to express dissent. By making available books and articles written by great dissenters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and George Orwell.
(As in Julius Caesar, scene of the bloody climax): In Havana, a few desperate men attempt to shake the grip of a despotic government by resorting to despotic means, hijacking a ferry. They hurt no one, and the crime is thwarted, but with the swift dispatch that only dictatorships can muster, three of the men are arrested-tried-convicted-and-executed in a matter of a few days.
The scene shifts back to Geneva, where absurdity still reigns. A few voices are raised in outrage over the events in Havana. The Costa Rican delegation proposes something more than a slap on the wrist—a resolution that actually takes into account ‘‘recent events,’’ which, in the hidden text, refers to the wave of arrests, the kangaroo courts and the rest of the Stalinist arsenal of repression used by Cuba to quell dissent. The other players turn away in embarrassment. “This is the Human Rights Commission! We can’t talk about that here!’‘
The sad denouement. After much scurrying back and forth backstage, a vote is held. Castro is slapped on the wrist and asked yet again to allow a human-rights monitor to visit Cuba. Repression in Cuba? As far as the Commission on Human Rights is concerned, it never happened.
Perhaps, in the world of diplomacy, the outcome should have been expected. The approval of a resolution condemning a country is considered a serious matter requiring months of serious work by armies of diplomats. It’s a matter of finding just the right language to win enough votes. But blaming the fragile machinery of diplomacy for the failure to condemn Cuba in strong terms cannot justify the pathetic result and raises a host of questions:
Has Cuba repressed human rights? Yes. Even before the ‘‘recent events,’’ dissidents were harassed, threatened, jailed. Dissident activity increased, but the dissidents knew that their behavior was officially, barely tolerated—never sanctioned, and certainly never enshrined in law. The reports of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House—and this newspaper—provide volumes of evidence of Cuba’s lack of respect for human rights.
Has the government’s behavior worsened? Yes. Without warning, some 75 dissidents were arrested in a matter of days beginning last month. Within weeks, they were tried, convicted and began serving their sentences, an average of 19 years per person. The Stalinist show trials were complete with double agents in the guise of dissidents suddenly revealed as agents of the state, providing phony testimony against their hapless and shocked colleagues. As for the executions, those too have been amply documented.
GOOD FORCES THWARTED
Has Cuba’s recent behavior drawn worldwide condemnation? Yes. Governments, entire continental blocs (the European Union, to name one), human-rights organizations and journalists’ groups have condemned the mass arrests and executions.
Has Cuba repented? No. On the contrary. Its government has sought to blame the United States for using the dissidents to subvert the Cuban revolution. Even longtime admirers of Fidel Castro such as Portuguese writer Jose Saramago have at long last said that they are fed up. Aghast at the executions, Saramago wrote: “This is as far as I go.’‘
If none of this impresses the U.N. Human Rights Commission, what will? If this wasn’t the right time to condemn Cuba, when?
We arrive, therefore, at the final question: If this isn’t the right organization to issue a ringing endorsement of human rights in Cuba on behalf of the world community, what is?
We don’t believe that the United Nations is obsolete. It has been, is and will continue to be a force for good. Whether it should be reorganized to be more effective is a worthy topic for another discussion. But the Human Rights Commission’s behavior in Geneva proves that even forces for good can be thwarted by human beings bent on evil. The fact that its chair this year is Libya and that several countries with a similarly soiled record of human rights sit on the panel makes this commission less than it should be.
WILL RIGHTS BE PROTECTED?
Supporters of Cuban dissidents were right to settle for half a loaf, but we have to ask: If the commission can’t use diplomacy to fulfill its most basic mandate—to spotlight aberrant international behavior and use diplomatic means to redress such behavior—of what use is diplomacy?
When the issue arises again before the commission, as it surely will, it will be good to remember the events of the last few weeks. The issue is not whether human rights are being abused in Cuba. That question has been asked and answered to the satisfaction of everyone who doesn’t wear ideological blinders. The question is whether the commission that is supposed to protect and nurture human rights will be ready to fulfill its duties, or whether, in a world that professes disgust for totalitarian governments, it is already hopelessly out of touch.
A strong condemnation of Cuba would be a signal that, for a change, the world is watching the repugnant actions of Fidel Castro and is ready to declare his government an outcast; that the world understands that Castro’s dispute isn’t with the United States but with his own people; and that it stands ready to say, with Saramago, “This is as far as we go.’‘