Cuba signed on Thursday two legally binding human rights agreements at the United Nations in New York just days after Raul Castro was sworn in as the new president. The covenants - part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - commit Cuba to freedom of expression and association, and the right to travel, which Fidel Castro long opposed.
Critics of the Castro government have called on it to make good on the agreements by freeing dissidents. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who signed the agreements, rejected suggestions of any link to the recent change in power, insisting they merely "formalized" rights enjoyed by Cuban citizens since the 1959 revolution. However he did anticipate Cuba would later specify some reservations about treaty provisions. Last December, Mr Roque announced Cuba's intention to sign up to the two agreements, saying Havana would allow scrutiny by the recently established UN Human Rights Council in 2009. One is a covenant on civil and political rights, and the other concerns social, economic and cultural rights. Previously, Cuba had resisted scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Commission - the predecessor of the Human Rights Council - accusing it of pro-US bias. It is believed that at least 200 political prisoners are currently being held in Cuba. Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York called on Cuba to follow up its signing of the covenants and "immediately and unconditionally release the 22 independent journalists currently imprisoned for their work". "The failure to do so would render its adoption of this important treaty [the UN Bill of Human Rights] meaningless," he added. Cuban trade unionist Pedro Alvarez and three other Cuban political prisoners were released on health grounds earlier this month, and flown to Spain. The 60-year-old said that the Cuban authorities had given him the choice to remain in prison or go into exile Another activist group, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, estimated early this year that 234 prisoners of conscience were held on the island. But that was down from 246 last June 30, continuing with a decline since Raul took over from the ailing Fidel. Elizardo Sanchez, head of the rights group, called Thursday's action by Perez Roque "positive news because the signing of these pacts is an old demand from inside Cuba and from the international community". At the 2001 Summit of the Americans Fidel Castro criticized the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights arguing "it could serve as a weapon and a pretext for imperialism to try to divide and fracture the workers, create artificial unions, and decrease their political and social power and influence". Perez Roque said Cuba was signing the covenants now because the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which he claimed the US used for "brutal pressure and blackmail" against Cuba, had been "defeated" in what he called "a historic victory for the Cuban people." The widely discredited and highly politicized commission, which adopted a number of resolutions condemning rights abuses in Cuba, was replaced by a new Human Rights Council in 2006. The Geneva-based council dropped Cuba last year from the list of countries whose rights records are subject to investigation, a move that the U.S. and Canada strongly criticized. According to the Cuban statement submitted at the signing, the United States' economic embargo and hostility to Cuba's government "constitutes the most serious obstacle to the enjoyment by the Cuban people of the rights protected by the covenants". "We are convinced that the lifting of the embargo will come in the future" said Perez Roque who added that it must be lifted "without any conditions whatsoever".