Amid New Engagements, US Tags Cuba, Iran as Rights Abusers

June 25, 2015 Updated: June 25, 2015

WASHINGTON—The United States on Thursday, June 25, tagged Iran and Cuba as serial human rights abusers even as the Obama administration accelerates attempts to improve relations with both countries.

Days before the resumption of nuclear talks with Tehran and weeks before the expected reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana, the State Department castigated Iran and Cuba, along with many other nations, as violators of basic freedoms in 2014 in its annual human rights reports.

Last week, the administration also criticized Iran for its “undiminished” support for terrorism in 2014. Cuba was also identified as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in 2014, although it was removed from that list this year.

“Engagement is not the same thing as endorsement,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, whose office prepared the reports.

Engagement is not the same thing as endorsement.
— Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state

Administration officials have defended their outreach to Cuba as an effort to improve the human rights situation in the country after decades of isolating the communist nation through an embargo and strict penalties. The United States and Cuba hope to reopen embassies in their respective capitals in mid-July.

“Our opening to Cuba … was designed because we felt that the new policy is better suited to promoting human rights in Cuba than the old policy,” Malinowski told reporters. “We very firmly believe that in the long run … this is going to put us in a much stronger position to promote human rights and to stand by civil society on the island.”

On Iran, officials have said the nuclear negotiations, set to resume over the weekend in Vienna against a June 30 deadline for a deal, are not intended to address other issues the United States has with Iran’s behavior, including its support for terrorism and its record on human rights. But they said they have said that a nuclear deal could open the door to a broader rapprochement with Iran that might include those elements of concern.

Malinowski said Iran’s rights abuses would remain an issue of concern no matter what happens in Vienna.

The reports accused Iran of “severely restricting” multiple civil liberties and taking few, if any, steps to punish abusers.

“Iran continued to severely restrict civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, religion, and press, and to execute citizens at the second highest rate in the world after legal proceedings that frequently didn’t respect Iran’s own constitutional guarantee to due process or international legal norms,” the State Department said.

It said that other Iranian violations included disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; politically motivated violence and repression; lack of an independent judiciary; legal discrimination; violence against women, ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons; incitement to anti-Semitism; and trafficking in persons.

On Cuba, the human rights reports said the Havana government continued to use threats and intimidation to suppress peaceful dissent in 2014. Cuban officials were accused of carrying out “most human rights abuses” at the direction of their superiors.

Although Cuba released 53 political prisoners as part of the normalization process with the United States, the reports noted that Cuban activists in 2014 had recorded the highest number of arbitrary arrests of dissidents in the past five years. Cuba in 2014 has indicated it will expand Internet and telecommunications access, but, according to the reports, it “continued to block its citizens’ access to uncensored, independent information in general.”

Other Cuban rights abuses mentioned in the reports include the abridgement of the ability of citizens to change the government; use of government threats; extrajudicial physical assault; intimidation; violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent; and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.

The reports cover 199 countries and detail rights violations in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, among others.