4.06 Human Rights

Imagine yourself as a staff member of the United Nations assigned to keep ambassadors up to date on human rights issues and government policies to address them.


  1. Select a recent or ongoing human rights issue. You may research one of the example issues from this Human Rights Issues List [below]or choose one the following case studies provided for you:
    • Repression of Political Dissent in Cuba Case Study [below]
    • Human Trafficking in Thailand Case Study [below]
  2. Learn about your issue. Carefully read the case study provided in step one, or research the alternative human rights issue you chose. News outlets and the following websites can help you learn about your issue:
    Human Rights Watch
    US Department of State
    United Nations

    Be sure to find out how the United States and other countries are attempting to address the issue.

  3. Create a policy update for the United Nations including at least three well-written paragraphs that address the following:
    • Origins–How did the human rights issue come about? Who does it affect and how? How does it affect human rights?
    • Responses–How are the United States, other nations, and international organizations responding to the issue? How do these responses relate to the foreign policy spectrum of approaches you studied in the lesson? [Recall that the approaches are isolationism, diplomacy, interventionism, imperialism, and that your response could refer to more than one approach.]
    • Evaluation–Are the efforts and policies enacted by governments and international organizations successful? What would you recommend be done to better address the human rights issue?
  4. You may submit your policy update as a text document or in a creative format if you prefer. There are many 21st-century tools available for creating and submitting your work in the online environment. For more information on tools your school uses, you may contact your instructor or visit the Web 2.0 tools area.


Human Rights Issues List

  • Child Soldiers [ex. Sudan, Yemen, Somalia]
  • Ethnic Cleansing [ex. Libya, Kashmir, Darfur]
  • Prisoners’ Rights [ex. Iran]
  • Violence Against Women [ex. Afghanistan, Chad]
  • Repression of Political Dissent [nation other than Cuba, ex. Egypt, Syria]

You can explore the websites for Human Rights Watch, the US Department of State, the United Nations, and news outlets for the latest information on human rights issues impacting various countries around the world. If you’d like to research a human rights issue not provided on this list, contact your instructor to discuss your topic idea.


Repression of Political Dissent in Cuba Case Study

A Brief History

Cuba was a Spanish colony until Spain surrendered control of Cuba to the United States with the Treaty of Paris in 1868. On May 20, 1902, the United States granted Cuba its independence. The United States and Cuba agreed to a Treaty of Relations in 1934, which continued the agreements leasing the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States.

© Hulton Archive / Archive Photos
/ Getty Images / Universal Images Group
/ Image Quest 2012

Independent Cuba was often ruled by political and military leaders who either obtained or remained in power by force. Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorial rule that began in 1940 fueled increasing public discontent and the rise of many groups who opposed the Cuban government. Fidel Castro organized a revolutionary group known as the “26th of July Movement.” Its goal was to overthrow then president Batista. Faced with a corrupt and ineffective military and public outrage at his brutality toward opponents, Batista fled on January 1, 1959. Castro had promised a return to constitutional rule and democratic elections along with social reforms. However, as leader of Cuba, Castro used his control of the military to repress all opposition. It is believed his government imprisoned or executed thousands of opponents. An estimated 3,200 people were executed by the Cuban government between 1959 and 1962 alone. As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.

Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961. For the next 30 years, Castro pursued close relations with the communist Soviet Union. Cuba funded and actively aided in violent activities to advance communism. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban government seized U.S. properties and moved toward adoption of a one-party communist system. In response, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960. The embargo severely limited trade with the island country. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961.

Government and Political Conditions

© Jorge Rey / Getty Images News
/ Getty Images / Universal
Images Group / Image Quest 2012

Raul Castro replaced his brother Fidel Castro as chief of state, president of Cuba, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces on February 24, 2008. The Cuban government seeks to control most aspects of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its affiliated organizations, the government bureaucracy, and state security forces.

Although the constitution provides for courts, it explicitly places them under the supreme power of the National Assembly and the Council of State. Fair trials are routinely denied to Cuban citizens, particularly in cases involving political offenses.

The Communist Party is constitutionally recognized as Cuba’s only legal political party. The party monopolizes government positions, including the Council of State and judicial offices. A small number of non-party members have been permitted by the controlling Communist authorities to serve in the National Assembly. The Communist Party through its front organizations approves candidates for all elected offices. Citizens do not have the right to change the political, social, or economic structure of Cuba.

However, since 2011, the Cuban government has been making some slow and small changes. For example, Cuban citizens can now buy and sell cars and real estate. They can own cell phones. In these and certain other areas the people can make economic transactions themselves, such as farmers selling crops to hotels without going through a government agency.

Human Rights

Cuba signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] and sits on the UN Human Rights Council. In February 2008, Cuba also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, but over 10 years later, still had not ratified either document. In spite of this, Cuba places severe restrictions on many of the rights described in the UDHR and continues to engage in harassment, surveillance, arbitrary detention, and imprisonment of peaceful human rights activists and political opponents.

In 2010 and 2011, Cuba freed dozens of political prisoners, including those arrested in 2003 during the “Black Spring,” a crackdown on those who spoke out against the Cuban government. Most of the released prisoners were required to leave the country. Since the government does not allow international monitoring of its prisons and does not release information about the prison population, it is difficult to accurately count the number of political prisoners in Cuba. Estimates from human rights groups range from as low as 30 to more than 100. In addition, human rights groups have noted that while the number of political prisoners has decreased, the number of short-term imprisonments [typically aimed at disrupting planned activities such as protests] has increased significantly in recent years.

© 2012 AP Images

Human rights advocates note that the laws of Cuba are designed to protect the government’s aim of building a “socialist society” over goals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Criticism of national leaders can lead to imprisonment. The government maintains control over all forms of mass media, including newspapers, radio and television. Independent journalists face censorship as well as arrest and harassment by state security. Similarly, the government limits access to the Internet to a small number of professionals and those loyal to the government. The government also employs monitoring and blocking technologies to further restrict Internet freedom. The U.S. government estimates that 39 percent of Cuba’s population has Internet access. Though this suggests that Internet access has expanded in recent years, other sources estimate the figure is much lower, even as little as five percent.

Authorities have used surveillance, short-term detentions, and state-organized mobs to interfere with meetings and public demonstrations not authorized by the government. Political and social activist groups have reported dozens of cases in which state security and police prevented or broke up meetings using house arrests, short-term detentions, and checkpoints around planned meeting sites. The government also continues to regularly use organized mobs to interfere with peaceful assemblies.

U.S.–Cuban Relations

U.S. State Department indicates their policy toward Cuba is focused on encouraging democratic and economic reforms and increased respect for human rights on the part of the Cuban government. The embargo against Cuba severely limits the exchange of goods and funds between the United States and Cuba in an attempt to put pressure the Cuban government to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights.” It is important to note, that though Cuba is subject to severe trade restrictions. The United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars in food and humanitarian aid each year. The embargo is supported by many Cuban-Americans and other who desperately seek political freedom for Cuba. The United Nations [UN] and some human rights advocates have criticized the embargoes and ineffective and state that they are hurting the people of Cuba more than influencing Cuban policy. In a 2001 report to the UN, the Cuban government called the embargo an act of “economic war” describing it as an “absurd, illegal and morally unsustainable” policy that must be lifted.  The U.S. response stated willingness to build a new relationship with Cuba if the Cuban government began “to respect human rights and the rights of Cuban citizens to determine their own destiny.”[Source: UN Press Release]

In addition to trade embargoes, travel to Cuba is severely restricted by U.S. regulations. In April 2009, the United States announced the lifting of restrictions on family travel and transfer of funds to Cuban citizens, expanded the list of items eligible for export to Cuba to aid the Cuban people, and announced new regulations for U.S. telecommunications companies to expand the flow of information to Cuba. In January 2011, the United States announced changes to travel policy to allow for more travel to Cuba, expanded the individuals and groups eligible to send and receive funds, and allow all U.S. international airports to apply to provide charter services to Cuba. However, travel to Cuba for a tourist vacation is still prohibited, and those who do have an authorized reason to visit must obtain a special license to do so.

In July 2015, both the United States and Cuba reopened an embassy to the other’s country. This was the result of long-term efforts to restart a diplomatic relationship between the governments and the hope is that relations will continue to improve, including the lifting of restrictions. However, the embargo remains in place. Illegal migration attempts from Cuba into the United States have decreased but remain an issue.

Relations with Other Nations

Cuba has an activist foreign policy and aims to find new sources of trade, aid, foreign investment, and political support. Cuban leaders work to promote international opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba, in particular the U.S. embargo. Cuba has relations with over 160 countries and has civilian assistance workers such as principally physicians and nurses in more than 20 nations. In 2009, Costa Rica and El Salvador re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As a result of the Cuban government’s 2003 crackdown on those who did not agree with government leaders, the European Union [EU] adopted a Common Position statement on Cuba. The approach called upon the Cuban government to show greater respect for human rights and encouraged government reform. In 2017, this statement was repealed and replaced, and now all members of the EU have a diplomatic relationship with Cuba.

© 2012 AP Images

Canada maintains a robust trade and investment relationship with Cuba, with a large presence by the Canadian mining firm Sherritt Corp. Some Sherritt operations take place on property confiscated from American investors. Canada is also the largest source of foreign tourists who visit Cuba each year, accounting for about one-third of Cuba’s total visitors.

Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela, China, and Russia has helped keep the Cuban economy afloat. A series of economic agreements between Cuba and China have strengthened trade between the two countries. The agreements included over $500 million in loans for projects including improvements to telecommunications systems. Following a 2006 visit by the Russian prime minister, Russia set aside, for the moment, more than $20 billion in Soviet-era debt, restructured post-1991 debt, and extended a new credit line to Cuba. The new credit line was for $355 million repayable over 10 years at an interest rate of 5%. The new credit was conditioned in that it must be used to purchase Russian cars, trucks, and planes, as well as to finance Cuban energy and transport infrastructure projects, including air navigation systems. Both nations also signed an agreement on military equipment and technical services. Raul Castro made a state visit to Russia in 2009 during which several additional trade agreements were signed.

Venezuela has been one of Cuba’s greatest trade partners for decades. The “Integral Cooperation Accord” signed by Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2000 laid the groundwork for trade between the nations. The exchange of Venezuelan oil for Cuban goods and services became a lifeline for Cuba. However, Cuba’s economic growth has slowed in recent years. The government claims that issues of trade with Venezuela are partly to blame, from which Cuba obtains a large amount of petroleum [oil] products and depends for energy.


Human Trafficking in Thailand Case Study

© 2012 AP Images

In recent years, “trafficking in persons” or “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for activities involved when one person obtains or holds another person in forced service. The U.S. Department of State and the international community regard Thailand as a source of and destination for men, women, and children who are victims of human trafficking. The majority of the trafficking victims identified within Thailand are immigrants from Thailand’s neighboring countries who are forced, pressured, or deceived into modern slavery. Conservative estimates place the number of human trafficking victims in Thailand in the tens of thousands. Trafficking victims within Thailand were found employed in fishing, seafood processing, low-end clothing production, and domestic work like housekeeping. Evidence suggests that the trafficking of men, women, and children in commercial fishing industries and domestic work represent the most significant portion of all labor trafficking in Thailand.

Research by the United Nations [UN] and nongovernmental agencies indicates a significant population of trafficking victims in Thailand. The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking [UNIAP] estimates that Thai authorities send home over 23,000 Cambodian trafficking victims a year. Similarly, authorities in the neighboring country of Laos reported that thousands human trafficking victims from their country were returned to their home country by Thai authorities in 2011. A report released in May 2011 by the inter-governmental agency called International Organization for Migration noted widespread forced labor conditions in Thailand. The report notes that individuals from neighboring countries of Cambodia and Burma are recruited–some forcefully or through fraud–for work in the Thai fishing industry. According to the report, Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men were trafficked onto Thai fishing boats that traveled throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. These men worked on boats that remained at sea for up to several years, did not receive pay, were forced to work 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, and were threatened and physically beaten. Similarly, an earlier United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking study found 29 of 49 [58 percent] surveyed migrant fishermen trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats had witnessed a fellow fishermen killed by boat captains when they were too weak or sick to work. In 2011, it was not uncommon to find immigrant children in Thailand forced to sell flowers, beg for money, or work in homes. Vietnamese women recruited for work in Bangkok, Thailand were found to have been confined and forced to act as stand-in mothers.

Immigrants or refugees in Thailand are at greater risk for trafficking than Thai citizens. The greatest risk factor for women and girls to become victims of human trafficking in Thailand was their lack of citizenship. Thai citizens who are trafficking victims were most likely to be found laboring outside of Thailand in the United Arab Emirates [UAE], Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and China.

Efforts in Thailand

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking set forth by the United Nations. However, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government of Thailand continues implementation of its human trafficking law and conducts awareness-raising activities on human trafficking. The Thai prime minister has chaired meetings with labor and civic organizations to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts. This led to the development of the Thai government’s second six-year National Policy Strategy on human trafficking for 2011-2016. In July 2010, the prime minister publicly acknowledged the need to improve the government’s weak interagency coordination in addressing human trafficking. The Thai government reported increases in trafficking prosecutions and convictions, but as of May 2011 there was insufficient data available to determine whether each of these could be categorized as human trafficking convictions.

© 2012 AP Images

Given the significant scope and magnitude of trafficking in Thailand, there continue to be a low number of convictions for human trafficking and low number of victims identified among vulnerable populations. Direct involvement in human trafficking by corrupt law enforcement officials reportedly remains a significant problem in Thailand. In 2011, authorities reported investigating two cases where officials, including high-ranking officers, were aware of trafficking and did not take action. It is important to note that there were no convictions or sentences for those officials during 2011. Nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] working in the area report that problems hindering the government’s anti-trafficking efforts included local police corruption, cultural biases against laborers from other countries, and lack of effective systems to identify victims and prosecute traffickers.

International Response

In the 2007 United Nations publication The Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migirio stated “Human trafficking affects us all, whether we live in countries of origin, transit or destination. Preventing and combating it requires a comprehensive international approach. We must act together to stop a crime in our midst that deprives countless victims of their liberty, dignity and human rights.” International organizations and NGOs have been working with Thailand’s government to combat human trafficking in the region. In 2000 the United Nations General Assembly adopted The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. States that sign it commit themselves to taking measures against international organized crime, including the creation of laws within their countries to combat human trafficking. Most UN member nations have signed the The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, including Thailand. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published educational materials to aid law enforcement officers and government officials in preventing and combating human trafficking, as well as model laws to guide governments around the world in their efforts.

© 2012 AP Images

U.S. government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking is the annually published Trafficking in Persons Report [TIP]. It is the world’s most comprehensive resource on governmental anti-human trafficking efforts and reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to global leadership on this key human rights and law enforcement issue. The U.S. Government uses the TIP Report to engage foreign governments, including Thailand in dialogues to advance anti-trafficking reforms and to combat trafficking, making suggestions for areas of improvement and noting progress. Worldwide, the report is used by international organizations, foreign governments, and nongovernmental organizations as a tool to examine where resources are most needed. The U.S. Department of State indicates that freeing victims, preventing trafficking, and bringing traffickers to justice are the ultimate goals of the Trafficking in Persons Report and of the U.S Government’s anti-human trafficking policy.

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