Cuba signed two key international human rights treaties on Thursday and immediately accused the United States of impeding the Cuban peoples' enjoyment of their rights by maintaining its trade embargo and "policy of hostility and aggression."
While attacking President George W. Bush's administration, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque reiterated that Cuba is "ready to maintain normal and respectful relations with the United States." But he stressed that the 46-year-old embargo has to be lifted "without any conditions whatsoever."
Perez Roque signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at U.N. headquarters before meeting Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and holding a press conference.
The treaties stem from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba has signed, and are considered the cornerstone of international human rights law. But a statement submitted when Perez Roque signed the agreements said Cuba will be submitting reservations and interpretations of some provisions.
In Havana, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, called Thursday's action "positive news because the signing of these pacts is an old demand from inside Cuba and from the international community."
"I hope it honors the letter and spirit of the law of these pacts, but I am not sure it will," Sanchez said of Cuba's government, adding, "We still need the Cuban state to ratify" the agreements.
The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees "civil and political freedom," including the right to self-determination and peaceful assembly, to freedom of religion and freedom to leave the country, and to equal protection before the law. It also bans unlawful interference with privacy.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires countries to ensure the right to work, to fair wages, to form trade unions and allow all people to join the union of their choice, to social security, to education and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
The government's statement said Cuba's Constitution and legislation "enshrine the rights protected in these covenants," adding that the government's policies and programs "guarantee the effective realization and protection of these rights for all Cubans."
But the government then states that "Cuba will register those reservations or interpretative declarations it considers relevant."
A questioner noted that Fidel Castro, who just stepped down as president, opposes provisions in both covenants including the right to form independent trade unions, and asked whether this had changed now that his brother, Raul Castro, has become Cuba's leader.
Perez Roque said there has been no change, reiterating that "in the future, in the moment that we decide, we will express ... the reservation or interpretative declaration that we consider relevant."
The two covenants were adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966 and came into force in 1976. The Cuban government announced on Dec. 10 _ International Human Rights Day _ that it planned to sign them.
According to the Cuban statement, it was the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power "that made possible the enjoyment by its people of the rights protected" by the two covenants.
"The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America and its policy of hostility and aggression against Cuba, constitutes the most serious obstacle to the enjoyment by the Cuban people of the rights protected by the covenants," the statement said.
Perez Roque told reporters "the ball is in the U.S. court" to lift the embargo.
"We are sure that the lifting of the embargo will come in the future," he said.
Asked whether he could foresee improved U.S.-Cuban relations since Cuba has a new president and the U.S. will have a new president next year, Perez Roque said he had "a favorite candidate" in the U.S. election _ but he would not disclose the name because he said it is up to the American people to decide.
The Cuban minister also noted that in the past, candidates have said one thing about Cuba and then changed their position after being elected.
"We will be very patient," Perez Roque said.
He said Cuba was signing the covenants now because the U.N. Human Rights Commission _ where he claimed the U.S. 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 human rights abuses in Cuba, was replaced by a new Human Rights Council in March 2006. One aim of the new council was to keep some of the worst human rights offenders out of its membership, but Cuba and others accused of abuses were elected by wide margins.
Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this report from Havana, Cuba