HAVANA Cuba said on Monday it will accept regular U.N. monitoring of its human rights record from 2009, even as its plainclothes police broke up a small demonstration marking International Human Rights Day.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced Cuba will sign the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a similar pact on economic and social rights by March next year. Havana has long refused to sign the pacts adopted in 1976 at the height of the Cold War.
He said Cuba would open its doors in early 2009 to regular international scrutiny by the newly created U.N. Human Rights Council. Cuba refused visits by a special rapporteur appointed by the previous body, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which Havana said was manipulated by the United States.
"This decision reflects our desire for full cooperation with the United Nations on the basis of respect for our national sovereignty and the right of the Cuban people to their self-determination," Perez Roque said at a news conference.
Minutes after he spoke, plainclothes policemen broke up a small demonstration by dissidents marking International Human Rights Day in a nearby square. Two were detained and driven away in a car, a witness said.
Government supporters, apparently coordinated by state security agents, booed dissidents and shouted "Viva Fidel" for ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public in 16 months.
Ten Spanish women who joined a dissident march on Sunday to demand the release of political prisoners said they were being detained in their hotels after police seized their passports before deportation to Spain.
Cuba insists there are no political prisoners in the one-party state, and it labels all dissidents as "mercenaries" on the payroll of its arch-enemy, the U.S. government.
"Neither the manipulations that the U.S. government has staged, sometimes with a handful of mercenaries it pays and directs in our country ... nor its pressures on other countries will alter our course," Perez Roque said.
He said a majority of Cubans supported Cuba's socialist system which, he said, gives equal opportunities to everyone.
Last month, a U.N. special rapporteur visited Cuba for the first time in a decade. U.N. envoy on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, praised the communist-run nation for ensuring no one went hungry, despite U.S. trade sanctions and economic crisis endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A Western diplomat said the signing of the U.N. rights covenants was a long-awaited "gesture" on Cuba's part.
"The real problem is still the political prisoners. Plenty of countries have signed both pacts and still violate human rights on a massive scale," a European diplomat said.
Veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said it was a "positive" step, but wondered whether Cuba would comply and set free some 240 Cubans in prison for political reasons.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)