Cuba has announced that it will sign two major UN agreements on civil and political rights and allow periodic UN monitoring of its human rights record.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Cuba would allow scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council in 2009.
The council was established last year, replacing a body Havana had argued was manipulated by the United States.
As Mr Perez Roque spoke, government supporters mobbed dissidents who were marking International Human Rights Day.
Mr Perez Roque said Cuba would soon sign the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and a similar agreement on social, economic and cultural rights.
These two legally binding protocols, which make up the UN Bill of Human Rights, will commit Cuba, among other things, to allowing freedom of expression and association, and the right to travel abroad.
Communist Cuba had long refused to sign the agreements. Havana also refused to be visited by a special rapporteur who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission.
The BBC’s Michael Voss in Havana says now the commission and the post of rapporteur have gone, Cuba no longer feels under threat and therefore in a position to sign the two protocols.
‘Important first step’
The Cuban foreign minister told a news conference: “This decision reflects our desire for full co-operation with the UN on the basis of respect for our national sovereignty and the right of the Cuban people to their self-determination.”
But as he spoke, just a few streets away from the foreign ministry a small group of opposition activists were mobbed and shouted down by government supporters, as they tried to hold a march.
Dissidents reported that police also picked up several organisers in the hours before the event.
Also on Monday, the Cuban authorities deported eight Spanish women who took part in a protest by a group called the Ladies in White, which gathers every Sunday to call for the release of their imprisoned husbands.
The Cuban government says dissidents are “mercenaries” paid for by the US and that tourists have no business meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
The treatment of the protesters, our correspondent says, is a reminder that old approaches continue.
Western diplomats in Havana describe the foreign minister’s announcement as an important first step, but are now awaiting to see whether and how it will be implemented, our correspondent says.
Cuba is in a period of transition with Raul Castro continuing in the post of president while Fidel recovers from surgery.
It is not clear where Mr Perez Roque’s announcement fits in to this change of power, our correspondent says, but does indicate that Cuba is to some degree ready to engage more with the international community. BBC