Press Release

IACHR Expresses Deep Concern about the Human Rights Situation in Puerto Rico

January 18, 2018

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Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern about the human rights situation that continues to affect the inhabitants of Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastation wrought by two hurricanes in September 2017, leading to scarcity and shortages of basic services and resulting obstacles to the exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights. The IACHR urges the United States to adopt measures to respond to the human rights problems identified.

The devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017 led to widespread shortages of basic services such as drinking water, lighting and electricity, food, medicine and general health care, and telecommunications. This situation is taking place in a context of structural economic crisis and marked levels of poverty.

The IACHR urges the United States to continue offering the island humanitarian assistance to mitigate the effects of the hurricanes, and sustained support to rebuild its infrastructure, considering the economic and social crisis Puerto Rico is going through. The Commission also urges U.S. federal authorities and local Puerto Rican authorities to adopt the necessary measures to ensure access to basic services that facilitate people’s access to drinking water and food, electric power, health assistance, and telephone and Internet services. Measures adopted by the United States to respond to the human rights problems Puerto Rico is experiencing should be defined and implemented with the participation of the island’s inhabitants, taking into account their voices and perspectives.

The Commission expresses its concern over information it has received indicating that the U.S. response to the situation in Puerto Rico has been slower and less efficient than to situations in other parts of the country. Puerto Rico is the territory with the highest rates of poverty and extreme poverty in the United States. In addition, the Commission has received information about shortages of materials for the island’s reconstruction, as well as complaints about the lack of access, in practice, to humanitarian assistance offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In many cases the material intended to rebuild the island and supply the basic needs of the population have remained in the ports of San Juan due to the destruction of main roads to transport them to their destinations. This is aggravated for the absence of a plan aimed to their effective distribution. The serious damages of various roads and the lack of alternative routes also affect the free movement of the population in search of food, water and health services. Against this backdrop, the IACHR calls on the United States to adopt immediate measures, without discrimination of any kind, to respond to the situation created by the hurricanes and ensure the effective exercise of human rights in Puerto Rico.

“More than three months following the devastating passage of the hurricanes through Puerto Rico, we are deeply dismayed by the State of the United States’ lack of response to effectively protect the human rights of the Puerto Rican people,” the IACHR Rapporteur for the United States, Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, said. “The State is duty-bound to adopt comprehensive measures to ensure that Puerto Ricans are treated the same as other U.S. citizens,” she added.

On that point, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights, Soledad García Muñoz, observed that natural disasters tend to exacerbate already existing situations of economic inequality, discrimination, and vulnerability. “It is essential to plan, design, and implement measures to respond to this situation in keeping with the principle of equality and non-discrimination,” the Special Rapporteur said. “We encourage the United States to create mechanisms for early warning and prevention of the impact of natural disasters that could affect the island in the future, ensuring the participation of its inhabitants in identifying, implementing, and monitoring such mechanisms.”

On another matter, before the devastating passage of the hurricanes in September, austerity measures had been announced as a result of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and high level of public debt. International specialists have warned about the consequences these measures will have, including a significant increase in poverty and additional obstacles to the enjoyment of the human rights of the island’s inhabitants. The IACHR calls to mind that austerity measures that negatively affect the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights are permissible only in exceptional circumstances. If these measures that have an impact on the exercise and enjoyment of people’s rights are inevitable, they should be temporary, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, and be designed and adopted in accordance with international human rights law.

According to the information the Commission has received, certain groups of people at risk and in a vulnerable situation are being disproportionately affected. For example, the IACHR received information about people with serious illnesses whose health has deteriorated because of the interruptions in medical services, as well as complaints of sexual harassment against women in temporary shelters since the hurricanes hit the island. Other groups that have been disproportionately affected include older people, children and adolescents, persons with disabilities, women, persons of African descent, and migrants, particularly those in an irregular situation. In this regard, the IACHR urges the United States to adopt additional specific measures to attend to the particular needs of these and other groups of people whose situation is more vulnerable.

Finally, according to news reports, hundreds of thousands of people could find themselves forced to move from the island in the coming months because of the lack of access to resources. The IACHR reiterates its call to the United States to adopt measures to respond effectively to the situation of the displaced population, in accordance with its international human rights obligations and taking into account the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Moreover, the Commission urges the United States to develop and implement mitigation, adaptation, and resilience programs to help its communities reduce the potential risks and destruction from natural disasters and climate change.

The IACHR stands ready to provide technical cooperation to U.S. authorities, within the scope of its mandate, in the implementation of measures that are in line with Inter-American human rights standards. Following up on the public hearings it held during its 166th session in Washington, the IACHR calls the United States to approve an on-site visit by the Commission to the United States, including to Puerto Rico.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 004/18