Washington - After 12 years, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will reach a decision next month on the complaints filed against the US for violating the human and civil rights of residents in Puerto Rico under the current colonial status.
On October 5, in a public hearing, IACHR will examine the independent complaints filed by attorney Gregorio Igartúa and former Governor Pedro Rosselló against the US for denying the inhabitants of the island the participation in the US Electoral College, which elects the President and representatives with full rights in Congress.
The hearing will be part of the IACHR session period number 169 and will take place at the University of Colorado Law School, in Boulder, headquarter of the meetings scheduled from October 1 to 5.
The IACHR is an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), with jurisdiction to investigate the compliance with the commitments made by member states in the American Convention on Human Rights.
"I anticipate, with full confidence, that the Commission will prove us right by ruling in our favor and declaring that the US is violating human rights under the international law of their American citizens in Puerto Rico by denying them the right to vote at a federal level for the President and vice president and for representatives and senators before Congress, "said Orlando Vidal, attorney for former Governor Rosselló’s.
The complaints about the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in the federal government were filed in 2006, three years after the IACHR resolved another similar case in favor of Washington DC, whose residents vote for the US president, pay taxes on income, but have no representation with full rights in Congress.
In 2003, the IACHR determined that the US denies "equal rights" to residents in Washington D.C. "Due to their place of residence", by not granting them full representation in Congress.
Determinations such as IACHR’s in the case of the federal capital are not binding on the US government, as is the case with the expressions of the Special Committee on Decolonization in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence and free determination.
But they question American democracy.
As in Puerto Rico, little has the political landscape of Washington D.C’s residents changed after IACHR’s decision.
For example, the bills introduced in Congress for Washington D.C. to become the 51 state, which usually have only Democratic support, have never finished the legislative process.
The furthest they have gone was the approval, in 2007, of a measure in the House that sought to give Washington D.C a representative with full rights, that usually supports Democrats, adding another one to the state of Utah, with Republican inclinations. But the legislationnever advanced in the US Senate.
Former Governor Rosselló and attorney Igartúa will speak at the hearing on October 5. Each one will have about 12 minutes to present their arguments.
Igartúa said that he will reaffirm his position, which he has promoted without success in federal Court, regarding that the US Constitution "has been applied (in Puerto Rico) to such an extent that we are practically a state, what is missing is the right to participate in federal elections."
Under the current territorial status, residents of the island do not have to pay federal income taxes. But Igartúa stated that, nonetheless, through Medicare and Social Security, the inhabitants contribute more to the US Treasury than 15 states.
In addition to the complainants, a representative of the US government, probably from the US mission before the OAS, will be able to respond to the complaints, and the seven members of the IACHR will have the opportunity to ask questions. The federal government's response would be an opportunity for the Donald Trump administration to interpret how he sees the island's latest local plebiscite, held in June 2017.
"The US government will need to face the reality of Puerto Rico and the violation of rights to which they have subjected the American citizens residing on the island," said, in a written statement, former Governor Rosselló, whose youngest son, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, is now the governor of the island.
In the 2017 plebiscite, statehood obtained 97 percent of the votes. But the consultation took place amid a boycott of the opposition parties and with a turnout of 23 percent.
The government of the New Progressive Party (PNP) has introduced in Congress and the White House, during this federal legislative session, pro-statehood bills by Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C., Jenniffer González.
The most recent on, from June, proposes to create a Congress Working Group to examine the laws that must be changed for Puerto Rico to be the US State 51, in January 2021.
González believes that her legislation, if approved, would incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory, which would be perceived as leading the island towards statehood, while awaiting for the Congress Working Group’s consideration.
Lawyers consulted by El Nuevo Día believe that the language of the legislation does not contain a clear incorporation of the island as a territory. However, as an incorporated territory, Puerto Rico would remain outside the US Electoral College, even though its residents would have to pay income taxes.
The chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Republican Rob Bishop (Utah), told the newspaper last week that he still considers calling a hearing to examine Gonzalez's bill, and said he does not see why it cannot go to a voting in that committee and in the plenary session.
But the issue is not on the federal Senate’s agenda, the session of Congress closes in December and, due to the midterm elections in November, the work schedule is very tight.
Process before IACHR
The complaints that IACHR examines about the political status of Puerto Rico were admitted last March.
The session on October 5 will be the fourth time, in 18 years, that IACHR holds a hearing on issues of the island.
In 2000, IACHR reviewed the violation of human and civil rights because of US military maneuvers in Vieques.
In March 2015, they hold a hearing on the human rights situation in Puerto Rico, in which civic groups denounced violations against LGBTT communities, immigrants, children, women and the federal insistence on implementing death penalty.
In December 2017, three months after Hurricane Maria’s devastation, a coalition of civic and academic organizations in Puerto Rico denounced to IACHR an alarming increase in poverty, which keeps many people "in inhuman conditions", and urged them to examine the island's crisis on the ground.
Then, Commissioner Margarette May Maculay of Trinidad and Tobago, in charge of US affairs, told the media that they would ask Trump’s government for authorization to send a mission to Puerto Rico to closely examine the human rights situation and poverty on the island.
On January 18, IACHR also expressed concern about what it considered was a "less rapid and efficient" response from the US government in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, compared to other jurisdictions.
Attorney Vidal considers that, after the hearing, IACHR should not take more than one year to decide on the complaints.
"A ruling like this will be another blow to the current political status," said Vidal, referring to PROMESA, which accentuated the colonial situation of the island with the imposition of a Financial Oversight and Management Board, which controls the financial decisions over the elected government, and the decision of the US Supreme Court in the case of Sánchez Valle, that stressed that the ultimate source of power over the country lies in the US Congress.
When the US government appeared in the case before IACHR, in April 2011, they maintained that residents in Puerto Rico have repeatedly supported the current status, officially called Commonwealth.
"The results of the voting have not expressed a preference for statehood, the status that would give them the right to federal vote," said Milton Drucker, deputy representative of the US before the OAS.
Later, the government of the island called two plebiscites, which continue to generate controversies.
The other plebiscite was in November 2012, when 54 percent of the voters expressed their opposition to the current territorial status. 61 percent supported statehood in a second question, but if the high number of ballots left blank is considered, as requested by the Governing Board of the Popular Democratic Party, the percentage did not exceed 45 percent.
In January 2014, Congress approved a language that urged Puerto Rico to hold a new referendum, consulting status alternatives with the US Department of Justice.
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