‘Human rights cannot be sidelined,’ UN expert warns amid Puerto Rican Debt Crisis
SAN JUAN – The United Nations independent expert on foreign debt and human rights has called for “fair solutions” to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, warning that increasing austerity measures will threaten residents’ human rights and worsen the island’s poverty levels.
Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, who requested from the United States an invitation to carry out a visit to Puerto Rico, called for relief to reduce the debt to financially and socially sustainable levels.
“Ensuring financial stability, controlling public debt and reducing budget deficits are important goals, but should not be achieved at the expense of human rights,” Bohoslavsky said in a statement.
“The population cannot be held hostage to past irresponsible borrowing and lending,” he said. “The economy should serve the people, not vice versa. Losses need to be fairly distributed. Bondholders, including hedge fund investors, need to take their fair share.”
The Financial Oversight and Management Board dealing with the crisis must ensure that economic, social and cultural rights are not undermined by giving absolute priority to creditors’ rights and by imposing excessive austerity, Bohoslavsky added.
He welcomed recommendations from a U.S. congressional task force for fairer federal funding of health insurance programs and more tax credits for families.
“Reducing the tax burden of families with children is one of the many measures required to combat intolerable levels of poverty in Puerto Rico,” the UN expert said, emphasizing that nearly 60 percent of the island’s children live in poverty.
“Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan needs to prevent further harm to persons in situation of vulnerability. Reform measures must guarantee protection for the rights to health, food, housing, and social security,” he said.
“The island simply cannot afford further austerity,” Bohoslavsky indicated. “After 10 years of economic depression, further spending cuts will not assist economic recovery, but will accelerate emigration and undermine the provision of essential public services.”
The expert highlighted the particular impact of the debt crisis on people with disabilities, pointing out that residents in Puerto Rico receive an average of $74 per month in federal support for living expenses compared with the mainland average of $540.
“Actual costs of living do not justify such differences in public support,” he explained. “Under international law, the U.S. remains responsible for ensuring that the social rights of all individuals living under its jurisdiction are fully protected without any discrimination.”
Two years in communication with Puerto Rico
The director of the Caribbean Institute of Human Rights, Annette Martínez-Orabona, reacted to the independent expert’s statements that respond to a direct petition conducted by his organization along with Universidad Interamericana’s Clinic of Human Rights, which has maintained constant communication with the expert for the past two years.
“We brought Puerto Rico’s debt and its effects on our population’s human rights to Juan Pablo’s attention. We have been providing our and other organizations’ investigations, and requesting that he act on Puerto Rico’s situation. We ask that he deliver with the situation of human rights, which is tied to the topic of debt and that he request an official visit to Puerto Rico to see the situation firsthand,” Martínez-Orabona said.
The directive considered that the expert’s statement, which was supported for the first time by four additional experts, is mainly that the fiscal oversight board will not permit the continued detriment of the island’s well-being at the expense of particular demands of creditors.
It is not the first time that an entity of international right requests an official visit to Puerto Rico. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked for access to the island in its last public audience in April.
For the first time in history, Bohoslavsky’s statements were supported by four other experts: Leilani Farha, special rapporteur on adequate housing as an integral element of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to nondiscrimination in this context; Catalina Devandas Aguilar, special rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities; Dainius Puras, special rapporteur on the right of everyone’s enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Hilal Elver, special rapporteur on the right to food.
“What’s interesting is he does not emit the statements by himself but with four other experts in different areas. This is an indicative that the main topics that are affecting the population are being heard,” the director added, who also explained that the next step is to wait for a response from the United States about the expert’s visit.
On the possibility of issuing a report with greater scope and dissuasive force, Martínez-Orabona said everything will depend on the decision of the United States on the request for a formal visit, a request that is processed through the State Department, through diplomatic channels and direct meetings.