Puerto Rico remains without an effective emergency response more than a month after Hurricane María devastated the island, a group of UN human rights experts has warned.
“The hurricane has aggravated the island’s existing dire situation caused by debt and austerity measures,” the experts noted, saying the situation remained “alarming” for the island’s 3.5 million residents in the U.S. territory.
“Thousands of people are displaced, with homes destroyed, and without any relief in sight. More than 80 percent of the population, or close to 2.8 million people, continue to live without electricity. Few hospitals are functioning,” the group said.
“There are allegations that the water available — for those who have access to it — may be contaminated,” said the experts.
The group that reached the conclusion comprises:
- Leilani Farha, special reporter on adequate housing;
- Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights;
- Hilal Elver, special reporter on food;
- Dainius Pûras, special reporter on health;
- Léo Heller, special reporter on water and sanitation;
- Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, special reporter on rights of persons with disabilities;
- Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, special reporter on internally displaced persons;
- Dubravka Šimonovic, special reporter on violence against women;
- Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; and
- Baskut Tuncak special reporter on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes.
“With winter approaching, we call for a speedy and well-resourced emergency response that prioritizes the most vulnerable and at risk — children, older people, people with disabilities, women and homeless people,” the UN group stated.
“Even before Hurricane María struck, Puerto Rico’s human rights were already being massively undermined by the economic and financial crisis and austerity policies, affecting the rights to health, food, education, housing, water and social security,” Bohoslavsky said.
More than half of PR population already poor
The experts pointed out that nearly half the population of Puerto Rico was already living below the poverty line before Hurricane María struck.
“We can’t fail to note the dissimilar urgency and priority given to the emergency response in Puerto Rico, compared to the U.S. states affected by hurricanes in recent months,” Farha said.
“After a natural disaster, with around 90,000 homes totally destroyed, people are at their most vulnerable. It’s the obligation of all levels of government to act to protect them, and to ensure that lives can return to some normality quickly. People need safe and adequate homes — temporary and long-term — with electricity, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities,” she stressed.
Meanwhile, Elver said, “Hurricane María wiped out most of the island’s crops. Banana and coffee — the island’s most valuable exports — were the hardest hit. The population is facing immediate food shortages but also long-term consequences from the destruction of the entire agricultural infrastructure.”
The experts said rebuilding should be of a high enough standard to withstand future disasters.
“We call on the United States and Puerto Rican authorities to remove regulatory and financial barriers to reconstruction and recovery,” they said. “All reconstruction efforts should be guided by international human rights standards, ensuring that people can rebuild where they have lived and close to their communities. Reconstruction should aim to increase the resilience of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, housing and hospitals against future natural disasters.”
They also stressed the need for debt relief for the island, which filed for bankruptcy in May 2017 under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act. A federal court in San Juan has begun hearings over the biggest public debt restructuring in U.S. history.
Several UN experts had expressed concern in September 2016 at the crippling public debt level and its impact on economic and social rights, but have not received any substantial response from Washington, San Juan or the Financial Oversight and Management Board to their questions and concerns, they concluded.