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devastation in puerto rico

A group of United Nations human rights experts condemned the U.S. government's slow response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Puerto Rico National Guard/Flickr)

Where's the Urgency? UN Experts Slam US Emergency Response to Puerto Rico

"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."

Jessica Corbett

While nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power six weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, eleven United Nations human rights experts have issued a joint statement decrying the "absence of adequate emergency response" by the United States.

"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."
—Leilani Farha, United Nations
"Thousands of people are displaced, with homes destroyed, and without any relief in sight," the experts noted. "More than 80 percent of the population, or close to 2.8 million people, continue to live without electricity. Few hospitals are functioning. There are allegations that the water available—for those who have access to it—may be contaminated."

"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," they declared.

In the wake of the storm, a spotlight has been shone on the commonwealth's complex colonial history with the United States. Many, such as the ACLU's Gabriela Meléndez Olivera, have argued that "the American citizens living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories" are regarded as "second-class citizens," and "the Trump administration and Congress' lack of adequate action to provide aid to the island is a modern-day reflection of that second-class status."

Considering the ongoing recovery efforts in Texas and—to a lesser degree—Florida, which were also hit by storms during this year's hurricane season, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, said: "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 emphasized that "it's the obligation of all levels of government to act to protect" the 3.4 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico, who "need safe and adequate homes—temporary and long-term—with electricity, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities."

Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the U.N.'s independent expert on foreign debt and human rights, noted that "even before Hurricane Maria 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."

The U.N. experts added their collective voice to mounting demands for debt relief for the U.S. commonwealth—which filed for bankruptcy in May—and said, "we call on the United States and Puerto Rican authorities to remove regulatory and financial barriers to reconstruction and recovery."

"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," they said. "Reconstruction should aim to increase the resilience of Puerto Rico's infrastructure, housing, and hospitals against future natural disasters."

The demands of the U.N. experts bolster existing calls for a "just recovery," one that incorporate an awareness of threats posed by future storms and climate change—such as by utilizing solar energy technology rather than a fossil fuel-reliant system—and echo warnings against "disaster capitalism" and privatization that have escalated amid outrage that led to the cancellation of an "astonishingly corrupt" $300 million no-bid contract given to Whitefish Energy to rebuild the island's destroyed electrical grid.


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