‘Whose Rights? Whose Debris?’ talks human rights in Maria aftermath

Ariadna Godreau, human rights lawyer and community activist, Universidad del Sagrado Corazon leads a round table discussion about how how Puerto Rico can recover from it's debt crisis in today's current world in the Dodd Center on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

If most people in the United States were asked what the crisis is in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria would immediately come to mind. However, in addition to the destruction Maria caused, Puerto Rico is facing a much larger crisis, one that has only been intensified by the recent storm: debt.

According to Ariadna Godreau, a human rights lawyer in Puerto Rico, the debt is tied directly to an overall lack of human rights for the island’s habitants.

“Crisis is a very complex word at this moment because it will mean austerity, but it will also mean human rights violation, but also impunity—and that’s the issue of access to remedy—and now of course it will also mean austerity plus disaster,” Godreau said.

One of the major hurdles to remedying Puerto Rico’s current human rights and economic situation lies in its position as a territory with no international standing or involvement, although Godreau herself refers to Puerto Rico as a “country."

“Being an international human rights lawyer, or being someone who studies human rights in Puerto Rico, has come to be some kind of a work of faith, an effort in sometimes futility,” Godreau said. “Because how do you explain the meat of human rights in academic terms or in legal terms of a country that’s absent of all of these forums… and that isn’t part of the mechanisms that exist for these violations to be addressed?”

Godreau expressed her frustration over the political status of her home by explaining how Puerto Rico has been forced into following guidelines imposed by the United States, prevented from passing its own laws and upholding human rights for its people and completely excluded from the international scene.

“What does it really mean for our country that it’s not able to grasp any of the debt restructuring mechanisms abroad, that it’s never mentioned in foreign debt or economic and social rights impact studies?” Godreau said.

As a human rights lawyer, Godreau wants Puerto Rico to be recognized internationally so that international human rights laws can be enforced in the territory.

“One of the first things that I thought needs to be done was to think about which principles do we need in the context of foreign debt of crisis, just to be able to attend to, with international human rights law, what I call the ‘unresolved colonial lands’—these colonial lands that are never registered, that are never named and that remain indebted and subordinated, using the case of Puerto Rico,” Godreau said.

Puerto Rico is an “unresolved colonial land” because it is a territory, not a colony, and therefore, Godreau said, has no place internationally.  

In crisis, “the state abdicates its power, so its private contractors… are controlling not only the political and economic arena, but also the definition of essential services,” Godreau said.

This means that private businesses deem which job sectors are important enough that their services must be ensured and protected by the government. Groups with only their own interests in mind suddenly have great control.

Godreau brought up the idea of “shared responsibility” as a much needed step in mitigating this aspect of Puerto Rico’s crisis. She proposed passing laws that would hold both the government and private companies liable for guaranteeing human rights during this time of financial duress.

To loop back to the influence of the hurricane, “by the end of this process of adjusting to post-Maria, the debt of Puerto Rico is going to triplicate,” Godreau said.” “We already owe $75 billion. I wouldn’t know [what] this would look like,”

On why this talk was important, Aida Silva, the senior associate director of freshman admissions at UConn, said, “We do a lot of recruiting in Puerto Rico, so anything dealing with Puerto Rico interests me, especially with this current situation that the island is facing.”

“I think it’s important to learn about the crisis in Puerto Rico because people don’t really know about it,” Danielle Costa, first semester pre-teaching major, said. “If it was a U.S. state, people would be talking about it. Because it’s a territory, the U.S. government isn’t involved in helping with their debt, so Puerto Rico is just left on its own.”


Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.