Puerto Rico claims denial of equal civil rights under “Commonwealth” regime of territorial government violates human rights
Statehood supporters from Puerto Rico want the territory to be admitted to the union under the U.S. Constitution, which limits federal voting rights to citizens of states. That means as long as the current territorial status and the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government continue U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will be denied the same voting rights in federal elections as citizens in the states.
To encourage Congress to exercise its power to begin the transition to future statehood, pro-statehood leaders want the U.S. Congress to recognize that indefinite denial of voting rights to U.S. citizens after a majority have voted for statehood is inconsistent with U.S. commitments in the United Nations. To remind Congress of U.S. obligations under international conventions affirming principles of universal suffrage and democratic self-determination, a distinguished Puerto Rico delegation appeared in a recent multilateral human rights forum instituted under the umbrella of the Organization of American States.
Former pro-statehood governor Pedro Rossello, also father of current Governor Ricky Rossello, delivered a statement in support of a Puerto Rico government petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, conducting its proceedings on October 5, 2018, in Boulder, Colorado. Although the IACHR has no sovereign powers or jurisdiction over the territory’s political status, the territorial delegation’s testimony and legal submission underscored the reality that statehood or integration with an existing state is the only way the U.S. can meet those international obligations in any of its U.S. citizen populated territories.
However, in order for Congress to define terms of mutual agreement for any territory populated by U.S. nationals and/or citizens to complete the process of integration into the U.S. under the statehood political status model, the residents of the territory must exercise their right of self-determination in favor of statehood, rather than independent nationhood or continued territory status. After 70 years of inconclusive self-determination measures under the “ commonwealth” regime without democratic rights at the national level, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico exercised the right of self-determination approving statehood by majority rule in 2012 and 2017.
Rossello’s presentation regarding the social, political economic and legal basis for Puerto Rico’s quest for statehood was viewed by many observers as even more compelling than the petition for statehood submitted to Congress after being adopted by the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico following the 2012 vote confirmed a pro-statehood majority in the territory. If restated in a new petition for statehood before the U.S. Congress, the territorial delegation’s statement delivered by former governor Rossello could build on the record before Congress since the 2017 vote.
The domestic and International legal issues under review in Boulder also were addressed by a former Puerto Rico Attorney General, in a recent letter to the IACHR regarding Puerto Rico’s petition. Along with Rossello’s statement, Puerto Rico attorney Orlando Vidal presented legal arguments in support of the Rossello statement.
The legal exposition by Vidal focused on and emphasized many of the same legal points made in the former Attorney General’s letter, including with respect to whether the U.S. is in compliance with its obligations under Article XX of the American Declaration as to voting rights and suffrage.
In addition, the former Attorney General’s letter also argued that U.S. federal court jurisprudence and statutes are at odds with principles of Article VIII of the American Declaration, which seek to prohibit government practices that in effect require citizens to relocate within the borders of a nation to secure equal civil and political rights.
This is noteworthy, because current U.S. territorial law and policy explicitly require U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico to relocate to a state for equal voting rights. This practice effectively forces relocation to attain equal civil and political rights, and does so as explicitly required by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1922 case of Balzac v. Puerto Rico.
Without equal voting rights that come only with statehood, there can be no equal freedom and opportunity under the U.S. Constitution. Even though international conventions and covenants as well as charters of intentional organizations like the IACHR cannot exercise sovereignty and have no binding powers over nations, the October 5, 2018, proceedings on Puerto Rico are at least a symbolic milestone in the articulation of the case and the cause of statehood for Puerto Rico.
If nothing else it is a reminder that the unfinished work of democracy in Puerto Rico is in the first instance an issue of domestic law between the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico as a political subdivision of the federal government, if not a question of international law. Because full independence is available to Puerto Rico, status resolution on agreed terms under the U.S. Constitution arguably does not implicate or invoke international law, unless a petition for independence supported by majority rule is denied by the U.S. without democratic recourse.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are the models for government by consent adopted in the U.N. Charter and human rights conventions. Limitation of federal voting rights by the U.S. Constitution to citizens in the states of the federal union does not violate human rights. A territory seeking statehood can not credibly argue statehood as defined by the U.S. Constitution is a violation of human rights and still seek to become and state, and thereby a violator of human rights!
But indefinite territory status without full citizenship after majority rule favors ending territorial status does invoke human rights principles that must be addressed. So the lesson of Boulder is that a non-binding ruling against the U.S. has no enforceable domestic legal meaning, but compels us all to use the tools of the Constitution to end the current constitutionally temporary status and attain full and equal U.S. citizenship through statehood or separate nationhood based on self-determination.