Relationship of the UN Decolonization Committee to Puerto Rico’s Status Issue

The United Nations committee on independence for colonies yesterday passed its annual resolution asserting Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence.

The U.N. has identified three options for a territory’s self-determination: In addition to independence, what would be statehood in the United States and nationhood in an association with another nation that either nation could end.

Popularly known as the decolonization committee, the panel created in 1961 has never had jurisdiction concerning Puerto Rico’s political status. Despite this, it has passed resolutions on the subject since 1972.

It has not, however, been able to get its resolutions further approved in the U.N. The U.S. Government has blocked its efforts.

The primary reason for the opposition is that the U.S. does not want to have to answer to a committee dominated by governments with which the U.S. is often at odds and which are far less democratic than is the governing of Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rico does not have a democratic form of government at the national government level, it has a democratic government at the local level and Puerto Ricans enjoy other freedoms often lacking in nations that have substantial influence in the committee.

Yesterday’s resolution was sponsored by Cuba with the support of  Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The U.S. also does not agree with other content of the committee’s Puerto Rico resolutions, which comment on Puerto Rico related matters other than the territory’s political status.

Yesterday’s resolution called for the release from prison of Oscar Lopez of Chicago, who committed crimes in the name of Puerto Rican independence, and who the committee considers to be a “political prisoner.” Lopez declined President Clinton’s offer of clemency if he would renounce violence and was sentenced to more time in prison for an escape attempt.

The U.S. cooperates with the committee on questions concerning the three of the four other populated U.S. territories for which the committee has jurisdiction — American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But the U.S. does not even send an observer to committee meetings on Puerto Rico.

The committee also does not have jurisdiction regarding the Northern Mariana Islands. The U.N. Security Council agreed to let that territory, then a part of a U.N. territory administered by the U.S., cede itself to the U.S.

The committee does not have jurisdiction regarding Puerto Rico because the U.N., at the request of the U.S., took Puerto Rico off its list of non-self-governing territories for which nations have to report annually to the U.N. in 1953 after Puerto Rico was granted greater self-government at the local level by the U.S. The U.S. was asked to make the request of the U.N. by a “Commonwealth” party insular Government of Puerto Rico.

Taking Puerto Rico off the list was very controversial in the U.N. Most member nations recognized that Puerto Rico was still a non-self-governing territory.

The U.S. request only passed because the U.S. was able to get many nations to abstain from voting. The vote was 22 in favor and 18 opposed with 19 abstentions.

The debate led to the U.N. subsequently determining that a territory could only be considered to have achieved self-government if it became independent, an equal part of a nation, or a nation in an association with another nation that either nation could end.

Some Puerto Rico “Commonwealth” party leaders argue that Puerto Rico being taken off the list of territories for which nations have to report to the U.N. supports their claim that the local self-government the U.S. granted in 1952 made Puerto Rico a “commonwealth” instead of a territory.

The assertion is not correct: the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Congress retains its power under the Constitution’s Territory Clause to govern Puerto Rico in all matters not limiting the fundamental rights of individuals.

Even the “Commonwealth” party architect of the U.N. action, Counsel and Secretary of Justice for Governor Luis Munoz Marin, the founder of the party, and later Chief Justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court Jose Trias Monge, wrote, “There was little sense of triumph among the [party’] leadership after the United Nations vote and even second thoughts as to whether it had been wise … There was a long way to go before Puerto Rico could objectively be held to have ceased being a colony of the United States.”

Yesterday’s resolution called upon the U.S. to “take responsibility” for enabling Puerto Ricans to exercise their rights to self-determination and independence.

It was passed after the committee heard from a few dozen ‘petitioners.’

Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government who heads its statehood party, Pedro Pierluisi, reminded the committee that Puerto Ricans rejected the current territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “commonwealth” after a word in the formal name of territory’s local government, by 54% and chose statehood over the two nationhood options by 61.2% in a plebiscite held along with the 2012 elections.

The resolution recognized that Puerto Ricans rejected territory status in the plebiscite but not that statehood was chosen as the alternative. Resolution sponsor nations have close relations with independence groups in Puerto Rico.

He also informed the committee that President Obama and the Congress this year provided $2.5 million to enable Puerto Rico to hold the first Federally sponsored vote on status options that would “resolve” the question of the territory’s ultimate status.

“Now that the U.S. government has discharged its duty, the Puerto Rico Government has a moral responsibility to act,” the U.S. House of Representatives member with a vote only in committees noted.

Pierluisi also advised the committee that he has proposed that the status vote be a “Yes” or “No” question regarding statehood. Joining him in suggesting this are 131 other members of the U.S. House and three members of the U.S. Senate.

The resident commissioner, who was the highest vote getter in the 2012 elections, pointed out that the territory’s insular government “is controlled by a party that has perfected the cynical art of talking about how important it is to resolve the problem of Puerto Rico’s status, while doing absolutely nothing.” He explained that, “their inaction is rooted in their fear that a majority of the electorate will vote in favor of statehood.”

Dr. Ricardo Rossello, who is widely expected to challenge Pierluisi for the statehood party nomination for governor in 2016, urged that Puerto Rico be added to the list of territories for which nations have to report annually. He pointed out that Puerto Rico ‘commonwealthers’ have misinterpreted the territory’s removal from the list.

Puerto Rico House of Representatives “Commonwealth” party member Charlie Hernandez advocated nationhood in a free association with the U.S. for Puerto Rico.

Click here for a copy of the UN Decolonization press release.

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