The United Nations and both houses of the Puerto Rican Legislature have now passed resolutions supporting the people of Vieques in their struggle with disease, contamination and neglect from the United States Navy's 60-year bombardment of the island.
The people of Vieques are experiencing an ongoing health crisis created by the U.S. Navy, which left behind a toxic brew of chemicals and heavy metals, including depleted uranium, napalm, mercury, arsenic, and lead from bombing and other military training activities. Residents of Vieques suffer from abnormally high rates of cancer, birth defects and other serious diseases. Scientific studies show this stems from their contaminated environment.
The U.S. government's ongoing neglect of the cleanup and health effects afflicting the people of Vieques have generated overwhelming public outrage in Puerto Rico and beyond. Groups which have called on the government to provide a just remedy for Vieques include the United Nations; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC); the League of United Latin American Cities (LULAC); the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO); the National Council of La Raza (NCLR); the American Values Network and others.
The Senate of Puerto Rico passed a resolution on June 19, 2009 calling on President Obama to:
"recognize the extraordinary contributions and sacrifices made by the residents of Vieques to the preservation of our national security over a period covering more than six decades." The resolution further states that "it would be in the best interests of the United States of America to address the losses and ongoing medical and economic needs of the U.S. citizens on Vieques, which could be resulting from the U.S. Navy's long bombardment and contamination of the island" and suggests that "the fastest, fairest, and most efficient way to correct the injustice and health crisis is for the U.S. Government to resolve the claims pending in the US District Court in San Juan as well as those pending for the Municipality of Vieques before the Secretary of Navy." [unofficial translation, PDF]
A similar resolution passed the Puerto Rican House of Representatives a week later on June 25, 2009 [PDF]. And a resolution reaffirmed last month by a special committee of the United Nations:
"Urges the Government of the United States, in line with the need to guarantee the Puerto Rican people their legitimate right to self-determination and the protection of their human rights, to complete the return of occupied land and installations on Vieques Island and in Ceiba to the people of Puerto Rico; respect fundamental human rights, such as the right to health and economic development; and expedite and cover the costs of the process of cleaning up and decontaminating the impact areas previously used in military exercises through means that do not continue to aggravate the serious consequences of its military activity for the health of the inhabitants of Vieques Island and the environment." [PDF]
During his campaign for President, Barack Obama promised the people of Puerto Rico in a February 2008 letter that his administration would:
"actively work with the Department of Defense... to achieve an environmentally acceptable clean-up of the former U.S. Navy lands in Vieques, Puerto Rico. We will closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities conducted by the U.S. Navy on Vieques."
Instead of following through on his campaign promise to help Vieques, President Obama has not yet acted, and - perhaps emboldened by silence from the White House - the Justice Department has pursued a defense of "sovereign immunity" to protect the Navy and deny justice to the people of Vieques.
Hiding behind an archaic principle derived from the Middle Ages when, ostensibly ordained of God, "the King could do no wrong," is hardly the change that the people of Vieques expected from the Obama Administration. While there may be legitimate uses of national security arguments in defending the military's actions in other instances, the U.S. Navy's abhorrent conduct in Vieques does not merit such forgiveness.
Over 7,000 Vieques residents who are plaintiffs in an ongoing mass tort action have documented multiple failures by the Navy to comply with specific, mandatory environmental regulations. They also cite the Navy's failure to warn the people of Vieques of the harmful effects of toxins released into the island's air, water and soil.
But the government is now using the "sovereign immunity" defense to claim that:
"there was no specific and mandatory provision requiring any warning to citizens of Vieques regarding environmental hazards, and any warning would have required balancing competing concerns of secrecy and safety, national security and public health." [pg 21 of PDF]
The Justice Department even has the gall to suggest in a recent court document that:
"With respect to any warning, the Navy would have had to balance its military and national security needs against any perceived benefits to public health and safety in light of the risks and burdens of a warning program and the great public anxiety warnings could create." [pg 23 of PDF]
Yes, you read that correctly. In the government's twisted logic, warning people about the impending bombing that will contaminate their air, water, soil and bodies could harm them more than the toxic contaminants themselves.
How thoughtful. Viequenses now suffering from cancer and birth defects must feel grateful to the government for saving them from the anxiety of being warned about their exposure beforehand.
President Obama must quickly intervene in this matter and ensure that the people of Vieques are not denied their day in court. They have sacrificed greatly for our nation and deserve swift justice, attention to their health problems, and a thorough cleanup of their island.
It's time to deliver on that promise, Mr. President.
Follow Brendan DeMelle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bdemelle