06/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Justice for Vieques

For more than sixty years -- from 1941 to 2003 -- the U.S. Navy used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a testing ground for its weapons. While they have refused to disclose the total amount, it is known that in the fifteen years from 1984-1998, more than 80 million pounds of explosives were dropped on the small island.

The people of Vieques, accompanied by supporters from the U.S. and elsewhere, mounted a series of protests and advocacy over those years -- many of them covered in Sojourners. Those efforts finally succeeded in 2003, when the Bush administration permanently ended the use of Vieques as a target range.

And then another struggle began. Due to the years of exposure to toxic metals and chemicals found in weaponry, a health crisis has exploded on Vieques. The people have a 30% higher rate of cancer, a 95% higher rate of cirrhosis of the liver, a 381% higher rate of hypertension, and a 41% higher rate of diabetes than the similar inhabitants of the main island of Puerto Rico. The infant morality rate is 25% higher for babies born on Vieques. These diseases are all indications of heavy metal poisoning and scientific studies have traced them to the contaminants from munitions found in the land, air, and water.

In response, the people of Vieques have filed a complaint against the U.S. Navy in federal district court in Puerto Rico, seeking compensatory damages. The Navy has until Monday to respond to the complaint. The question now is whether the Justice Department will allow a hearing on the merits or the complaint, or move to dismiss the claims on the ground of sovereign immunity -- "the king can do no wrong."

That would be a travesty of justice. The Navy should not be allowed to evade the truth about its illegal actions by hiding under the cloak of immunity. The people of Vieques -- U.S. citizens -- have suffered greatly at the hands of their government. Their claims for compensation deserve, at the very least, a fair hearing in court.

The Justice Department must allow the case to proceed, and not seek to dismiss it by a claim of sovereign immunity. Justice demands no less.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at