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Puerto Rico debt crisis: “Human rights cannot be sidelined” – UN expert warns

GENEVA (9 January 2017) – The United Nations Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights has called for fair solutions to the huge debt crisis in Puerto Rico, warning that ratcheting up austerity measures will threaten residents’ human rights and worsen the US territory’s “intolerable” poverty levels.

Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, who has requested from the United States an invitation to carry out a fact-finding visit to Puerto Rico, called for meaningful relief to reduce the debt to financially and socially sustainable levels.

“Ensuring financial stability, controlling public debt and reducing budget deficits are important goals, but should not be achieved at the expense of human rights,” said the expert as he published a detailed statement on the crisis.

“The population cannot be held hostage to past irresponsible borrowing and lending,” he stressed. “The economy should serve the people, not vice versa.  Losses need to be fairly distributed. Bond holders, including hedge fund investors, need to take their fair share.”

The Financial Oversight and Management Board dealing with the crisis must ensure that economic, social and cultural rights are not undermined by giving absolute priority to creditors’ rights and by imposing excessive austerity, Mr. Bohoslavsky said.

He welcomed recommendations from a US congressional task force for fairer federal funding of health insurance schemes and more tax credits for families.

“Reducing the tax burden of families with children is one of the many measures required to combat intolerable levels of poverty in Puerto Rico,” the Independent Expert said, highlighting that nearly 60 per cent of the island’s children live in poverty.

“Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan needs to prevent further harm to persons in situation of vulnerability. Reform measures must guarantee protection for the rights to health, food, housing, and social security,” he stressed.

“The island simply cannot afford further austerity,” Mr. Bohoslavsky underscored. “After 10 years of economic depression, further spending cuts will not assist economic recovery, but will accelerate emigration and undermine the provision of essential public services.”

The expert highlighted the particular impact of the debt crisis on persons with disabilities – pointing out that residents in Puerto Rico receive an average of USD 74 per month in Federal support for living expenses compared with the mainland average of USD 540.

“Actual costs of living do not justify such differences in public support,” he said. “Under international law, the US remains responsible for ensuring that the social rights of all individuals living under its jurisdiction are fully protected without any discrimination.” 

The Independent Expert’s statement has been endorsed by Ms. Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and to the right to non-discrimination in this context; Ms. Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Mr. Dainius  Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Ms. Hilal Elver, Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Mr. Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky (Argentina) was appointed as Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 8 May 2014. He previously worked as a Sovereign Debt Expert for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) where he coordinated an Expert Group on Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing. His mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 25/16.

The Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: United States 

For further information and media enquiries, please contact Gunnar Theissen (+41 22 917 9321 / gtheissen@ohchr.org), Frédérique Bourque (+41 22 917 9946 / fbourque@ohchr.org) or write to ieforeigndebt@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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