Puerto Rico’s Colonial Case in the United Nations

This in-depth essay looks at the history and current status of Puerto Rico’s colonial case within the United Nations. With interviews from Petitioners at this year’s Decolonization Committee hearings, it provides an overview and update of efforts in support of Puerto Rico’s independence before the international body.


On June 23, 2014, the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations heard more than 40 petitioners speak on Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. It then approved by consensus a resolution reaffirming “the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination and independence in conformity with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV).” Presented by a Cuban representative, members of the Committee from Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica also made supporting statements, some on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

But the Committee, created by the UN General Assembly in 1961, has adopted more than 30 similar resolutions since its first in 1972. Why hasn’t this affected a change in Puerto Rico’s colonial status? Were there other efforts within the UN prior to this?  And what more can be done within the UN to support the decolonization of Puerto Rico?

Part I—Background of the Case

Early Years of the United Nations

To observe the frustrated struggle of Puerto Rican independence advocates within the UN Special Committee is to observe the most recent chapter in the uphill battle such advocates have faced within the UN since its founding in 1945. Among the first to take on this challenge and opportunity were associates of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. Lawyer and Party member Julio Pinto Gandía would serve as its delegate at the founding meeting in San Francisco, and the next year, as a result of an active and consistent presence, the UN would officially grant the Party observer status as a non-governmental organization. Thelma Mielke, an American pacifist, would be chosen by the Party to take up this post.

When the Charter of the United Nations was signed, its Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Chapter XI) applied directly to the case of Puerto Rico. By Article 73 of that text, the United States found itself obligated to promote the well-being of its people, and to submit yearly reports to the UN Secretary-General detailing their economic, social, and educational conditions. An ad hoc committee was then formed in December 1946 to ensure these international obligations were carried out.

Thelma Mielke, only person to exercise observer status in the UN on behalf of a Puerto Rican organization. Source: Lydia Collazo Cortez/Facebook

Besides pressuring the U.S. to follow through with its obligations, the Nationalist Party also submitted its own reports on a more regular basis, sometimes bi-weekly, to delegates at an unofficial level. On August 26, 1947, it even filed a petition for audience with the Secretary-General, and to appear before the ad hoc Committee. With only India, Egypt, and Russia insisting petitions be heard, the other members of the Committee, which by rule was composed of an equal number colonial and non-colonial powers, either voted against or abstained, resulting in the Party being denied its request. This was the first major event in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence within the UN.

Effects of the Commonwealth Formula

In 1948, as the U.S. government was preparing to draft a constitution to mask its colonial relationship with Puerto Rico, it passed a law criminalizing independence sentiment on the island. In response, Nationalists organized an uprising initiated on October 30, 1950. According to uprising leader Elio Torresola, the fighting was to conclude with the coalescence of all forces in Utuado, when they would seek the supportive intervention of international organizations, such as the UN. The day after it began, UN observer Thelma Mielke wrote the Secretary-General asking that the case of Puerto Rico be considered in the General Assembly. The response given by an assistant two days later was “the Secretary-General is not in a position to take action on the matter.” Disappointed, Mielke was further informed on November 6 that, without explanation, her observer status had been removed.

Letter to Thelma Mielke from UN noting her loss of observer status. Source: pedroapontevazquez.com

By then, more than 200 National Guard members activated by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín were well on their way to quelling the uprising, having bombed by air the towns of Jayuya and Utuado, and arrested more than a thousand. With many Nationalist leaders in prison, the Commonwealth Government was constituted on July 25, 1952. Immediately, the U.S. took action to clear its obligations under the UN. With support from its imperial allies, the abstention of others, and the symbolic endorsement of the new colonial government, the U.S. succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 748, officially removing Puerto Rico from the list of non-self-governing territories on November 27, 1953.

Part II—The Passing of Resolution 1514

UN Resolution 1514 Presents New Opportunities

Resolution 748 was a major blow to the case of Puerto Rico within the UN. With Puerto Rico disguised as a ‘free associated state,’ the U.S. and its allies maintained its strategic bloc preventing any consideration of the territory by the UN for years. What would mark the end of this period of imperial hegemony would be the adoption of the landmark Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514) on December 14, 1960. Proclaiming the need to bring colonialism to “a speedy and unconditional end,” the resolution established self-determination as an inalienable right of all peoples. In a resolution passed the following day, three status alternatives were clearly defined for specific use in determining whether a territory had reached self-government.

Because the U.S. Congress maintained absolute control over Puerto Rico under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution despite the ‘free association’ represented by the Commonwealth, the significance of these resolutions was not lost on independence advocates. Thus, when the UN established the Special Committee on Decolonization on November 27, 1961 to oversee the application of Resolution 1514, the opportunity to raise the case of Puerto Rico before the organization once again clearly presented itself. The Committee met for its first time on March 1, 1962.

Ché Guevara during 1964 UN speech where he expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico on behalf of Cuba. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Immediately, the Committee received a document by the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI) formally requesting an audience with the Committee, and that the Committee visit Puerto Rico to survey its conditions. Then a member of the Committee, the U.S. exercised its usual pressure to prevent any Puerto Rican independence organization from being recognized within the UN, resulting in the document being ignored without even being acknowledged as received. Nevertheless, in 1972 the Special Committee would at last address Puerto Rico. Through the committed work of various groups, and the active solidarity of Cuban ambassador to the UN Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, a breakthrough was finally achieved that year when the Committee passed its first resolution in favor of the Caribbean territory’s inalienable right to self-determination and independence. This resolution opened wide the doors of the UN for Puerto Rico after nearly being closed nineteen years earlier in 1953. A new chapter in its international struggle had begun.

Part III—The Contemporary Context

Plebiscites and U.S. Government Status Initiatives After Resolution 1514

Since the first in 1972, there have been 33 resolutions by the Special Committee affirming the applicability of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico. Each by their nature invalidates Resolution 748, which the U.S. uses to argue Puerto Rico as being outside the Committee’s jurisdiction. On the island, four plebiscites (1967, 1993, 1998, and Nov. 6, 2012) that have taken place to measure status option preferences have also resulted in no U.S. Congressional action. Human rights expert Wilma E. Reverón Collazo has outlined the problematic nature of these plebiscites, most notably in a discussion paper she presented at the 2013 Regional Seminar of the UN Special Committee in Ecuador.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo at the 2013 UN Regional Seminar in Quito, Ecuador. Source: inhep.blogspot.com

In her discussion paper, Reverón Collazo highlighted five commonalities of the plebiscites: 1) each were realized without consideration of international law despite coming after the passing of Resolution 1514; 2) none were binding on the U.S. government; 3) none have compelled or succeeded in getting the U.S. to take action based on the plebiscite results; 4) none were preceded by a non-partisan, non-sectarian educational campaign informing people in detail of the consequences of each option; and, 5) none obtained the consensus or participation of all the political parties, each being boycotted by one party or another.

Similar initiatives by the U.S. government have also proved futile. An Ad Hoc Advisory Group begun under President Nixon in 1973 and concluded under President Ford in 1976 drafted legislation to provide the island greater autonomy that never went to Congress. A policy developed by President Carter in 1978 that would have had the executive branch supporting all possible status options, and a call by President Bush in 1989 for Congress to authorize a referendum, also concluded without Congressional action. These efforts are noted in a 2011 report produced by the most recent U.S. initiative, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico begun by President Clinton in 2000. Created to examine status and voting process proposals, the Task Force was continued under President Obama in 2009 with the added responsibility of seeking advice and recommendations on various island policies and issues. Besides going nowhere, these initiatives also ignore the terms laid out under international law regarding decolonization.

The Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States

International support for Puerto Rico’s independence, beyond coming from several governments, also comes from two notable international bodies, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Established in 1961 by twenty-five newly independent countries seeking to promote national sovereignty, cooperation, and social justice, NAM has strongly supported the application of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico since its Second Summit in 1964 Cairo. This support was actually a factor in the UN Special Committee finally taking up the issue in 1971, and the passing of the previously mentioned resolution of 1972. NAM, currently with 120 member countries, continues to play a role at its summits by calling for the UN General Assembly to address the case of Puerto Rico, most recently in 2012 Tehran.

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at the Non-Aligned Movement's 2012 Summit in Tehran, Iran. Source: otropuertoricoesposible.org

CELAC, on the other hand, was only recently created in 2010. Composed of thirty-three independent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean desiring an end to the historic influence of the U.S. in that region, CELAC offers Puerto Rico a new international platform. In a “Forum for a Free and Independent Puerto Rico” held last January in Caracas, the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, announced his proposal to integrate Puerto Rico as a member of CELAC. This proposal, should it gain the active support of all 33 member countries of CELAC, would produce a significant development in the case of Puerto Rico on the international level, and provide greater impetus for the UN General Assembly to take it up. In one of four interviews following, Wilma E. Reverón Collazo further explains why.

Part IV—Interviews with Special Committee Petitioners

Recent Petitioners in the Special Committee on Decolonization

While preparing this essay, I had the opportunity to interview four petitioners from this year’s Special Committee hearings. Two presented on issues directly related to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, while the others presented more in regards to the status issue.

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan—

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan. Source: nlg.org

Since filing a petition last year with the National Lawyers Guild before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging human rights violations in Vieques by the U.S., Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan has had the opportunity to promote it in various places. This was her first time testifying before the United Nations.

Connecting Puerto Rico’s status to the case of Vieques, Bannan said: “One cannot discuss Vieques and the military occupation and destruction of the island without discussing the colonial context of Puerto Rico. Were it not for the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., the US Navy never would have expropriated and bombed Vieques. If Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation, no other foreign military agency would have been able to commit the atrocities as it did in Vieques without it being considered an act of war.”

“Organizations and Viequenses have been providing testimony before the Decolonization Committee for many years,” Bannan added. “And each year the Committee reaffirms its position that the military use of the island violates international human rights law and principles, and that the subsequent clean-up is both an inadequate remedy and is not being appropriately administered.”

“While the United States’ unofficial position is not to recognize or give credence to the Committee’s conclusions or recommendations,” Bannan went on to say, “it provides a much needed voice to the people and countries that remain colonized and thus have been stripped of political power, such as Puerto Rico and Palestine. The body is important because it provides a forum for issues related to the colonial status to be raised, including the ongoing military presence and repercussions of it in Vieques. Additionally, the resolutions issued by the body contribute to what is known as customary international law, or a compilation of official opinions, statements and conclusions issued by bodies such as the UN that contribute to developing human rights norms and principles.”

Jan Susler—

A Chicago-based lawyer, Jan Susler has petitioned before the Special Committee for a number of years on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild-International Committee. Presenting before the Committee several issues related to Puerto Rico’s status, we spoke with her specifically about Oscar López Rivera, whom she is currently attorney for.

Jan Susler testifying before the Special Committee. Source: nlginternational.org

“It’s a world body,” Susler said on the importance of the Special Committee as a forum for Oscar’s case. “A lot of times Puerto Rico is not so visible to the rest of the world. This is one moment when Puerto Rico is important to the world, so it’s enormously significant in campaigning for Oscar’s release.”

Susler added, “Resolutions have been adopted by consensus, without a vote, and people are impressed that this world body has taken a position.” This position includes support for Oscar’s release. “One of the presenters this year from Puerto Rico asked the Committee to make an intervention directly with the U.S. on Oscar’s behalf,” she told me. “The previous chair from Ecuador also went to U.S. representatives in the UN and did talk about Oscar.”

While she agrees Oscar’s imprisonment is symbolic of Puerto Rico’s own colonial bondage, Susler went further to say: “He’s also a symbol of resistance and hope for many people. And it goes beyond the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial case. It’s a humanitarian concern issue, and the Committee recognized that this year and last. The sense of unfairness and level to which the U.S. has gone to keep him in prison continues to outrage people, and it is a very uplifting and significant thing that this struggle is recognized on that level. After they passed the resolution, a number of ambassadors spoke, and many mentioned Oscar.”

Susler sent me a copy of her presentation before the Committee. You can download it here.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo—

Co-President of the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH), Wilma E. Reverón Collazo is a practicing attorney based in San Juan. Invited in recent years as a human rights expert from the Puerto Rico Bar Association to UN regional seminars, she provided me insight into the present situation at the UN in light of recent developments.

As a general statement to open our conversation, Reverón Collazo stated: “the Special Committee’s influence is limited because Puerto Rico is not on list of non-self-governing territories. The U.S. has used that as a way of asserting their position that the UN has no jurisdiction, and that Puerto Rico is a domestic internal affair. They don’t recognize the intervention of the Committee and refuse to apply international law.”

“Last year there was a delegate sitting in the U.S. bench during the hearings on Puerto Rico, but he did not say a word,” Reverón Collazo told me on the level of U.S. participation. “Most of the time his head was in his hands. In May 2013 there was a regional seminar in Quito. The U.S. sent emissaries, and though we exchanged some words, they did not participate publicly. This year there was another regional seminar in Fiji, and the lady present from the U.S. Embassy took notes but said no words. At this year’s hearings there was someone from the U.S. delegation, but he sat behind where his sign was. He was there, but not officially. What can we take from all of this? At least they’re listening.”

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo testifying before the Special Committee. Source: copronu.blogspot.com

Reverón Collazo did have more promising information to share. “If there has been any positive political situation for Puerto Rico to finally get to the UN General Assembly,” she said, “it’s next year because of several factors.” One of these factors is the creation of the regional body CELAC in 2010. “The way the UN works, it is of utmost importance that you have the support of your regional group. Puerto Rico has been gaining the support of the Latin American community, but not as staunchly and clearly as right now following two declarations made by CELAC, especially the last one in June in Havana. They specifically mandate CELAC to appear on behalf of Puerto Rico in the Decolonization Committee, and to work with the Committee to seek and propose solutions to the question of Puerto Rico. If we manage to really bind the 33 countries making up Puerto Rico’s geographic region, and get those 33 votes behind Puerto Rico’s case, we will be better able to get the question of Puerto Rico into the General Assembly.”

“A lot of the fears have to do with uncertainty after so many years under U.S. rule, and since we‘ve never been an independent country,” Reverón Collazo said, reflecting on the hesitation many express towards independence on the island. “People are still lost and don’t believe they can survive on their own. We need someone, like the UN, to say that when a territory transitions to independence there are these programs that can help, these funds available, and that this is not going to be a leap into the void. That educational process is vastly needed in Puerto Rico.” Suggesting that aiding such a process is the biggest contribution the Special Committee could make right now, she would ask it to “visit Puerto Rico to hear what the people have to say on the island’s condition, and receive consultations on the possibility of a constitutional assembly on the status question. The community knows the UN must not be an arbiter, but an institution to give information and orientation, and that ensures these processes are done in a fair, non-partisan manner.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila—

Active internationally around Puerto Rico’s colonial status since 1986, Olga I. Sanabria Dávila has served as representative of the Puerto Rican Committee of the United Nations for the last eight years. In our conversation, she outlined this year’s developments in the UN with respect to the island, and commented on potential decolonial processes.

Immediately, Sanabria Dávila pointed out two parts of this year’s resolution that directly address recent events. One part mentions the rejection of the current status in the 2012 plebiscite, further stating that, “that status prevents [the people] from taking sovereign decisions to address the serious economic and social problems of Puerto Rico.” Another part concerning the recent status debate in Puerto Rico notes several proposals for a constitutional assembly on status, highlighting “the ineffectiveness of consultations originating in the United States,” and, “the principle that any initiative for the solution of the political status of Puerto Rico should originate from the people of Puerto Rico.”

“These are elements that have to do with the present political moment and status debate,” Sanabria Dávila told me. “In Puerto Rico the credit standing has been downgraded. That makes the fiscal situation in Puerto Rico very challenging. And this situation is difficult to resolve because the colonial status is like an economic straitjacket.” On the recent status assembly debate, she said: “The PPD had promised they would carry out a status assembly, and it was somewhat widely supported by the independence movement. But when the Obama administration said they would assign a law providing 2.5 million dollars for the Puerto Rican people to hold another plebiscite, they went with that instead.”

“In Puerto Rico,” Sanabria Dávila added, “the idea of a status assembly as a more viable way than plebiscites of initiating a decolonization process is gaining ground. The consensus adopted would go to the Puerto Rican people to be approved, and once this happens Washington would have to listen. The U.S. has to support a mechanism that is a true exercise of the sovereignty of the Puerto Rican people, and the plebiscites they continually promote do not help. The status assembly gives them that opportunity.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at a CUNY Grad Center panel on the status question. Photo by the author

As far as bringing Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly, Sanabria Dávila had this to say: “The fact that CELAC is supporting helps. When we bring the case to the General Assembly, countries from other regions will ask for the position of your region. So CELAC’s support helps a lot. Of course that NAM has historically supported decolonization also helps, but it’s important that our region states their support for the case of Puerto Rico at the UN, the highest international body. What happens in Puerto Rico is also crucial. The campaign to bring its case to the General Assembly has to be further articulated.”

Turning our focus to the Diaspora, Sanabria Dávila pointed out the continuous process of migration, stating that because of it, “Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora continually have an interest in Puerto Rico and its political status, even though some generations at this point might not be that interested.” Regarding its participation in a status assembly, she said, “a few models, including one by the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which independence sectors generally support, has a component dealing with the right of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. to participate, and to be elected as delegates for a status assembly. This model is beginning to gain ground, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora.”

“There is a way of determining who are nationals of a country, regardless of whether they live in that country or not,” Sanabria Dávila further explained. “Generally, if you were born in the country, you’re a national. If both or one of your parents were born in the country, even if you were born outside and continue to live there, you are also considered a national. In the case of Puerto Rico, there are whole classes of people who fall under that category that would be eligible for election as delegates to a status assembly. The process would have to be originated in Puerto Rico, but the Diaspora has a good level of organization whereby some kind of structure could be elaborated to allow its participation.”

Part V—Conclusion

Thoughts Going Forward

Although the United Nations has presented a challenge to advocates of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence since it was founded, as the highest international body it nevertheless remains an important platform for the promotion of this right. While the UN is limited in influence due to Puerto Rico’s removal from the list of non-self-governing territories in 1953, the Special Committee on Decolonization has produced 33 resolutions since 1972 in favor of the Caribbean territory’s right to independence. In light of this, efforts to bring Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly should, and will, continue. Recent developments, like the support of CELAC, the regional bloc created in 2010, ought to serve as motivating factors to intensify international advocacy work so that a significant development in Puerto Rico’s condition can occur sooner rather than later.

The United States must recognize Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination, and look objectively and supportively at decolonization proposals originating from the island. The idea of a constitutional assembly recently debated on the island may provide one opportunity. Olga Sanabria told me that, though the situation is constantly changing, one of the more supported assembly models also calls for the participation of civil society organizations, such as environmental, women’s, community, youth, and LGBT groups. Such an act of national sovereignty requires incredible social engagement, only heightened by the Diaspora’s right to participate in the process. If this project were to gain momentum, with broad participation founded in an unbreakable commitment to Puerto Rico’s decolonization, the U.S. may be compelled to abide by its resolutions. The UN would then play a significant role in overseeing the subsequent exercise of sovereignty.

For now, the current situation must be addressed. As challenging as this situation may seem from a historical perspective, unfolding world events have produced new opportunities. To let them pass us by would be to ignore the UN’s call for a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism. How seriously we choose to work towards these ends in the coming years will determine how long it will take to see the beginnings of the construction of a new Puerto Rico founded upon self-determination and independence.

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